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The Systems Engineer: all-rounder, supervisor, team builder and administrator in one person

Techcafé by Mikrocentrum and DSPE not only makes the many strengths of the systems engineer visible, but also the need for a more solid foundation.

 

Written by Innovation Origins

Techcafé by Mikrocentrum and DSPE not only makes the many strengths of the systems engineer visible, but also the need for a more solid foundation.

 

Written by Innovation Origins

Put ten engineers together and you get ten different definitions of the term systems engineering. That is understandable but not always convenient, certainly because this discipline will only become more important in the coming years in our increasingly complex society. It is therefore not surprising that there are currently initiatives from knowledge institutions, the business community and governments to bring some order to the multiplicity of theories and implementations.

According to organiser and discussion leader Maarten Roos, the choice of this topic was obvious: "Design issues are becoming increasingly complex within the high-tech and manufacturing industry. Multidisciplinary design teams, shorter lead times and great technological challenges are just a few examples of this complexity. Not only system architects but also project participants are increasingly challenged to switch between abstraction levels, such as use cases, system requirements and system concepts."

To sharpen the picture, Roos had experts from various disciplines at the table: Twan de Wit, Process Manager Systems Engineering (Brainport Development), Frank de Lange, Systems Engineer (ASML), Ton Peijnenburg, Manager Systems Engineering (VDL ETG) and Maarten Bonnema, Associate Professor in Systems Engineering and Multidisciplinary Design (Universiteit van Twente).

 

Definition

Let's start with that definition. Maarten Bonnema says he could easily give a lecture of a couple of hours, but in one minute he seems to have come a long way: "In essence, it is about creating successful systems. There has to be a balance between the specialisations, such coherence that it also fits together and an integration that ensures that it will work together." Three pillars provide the foundation, he adds: process, tools and systems thinking. "Especially the latter is essential. You have to be able to think about the big picture, even if you know that the system you are building is ultimately a subsystem within an even bigger whole."

ASML's Frank de Lange adds another element: communication. "You have to be able to break down a system into pieces and then make sure that the information about it is shared with all those involved, so that the right people, even if they are from different disciplines, dare to seek each other out. I think that is one of the most important challenges, also with suppliers."

Ton Peijnenburg can immediately relate the beautiful words to daily practice at VDL ETG. "Yes, the core is communication, but there are all kinds of obstacles, such as authorities that demand something from regulations or documents that not everyone can fathom so quickly. The tools also pose a dilemma sometimes. We work a lot with Excel, Word and Powerpoint, but that is a thorn in many people's side because we cannot use them for all aspects. There is still an important automation task ahead of us. In the end, everything comes down to the quality of the information that goes around."

Model-Based

This information transfer must, of course, take place in the language of the engineers. That is why model-based - or model-supported - systems engineering is used more and more often. De Lange: "The first steps in that direction are now being taken. Models are sometimes more useful than texts, especially if different disciplines need to understand them. This also makes communication easier.

Anyone wanting to get a clearer definition of systems engineering cannot escape looking at the title of the relevant official. And to his or her range of duties, because is it primarily an administrative role, or is it more of a management role?

"The Systems Engineer is often seen as the accountant of the project, whereas the System Architect is the creative one. 
Ton Peijnenburg | VDL ETG

"That is not entirely correct, of course, but there is something in it: the management of ever-increasing amounts of information is the core of a systems engineer's work." Bonnema nuances it: "Systems thinking is the core. The administration is an aid, because if it becomes a goal, you are doing something wrong. Yes, it is necessary to keep an overview. That is precisely the means by which you can take substantive steps."
Twan de Wit, who as process manager at Brainport Development leads projects to give systems engineering a better foundation, also sees this discrepancy between administration and steering. "That is also why we need to renew the discipline; we need to look into that even more. For example, we are going to look at how we can use artificial intelligence to do the administration job even better. So that the goal - thinking in terms of systems - can be achieved even better, with less ballast for the systems engineer."

 

Free and Creative

Bonnema does not entirely agree. "What makes a systems engineer successful? You have to be able to reason freely and creatively through the whole system and in that way identify the innovation possibilities or complications. I don't believe a computer system could replace that. But it could take care of a lot of the boring bookkeeping. It only becomes a problem if the computer system makes it more difficult for the systems engineer to get through the whole system. In short, there is an enormous field of tension here that I would also like to solve from a scientific perspective. Whether that will work? I wouldn't bet on it."

But is the systems engineer then that generalist who doesn't really need to know anything about anything, as long as he can bring it all together? "No, that wouldn't be right," says Bonnema. "You need your roots in engineering, because you have to be able to convince experts from other disciplines based on your expertise. A base in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or industrial design is ideal, preferably in two of these disciplines because then you see parallels."

"The Systems Engineer does not operate on the basis of hierarchical power, but always on the basis of influence. You can only achieve that with knowledge."
Maarten Bonnema | Universiteit Twente

 

Standard

Meanwhile, everyone also notes that it is difficult to come up with a standard that would apply everywhere and at all times. "There can be uniformity in the generic part", says Peijnenburg. "But every company will still have its own interpretation, including the names that are given to them." 

In order to create a standard on the foundation, there is also a task for education. Twente has a head start, but Eindhoven and Delft are also increasingly taking part. What might help is the allocated application from NXTGEN HighTech to the Growth Fund. "A total package of 450 million that will be divided among forty projects of which we are one," explains De Wit. "It originated here in Brainport, but has since become a national project to which parties such as Innovation Quarter and OostNL also contribute." The first steps within this project should become visible in September.