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Who Needs Systems Engineering? You Likely Do

The ins and outs of system engineering and how it's used to make complex products.

Many companies that are producing highly complex products these days are already doing systems engineering—whether they realize it or not. With the ever-increasing adoption of "smart", mechatronic products requiring a combination of mechanical, electronics, and computer engineering, the discipline of systems engineering has never been more important. 

Given the complexity of modern products, systems engineering's methodical approach for product definition and realization is increasingly just the way business is being done. The subject matter can be daunting, however. If you do a quick Web image search of "systems engineering" you'll often come across the systems engineering process flow represented as a "V" diagram and, as with any process, there are many variations of it.  Rather than presenting yet another "V" diagram to gain an understanding of how to better manage a systems engineering process, let's just focus on the two main aspects of systems engineering and its main sub-processes:

Product Definition Product Realization
  • Requirements development
  • Sub-system integration
  • Functional breakdown and logical analysis
  • Verification that requirements are met
  • Product design
  • Validation of product behavior

As mentioned, most companies developing mechatronic products do perform systems engineering sub-processes – some more formally than others and with varying levels of completeness.

For instance, within software offerings alone, it is very common to see solutions that manage detailed requirements and their associated test cases for verification.  In the case of teams developing mechanical and electronics hardware, however, adoption of formal tools has not been as common. Yet the need definitely still exists.

Of course many companies organize their bills-of-material based on a functional breakdown to facilitate the eventual sub-system integration from various engineering disciplines as designs are completed.  Unfortunately, this approach fails to properly capture the logical relationship between sub-systems and how they interact.

Another common issue is that companies rely too much on costly physical prototypes, or even worse, early production runs, to verify whether the final user/consumer will accept the product.  Companies are not taking advantage of modern simulation and product behavior-modeling software to validate product performance early enough in the product development process as the system functional breakdown and product design occur.

Lastly, even if every one of these sub-processes is pursued, it is often with unique tools that do not allow for the easy flow and exchange of information between product-development participants.

Considering the status quo and the issues highlighted above, here are steps you need to take in order to fully have effective systems engineering:

1.       Capture requirements for hardware and software.

2.       Define test cases to verify that requirements are fulfilled.

3.       Model a product's sub-systems based on function and their logical relationship to one another.

4.       Virtually model product behavior to validate that a system meets end user expectations.

5.       Perform product design with kinematics and/or virtual simulation to further validate and verify system performance.

Ideally perform steps 1-5 with tools that provide easy data exchange and traceability between the various stakeholders from requirements through product design, verification, and validation.

The traditional "V" diagram falls short in properly conveying how this systems-engineering flow should be executed because most do not convey feedback loops and parallel activities. So, rather than being constrained by the "V" shape just because "verification" and "validation" are the goals, the following can be used to convey a systems engineering target.

Adaptive Systems

Pursuing the holy grail of a fully integrated scope of systems engineering processes may seem overwhelming at first. Yet it's pretty clear what the end-goal is for everyone making complex products: fully validated and verified products that results in higher quality and customer acceptance.

Some leading software suppliers are now at the point where they can provide the full scope of systems engineering as part of your overall product development process.  A unified systems engineering approach will enable you to improve product development efficiency and better meet revenue targets with successful product deliveries and launches.

Jon Gable is director of sales for Adaptive Corporation, Inc.

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