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  • Writer's pictureMehran Irdmousa

Systems Engineering (SE): The Key to Building Things Right

Greetings readers! As promised in my introductory article on the Triangle of Value-driven Operationalization (TVO) LINK, I’m excited to dive deeper into the first component of this blueprint – Systems Engineering (SE). I myself am a trained SE from education and at my heart and passion. I believe SE is the cornerstone of successful implementation in most complex system designs and ecosystems. This article will explore what makes SE such a powerful discipline for taking ideas from conception to operational success.

So, what exactly is Systems Engineering? The International Council of Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines SE as “Systems Engineering is a transdisciplinary and integrative approach to enable the successful realization, use, and retirement of engineered systems, using systems principles and concepts, and scientific, technological, and management methods.” SE applies engineering principles, practices, and techniques to guide a system throughout its entire lifecycle. It focuses on the big picture view, coordinating cross-functional technical teams to ensure all system components integrate and align towards a common goal. SE oversees the full lifecycle, from translating capabilities into stakeholder requirements to designing system architecture, integration, verification, and validation all the way through system disposal.

The famous SE V-Model demonstrates this methodical, full lifecycle approach. The V model is a graphical representation of the systems engineering lifecycle. It maps the relationship between phases of system development on the left side of the V and corresponding testing and integration phases on the right side. As systems progress down the left side of the V from high-level requirements to detailed design, the completeness of the system increases on the right side, as integrated components are verified against specifications through rigorous testing. This model emphasizes the sequential relationship between development and testing, ensuring systems are built correctly and fulfilling intended requirements. It provides a structured framework for managing complexity and risk as systems engineering efforts progress from conceptual design to final product. The V model is a foundational concept in systems engineering, encapsulating the methodical practice of developing and integrating robust system elements. SE provides ongoing processes for requirement analysis, interface definition, system modeling, trade-off studies, risk management, and technical planning across the entire V. There are many variations of the V model depending on the industry, but the foundational V model behind SE is seen below.

The SE V Model
The SE V Model (Simple)

At its core, SE is all about “building the thing right.” It provides the infrastructure to transform concepts into operational systems that function as intended within real-world environments. Applying SE principles helps avoid wasted time and expenses from having to retrofit or rework inadequate designs. Rigorous SE standards and reviews across manufacturing, integration, and deployment prevent flaws from going undiscovered until after systems are built.

The utility of SE continues to grow as complexity increases across technological landscapes. Emerging areas include AI4SE, utilizing AI in areas like automated requirements writing and risk analysis, and SE4AI, engineering robust systems to deploy AI tools safely, responsibly, and effectively. SE brings immense value to complex initiatives within large organizations like government agencies. It promotes cross-team coordination, aligning systems to strategic objectives. Structured requirements analysis and design reviews ensure stakeholder needs are met. Modeling and simulation identify failures early when adjustments are cheaper. Risk management and integration planning proactively address emergent issues. Testing/validation protocols verify systems function as intended, preventing expensive rework. SE oversight enables managing intricate technological infrastructure vital for public sector missions. With talented engineers in demand, SE boosts productivity. Promoting best practices in interface design and system design improves institutional knowledge retention. Despite challenges, systems engineering delivers high-quality systems necessary for modernization and ambitious projects.

A great example of successful SE implementation comes from Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission. The integration of SE with Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) principles throughout development enabled the design, build, test, and launch of this incredibly complex, automated Mars rover in about 6 years, half the typical timeframe. SE oversight delivered a reliable, interconnected system architecture supporting the mission’s scientific goals. We will dive deeper into MBSE and digital engineering when we discuss EA in the next article. It is important to note that MBSE and SE principles are the critical elements of digital engineering. Both SE and EA are two of the three elements of the TVO.

Let's take a closer look at the FBI's ambitious Virtual Case File (VCF) system. It was launched with the goal of digitizing millions of paper records and facilitating seamless collaboration among agents. Unfortunately, the project encountered some challenges and eventually had to be discontinued in 2005, after costing $170 million. However, we can learn from this experience. The key takeaway is that it's essential to have clear requirements, a holistic design approach, and robust oversight when working on complicated systems. In this case, engineers started building modules without considering how they would work together, leading to integration problems down the line. By learning from this experience, we can better understand the value of systems engineering in tackling complex projects.

Revisiting our TVO blueprint from the first article, we can see how SE forms an indispensable puzzle piece. EA provides the value-driven roadmap, while SE ensures constructability – bringing that vision to operational fruition through meticulous translation of needs into executable designs. In my next article, we’ll explore the second TVO component, Enterprise Architecture, and its synergies with SE.

Highlighted TVO Blueprint
Highlighted TVO Blueprint

Stay tuned for more as we continue assembling the full TVO picture! Constructing technological success requires diligent systems engineering.

Special thanks to the amazing contributors to this article: James Eselgroth

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