Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management that focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their Life cycles. At its core, systems engineering utilizes systems thinking principles to organize this body of knowledge. The individual outcome of such efforts, an engineered system, can be defined as a combination of components that work in synergy to collectively perform a useful function.
Issues such as requirements engineering, reliability, logistics, coordination of different teams, testing and evaluation, maintainability and many other disciplines necessary for successful system development, design, implementation, and ultimate decommission become more difficult when dealing with large or complex projects. Systems engineering deals with work-processes, optimization methods, and risk management tools in such projects. It overlaps technical and human-centered disciplines such as industrial, engineering, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, control engineering, software engineering, electrical engineering, cybernetics, organizational studies, civil engineering and project management. Systems engineering ensures that all likely aspects of a project or system are considered, and integrated into a whole.
The systems engineering process is a discovery process that is quite unlike a manufacturing process. A manufacturing process is focused on repetitive activities that achieve high quality outputs with minimum cost and time. The systems engineering process must begin by discovering the real problems that need to be resolved, and identifying the most probable or highest impact failures that can occur – systems engineering involves finding solutions to these problems.
System development often requires contribution from diverse technical disciplines. By providing a systems (holistic) view of the development effort, systems engineering helps mold all the technical contributors into a unified team effort, forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation and, in some cases, to termination and disposal. In an acquisition, the holistic integrative discipline combines contributions and balances tradeoffs among cost, schedule, and performance while maintaining an acceptable level of risk covering the entire life cycle of the item.
This perspective is often replicated in educational programs, in that systems engineering courses are taught by faculty from other engineering departments, which helps create an interdisciplinary environment.
The need for systems engineering arose with the increase in complexity of systems and projects, in turn exponentially increasing the possibility of component friction, and therefore the unreliability of the design. When speaking in this context, complexity incorporates not only engineering systems, but also the logical human organization of data. At the same time, a system can become more complex due to an increase in size as well as with an increase in the amount of data, variables, or the number of fields that are involved in the design. The International Space Station is an example of such a system.
The development of smarter control algorithms, microprocessor design, and analysis of environmental systems also come within the purview of systems engineering. Systems engineering encourages the use of tools and methods to better comprehend and manage complexity in systems. Some examples of these tools can be seen here:
Taking an interdisciplinary approach to engineering systems is inherently complex since the behavior of and interaction among system components is not always immediately well defined or understood. Defining and characterizing such systems and subsystems and the interactions among them is one of the goals of systems engineering. In doing so, the gap that exists between informal requirements from users, operators, marketing organizations, and technical specifications is successfully bridged.
One way to understand the motivation behind systems engineering is to see it as a method, or practice, to identify and improve common rules that exist within a wide variety of systems.systems thinking is employed at all levels. Besides defense and aerospace, many information and technology based companies, software development firms, and industries in the field of electronics & communications require systems engineers as part of their team.
Keeping this in mind, the principles of systems engineering – holism, emergent behavior, boundary, et al. – can be applied to any system, complex or otherwise, provided
An analysis by the INCOSE Systems Engineering center of excellence (SECOE) indicates that optimal effort spent on systems engineering is about 15-20% of the total project effort. At the same time, studies have shown that systems engineering essentially leads to reduction in costs among other benefits. However, no quantitative survey at a larger scale encompassing a wide variety of industries has been conducted until recently. Such studies are underway to determine the effectiveness and quantify the benefits of systems engineering.
Systems engineering encourages the use of modeling and simulation to validate assumptions or theories on systems and the interactions within them.
Use of methods that allow early detection of possible failures, in safety engineering, are integrated into the design process. At the same time, decisions made at the beginning of a project whose consequences are not clearly understood can have enormous implications later in the life of a system, and it is the task of the modern systems engineer to explore these issues and make critical decisions. No method guarantees today’s decisions will still be valid when a system goes into service years or decades after first conceived. However, there are techniques that support the process of systems engineering. Examples include soft systems methodology, Jay Wright Forrester‘s System dynamics method, and the Unified Modeling Language (UML)—all currently being explored, evaluated, and developed to support the engineering decision process.
The systems engineering process
The systems engineering process encompasses all creative, manual and technical activities necessary to define the product and which need to be carried out to convert a system definition to a sufficiently detailed system design specification for product manufacture and deployment. Design and development of a system can be divided into four stages, each with different definitions:
- task definition (informative definition),
- conceptual stage (cardinal definition),
- design stage (formative definition), and
- implementation stage (manufacturing definition).
Models play important and diverse roles in systems engineering. A model can be defined in several ways, including:
- An abstraction of reality designed to answer specific questions about the real world
- An imitation, analogue, or representation of a real world process or structure; or
- A conceptual, mathematical, or physical tool to assist a decision maker.
Together, these definitions are broad enough to encompass physical engineering models used in the verification of a system design, as well as schematic models like a functional flow block diagram and mathematical (i.e., quantitative) models used in the trade study process. This section focuses on the last.
The main reason for using mathematical models and diagrams in trade studies is to provide estimates of system effectiveness, performance or technical attributes, and cost from a set of known or estimable quantities. Typically, a collection of separate models is needed to provide all of these outcome variables. The heart of any mathematical model is a set of meaningful quantitative relationships among its inputs and outputs. These relationships can be as simple as adding up constituent quantities to obtain a total, or as complex as a set of differential equations describing the trajectory of a spacecraft in a gravitational field. Ideally, the relationships express causality, not just correlation. Furthermore, key to successful systems engineering activities are also the methods with which these models are efficiently and effectively managed and used to simulate the systems. However, diverse domains often present recurring problems of modeling and simulation for systems engineering, and new advancements are aiming to crossfertilize methods among distinct scientific and engineering communities, under the title of ‘Modeling & Simulation-based Systems Engineering’.
Related fields and sub-fields
Many related fields may be considered tightly coupled to systems engineering. The following areas have contributed to the development of systems engineering as a distinct entity:
- Cognitive systems engineering
- Cognitive systems engineering (CSE) is a specific approach to the description and analysis of human-machine systems or sociotechnical systems. The three main themes of CSE are how humans cope with complexity, how work is accomplished by the use of artifacts, and how human-machine systems and socio-technical systems can be described as joint cognitive systems. CSE has since its beginning become a recognized scientific discipline, sometimes also referred to as cognitive engineering. The concept of a Joint Cognitive System (JCS) has in particular become widely used as a way of understanding how complex socio-technical systems can be described with varying degrees of resolution. The more than 20 years of experience with CSE has been described extensively.
- Configuration management
- Like systems engineering, configuration management as practiced in the defense and aerospace industry is a broad systems-level practice. The field parallels the taskings of systems engineering; where systems engineering deals with requirements development, allocation to development items and verification, configuration management deals with requirements capture, traceability to the development item, and audit of development item to ensure that it has achieved the desired functionality that systems engineering and/or Test and Verification Engineering have proven out through objective testing.
- Control engineering
- Control engineering and its design and implementation of control systems, used extensively in nearly every industry, is a large sub-field of systems engineering. The cruise control on an automobile and the guidance system for a ballistic missile are two examples. Control systems theory is an active field of applied mathematics involving the investigation of solution spaces and the development of new methods for the analysis of the control process.
- Industrial engineering
- Industrial engineering is a branch of engineering that concerns the development, improvement, implementation and evaluation of integrated systems of people, money, knowledge, information, equipment, energy, material and process. Industrial engineering draws upon the principles and methods of engineering analysis and synthesis, as well as mathematical, physical and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design to specify, predict, and evaluate results obtained from such systems.
- Interface design
- Interface design and its specification are concerned with assuring that the pieces of a system connect and inter-operate with other parts of the system and with external systems as necessary. Interface design also includes assuring that system interfaces be able to accept new features, including mechanical, electrical and logical interfaces, including reserved wires, plug-space, command codes and bits in communication protocols. This is known as extensibility. Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or Human-Machine Interface (HMI) is another aspect of interface design, and is a critical aspect of modern systems engineering. Systems engineering principles are applied in the design of network protocols for local-area networks and wide-area networks.
- Mechatronic engineering
- Mechatronic engineering, like systems engineering, is a multidisciplinary field of engineering that uses dynamical systems modeling to express tangible constructs. In that regard it is almost indistinguishable from Systems Engineering, but what sets it apart is the focus on smaller details rather than larger generalizations and relationships. As such, both fields are distinguished by the scope of their projects rather than the methodology of their practice.
- Operations research
- Operations research supports systems engineering. The tools of operations research are used in systems analysis, decision making, and trade studies. Several schools teach SE courses within the operations research or industrial engineering department, highlighting the role systems engineering plays in complex projects. Operations research, briefly, is concerned with the optimization of a process under multiple constraints.
- Performance engineering
- Performance engineering is the discipline of ensuring a system meets customer expectations for performance throughout its life. Performance is usually defined as the speed with which a certain operation is executed, or the capability of executing a number of such operations in a unit of time. Performance may be degraded when operations queued to execute is throttled by limited system capacity. For example, the performance of a packet-switched network is characterized by the end-to-end packet transit delay, or the number of packets switched in an hour. The design of high-performance systems uses analytical or simulation modeling, whereas the delivery of high-performance implementation involves thorough performance testing. Performance engineering relies heavily on statistics, queueing theory and probability theory for its tools and processes.
- Program management and project management
- Program management (or programme management) has many similarities with systems engineering, but has broader-based origins than the engineering ones of systems engineering. Project management is also closely related to both program management and systems engineering.
- Proposal engineering
- Proposal engineering is the application of scientific and mathematical principles to design, construct, and operate a cost-effective proposal development system. Basically, proposal engineering uses the “systems engineering process” to create a cost effective proposal and increase the odds of a successful proposal.
- Reliability engineering
- Reliability engineering is the discipline of ensuring a system meets customer expectations for reliability throughout its life; i.e., it does not fail more frequently than expected. Next to prediction of failure, it is just as much about prevention of failure. Reliability engineering applies to all aspects of the system. It is closely associated with maintainability, availability (dependability or RAMS preferred by some), and logistics engineering. Reliability engineering is always a critical component of safety engineering, as in failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) and hazard fault tree analysis, and of security engineering.
- Risk Management
- Risk Management, the practice of assessing and dealing with risk is one of the interdisciplinary parts of Systems Engineering. In development, acquisition, or operational activities, the inclusion of risk in tradeoff with cost, schedule, and performance features, involves the iterative complex configuration management of traceability and evaluation to the scheduling and requirements management across domains and for the system lifecycle that requires the interdisciplinary technical approach of systems engineering. Systems Engineering has Risk Management define, tailor, implement, and monitor a structured process for risk management which is integrated to the overall effort.
- Safety engineering
- The techniques of safety engineering may be applied by non-specialist engineers in designing complex systems to minimize the probability of safety-critical failures. The “System Safety Engineering” function helps to identify “safety hazards” in emerging designs, and may assist with techniques to “mitigate” the effects of (potentially) hazardous conditions that cannot be designed out of systems.
- Scheduling is one of the systems engineering support tools as a practice and item in assessing interdisciplinary concerns under configuration management. In particular the direct relationship of resources, performance features, and risk to duration of a task or the dependency links among tasks and impacts across the system lifecycle are systems engineering concerns.
- Security engineering
- Security engineering can be viewed as an interdisciplinary field that integrates the community of practice for control systems design, reliability, safety and systems engineering. It may involve such sub-specialties as authentication of system users, system targets and others: people, objects and processes.
- Software engineering
- From its beginnings, software engineering has helped shape modern systems engineering practice. The techniques used in the handling of the complexities of large software-intensive systems have had a major effect on the shaping and reshaping of the tools, methods and processes of Software Engineering.