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A Guide to Systems Engineering Best Practices

Dec. 6, 2022
The basics and beyond.

Part 1

What is Systems Engineering?    

Systems engineering is an engineering field that takes an interdisciplinary approach to product development. Systems engineers analyze the collection of pieces to make sure when working together, they achieve the intended objectives or purpose of the product.

For example, in automotive development, a propulsion system or braking system will involve mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and a host of other specialized engineering disciplines. A systems engineer will focus on making each of the individual systems work together into an integrated whole that performs as expected across the lifecycle of the product.

What Are the Fundamentals of Systems Engineering?      

In product development, systems engineering is the interdisciplinary field that focuses on designing, integrating, and managing the systems that work together to form a more complex system. Systems engineering is based around systems-thinking principles, and the goal of a systems engineer is to help a product team produce an engineered system that performs a useful function as defined by the requirements written at the beginning of the project. The final product should be one where the individual systems work together in a cohesive whole that meets the requirements of the product.

What Is a System?

A system is a collection of different elements that produce results that individual elements cannot produce. Elements or parts can be wide-ranging and include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents. These elements interact with each other according to a set of rules that produce a unified whole with a purpose expressed by its functioning.

An example of a system is the human auditory system; the system includes individual parts in the form of bones and tissue that interact in a way to produce sound waves, which are transferred to nerves that lead to the brain, which interprets the sounds and formulates a response. If any single part of the auditory system fails or experiences a disruption, the entire system can fail to perform its function.

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of thinking that looks at the overall function of a complex system rather than breaking it down into smaller parts.

For example, systems thinking would consider an automobile a complex system that consists of smaller, specialized elements. While an electrical engineer might only be concerned with the electrical system of the automobile, someone looking at the entire complex system would consider how the electrical system would impact other systems in the automobile—and how those other systems might impact the electrical system.

If one piece of the electrical system fails, for instance, how would that failure cascade to other systems to impact the operability of the automobile?

Systems thinking will take a “big picture” approach to the overall product.

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