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Systems Engineering

For centuries, people have been designing and building systems; large and small, simple and complex. They have developed techniques to co-ordinate and execute their development activities. Modern systems are more complex than ever before, and have forced a quantum leap in the sophistication of these techniques.

Originally driven by the needs of aerospace and defence projects, the culmination of these techniques is called systems engineering (SE). Systems engineering work begins by identifying the needs of stakeholders, users, and operators, and transforms these needs into a responsive, operational system design and architecture. This deliverable system must conform to the demands of the marketplace as well as to the initial set of functional and non-functional requirements.

The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) official definition of SE states that "Systems Engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realisation of successful systems." Put more usefully, SE is an organised approach to problem solving, by experienced engineers with a broad, system-wide overview towards solving the problem, weighing options and evaluating risks and contraints.

SE is responsible for integrating all the technical backgrounds, subject matter experts and speciality groups into a team development effort. It starts with defining customer needs and required functionality early in the life cycle, managing requirements, and proceeding into design synthesis and system verification and validation. Systems engineers have typically spent years accumulating technical expertise and management know-how that enables them to devise large, complex multifaceted systems. This engineering discipline requires strong leadership and communication skills.

SE practices seek to formalise the systems development. To do so, this discipline must provide the processes, people and tools to support multi-disciplined information sharing. In addition, the complexity associated with this information sharing must be managed within a secure, robust project repository.

Finally, SE must provide a clear roadmap, a systems engineering process, for directing a project and development team through the system life cycle.

An effective systems engineering approach must perform, at a minimum, the following activities to produce an optimal system:

  • Accurately assess available information and find what is missing Define performance or effectiveness measures that define success or failure Manage and analyse all source requirements that depict user needs Conduct systems analysis to formulate a behavioural design that meets all functional and performance requirements Allocate functional behaviour to the right physical architecture Perform trade-off analysis to support decision making of alternative designs or architectures

  • Create executable models to verify and validate system operation

The project should develop a Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP) which defines and captures the project management processes addressing planning and organisation, monitor and control, and project assessment. With enough detail in the SEMP, team members are provided with an effective model for improving communications and exchanging information.

Business managers use a SE approach to determine how best to manage resources to generate profits.
Production managers remove the uncertainty from manufacturing processes by introducing production systems.
Designers seek reliable and easily produced designs by taking a systemic approach, ensuring that the reproducibility, maintainability, and reliability of the product have equal importance.
Software projects use SE to formalise the production of such inherently uncertain systems.