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Why is Systems Engineering the right choice?

Structured and efficient product innovations with a system-oriented approach.

Client requirements for connected functions are increasingly high: The development of innovative products leads to a complex interplay of different parts, sensors, and data streams. Even in traditional industrial or mechanical engineering companies, major innovation is driven by a seamless combination of software, electronic hardware and mechanics. Too often, problems at the boundaries between different systems lead to problems at the integration of the final product. The big challenge is to master large teams of up to thousands of engineers from different disciplines. Examples can be found in nearly every industry, from construction to automotive, creating an urge for change.

The answer for handling this complexity is often Systems Engineering. How can a different engineering approach help to simplify processes? The difference compared with traditional parts-oriented product creation is that it uses system thinking in order to capture the complexity of products. But without going too deeply into the dependencies of functions and logical relations, the new approach appears quite similar, and the advantages are not very obvious at first sight, especially when product details are not transparent. Several teams developing a customer function need to account for a broad variety of sub-functions in each team with very complex resulting interfaces. ”The differences and advantages become tangible, when you think about the requirements for developing the most complex machine with many different functions: a human body,” states Dr. Marc-Florian Uth, Senior Manager at Porsche Consulting.

How would two teams perform that follow a consistent parts-oriented approach on the one hand and a system-oriented approach on the other? The first team would focus on the physical partition of the “human body product”. The system-oriented approach would divide it into logically coherent entities or sub-systems that fulfill important main functions. In a parts-oriented organization developing the function “walking” each team has to take into account a broad variety of sub-functions, the energy and oxygen distribution, control of muscles and the exchange of information with other parts, resulting in complex interfaces. Each team would probably think in solutions that optimize their own part and might add extra sensors to suit their needs. The development in silos with a parts-oriented division creates an unfunctional overall product. Organizations would try to prevent this, but without a clear breakdown of function requirements, this results in the need for exhaustive alignments in endless and repetitive meetings.

The systems team is formed according to an intelligent division of the product into logical systems that are able to fulfill a main subfunction. This creates a simple interface, so they can concentrate mainly on the optimization of the designated sub-functions. Figure 1 shows the four main systems of a human being with the main functions. For example, Team A has the function to supply the body with energy and is independent of the main functions. The system interface is simple: “Just tell me how much energy is needed”. Team B can concentrate on developing the most efficient structure and muscles and waits for signals to increase tension or to relax, controlled by a central nervous system. This system connects all sensors and coordinates parallel execution of many functions. Overall, the result is a product that uses all sensors efficiently for the execution of different functions and developing complexity is reduced significantly. This is possible by a breakdown of requirements in advance along the system architecture.

But how to get there? The approach to find a perfect architecture for technical systems always starts with the customer requirements and definition of the problem spaces. These are structured into functions and sub-functions before the logical system architecture is derived, the so-called solution space. A product creation with different types of products becomes very efficient when based on a well-defined logical structure on the same architecture. Taking the human example again, the same architecture can be used to realize very different “models” or solutions with a focus on strength, endurance or cognitive capabilities.

“Especially for Research and Development departments, a profound standard and reusable architecture paves the way for efficient development and secured maturity with a clear integration of suppliers. However, it must be optimized with every product release,” summarizes Andreas Schnele, Partner at Porsche Consulting. Based on the product architecture, the systems engineering process and organization framework must be implemented in order to fully leverage the potential. However, the architecture is the key and represents the advantage of a system-oriented approach over a part-oriented approach.

Taking a step backwards from complex technology or product development and changing perspective supports the understanding of a system-oriented approach and highlights the advantages.