North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Systems engineering: an approach and a discipline

Posted on: November 10, 2021
Man holding a laptop and standing with a woman in a server room

What is systems engineering?

Systems engineering is where engineering management and engineering intersect. It is a field which takes an interdisciplinary approach that combines the designing, integration, and management of complex systems throughout their entire lifecycles. 

It tends to primarily refer to the computational systems engineering process but actually systems engineering takes into account all systems which feed into the completion of a project. For example, this could be in the aerospace or automotive sectors and so would include factors like thermodynamics, strength of materials, GPS synchronisation, and interface communication. However, it also includes things like identification of operations and support cost reduction opportunities, managing contractors, and monitoring of key support metrics. This comprehensive product and service life management is sometimes referred to as system sustainment.

In fact, systems engineering overlaps with many other disciplines including control engineering, software engineering, electrical engineering, cybernetics, aerospace engineering, organisational studies, civil engineering, industrial engineering, process systems engineering, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, production engineering, and project management.

Systems thinking principles are at the heart of the systems engineering process as well as being core to systems theory. Systems thinking is simply the ability to problem solve within complex systems. Complex systems are made up of multiple interrelated and interdependent parts – in short, many subsystems.

The challenge then becomes that changing just one part of the system will affect all the other parts of the system. The aim is to understand the pattern of behaviour that emerges from changes and to be able to anticipate and accommodate it, sometimes with back-up systems. As a system grows it becomes more than a sum of its parts and can begin expressing its synergy or emergent behaviour – that is, properties that are not observed in the singular parts, but in the wider system as a whole. Systems engineering principles help to manage emergence by taking a holistic approach.

Systems of systems engineering (SoSE) takes this a step further with the ever more complex systems of the twenty-first century requiring considerations beyond engineering such as socio-technical and sometimes socio-economic phenomena.

Definitions of systems engineering

Simon Ramo is considered to be a founder of systems engineering and described himself as a “hybrid of a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur”. He defined the discipline as “a branch of engineering which concentrates on the design and application of the whole as distinct from the parts, looking at a problem in its entirety, taking account of all the facets and all the variables and linking the social to the technological.”

In its Fundamentals of Systems Engineering, NASA defines the discipline as “a methodical, multi-disciplinary approach for the design, realization, technical management, operations, and retirement of a system.”

The Systems Engineering Body of Knowledge (SEBoK) defines three types of systems engineering:

  • Product Systems Engineering (PSE)

This is the traditional systems engineering focused on designing physical systems made up of hardware and software.

  • Enterprise Systems Engineering (ESE)

This takes a holistic approach to enterprises, that is, organisations or combinations of organisations, as systems.

  • Service Systems Engineering (SSE)

This is the engineering of service systems (a system which is conceived as serving another system). Civil infrastructure systems tend to be service systems.

What do systems engineers do?

Systems engineers work in a wide variety of fields from manufacturing and product development to software and transportation. 

A job may entail auditing the existing system architecture to assess the structural functionality and the potential need for any upgrades. This might then require researching suitable software, hardware, and equipment that would facilitate those upgrades. Any one project can encompass security systems, safety procedures, and risk management. 

Project management with a systems approach requires analysing the customers’ or end users’ needs and the required functionality from very early on in the development process. For this reason, systems engineers need to be collaborative and communicative, working across fields with other stakeholders to troubleshoot and refine solutions at all system levels. A systems engineer could be described as a kind of project manager, however, they rely on the knowledge and authority of other team leaders to help understand and coordinate the required systems engineering activities.

Systems engineers are always in demand as they are holders of a particular, hybridised skill. Systems engineers tend to work on state-of-the-art technologies and leading-edge engineered systems due to the nature of the vocational skills they have. The need for systems engineering experience in carrying out best practice is increasingly being recognised by professionals in the computer science community. 

If you enjoy solving engineering problems and taking an integrative approach to projects with a fuller understanding of the system life cycle, this could be the perfect route to specialisation in your career.

What is model-based systems engineering?

The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines model-based systems engineering (MBSE) as the “formalised application of modelling to support system requirements, design, analysis, verification and validation activities beginning in the conceptual design phase and continuing throughout development and later life cycle phases.” MBSE is a systems engineering methodology with a focus on the use of domain models for information exchange rather than document-based information exchange.

In the realm of software engineering, a domain model is a conceptual model of the domain which helps non-technical stakeholders understand the real-world concepts which are integral to the domain, and which then need to progress to software development. Engineering models can range from the graphical to simulations and prototypes which help visualise the inputs of various system lifecycles in a project.

MBSE is a lean practice that supports fast learning through a continuous flow of development, which helps garner fast feedback on decisions. Models act as a single source of truth and ensure consistency rather than relying on a multitude of documents held and updated by various stakeholders that can be susceptible to error. When refining a system design, tradeoffs may need to be made, for example between software and hardware. This is part of the decision-making process, and in simple terms, is when one thing increases and so another must decrease, whether in quality, quantity, or property. 

The availability of digitalised system data that modelling can make available for analysis across disciplines provides consistent propagation of corrections. It also supports the incorporation of new information and design decisions to all stakeholders in real-time.

Finding your niche with a master’s in computer science

The MSc Computer Science from North Wales Management School covers the fundamentals of systems engineering alongside key areas of interest like software development, machine learning, data structures and algorithms, and networking.

If you are at a stage in your career where you would like to enhance your skills or deepen your knowledge in a specialist area such as systems engineering, find out more about starting this exciting online postgraduate course.