Millions of devices and users. Trillions of lines of computer code. Thousands of manufacturers with different goals and priorities, acting independently, to create a system whose “scale, rate of evolution, and diversity of stakeholders makes it impossible to do any sort of conventional top-down direction or management, yet whose intended use requires high levels of trust, safety, security and quality of service.”
That’s how Hillary Sillitto, an expert on ultra-large-scale systems (ULSS) and a fellow of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), describes the largest system ever conceived: the Internet of Things (IoT).
“Current engineering practice is ahead of the science,” Sillitto said. “We are building systems we do not know how to characterize or analyze, and whose behavior we cannot fully predict.”
That reality has the global community of systems engineers – the people whose specialty was designed to identify and manage the trade-offs inherent in building large-scale systems comprising hundreds, even thousands of subsystems – actively searching for answers. Focus areas range from urging organizations to dramatically change the way they design complex systems to overhauling computer-aided design and engineering tools for the special challenges of systems engineering (SE).
Managing Subsystem Conflicts
“Systems engineering is as much art as it is science,” said Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of US-based global security and aerospace corporation Lockheed Martin and a former member of the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “The essence of systems engineering comes down to the fact that most individuals on a complex project know how to make a brick, but for such projects to be successful you need someone who knows how to build a cathedral.”
In Augustine’s analogy, systems engineers are the master architects who ensure that every subsystem in a project supports and enhances every other subsystem to create an optimized whole. In designing an automobile, for example, systems engineers are responsible for identifying the trade-offs between, for example, fast acceleration and fuel efficiency or weight versus safety. Ideally, experts in each engineering discipline then work together to manage the trade-offs, sub-optimizing some systems to ensure the best possible overall performance. But the ideal is far from the reality.
“The world is just not very good at systems engineering,” laments Augustine, who is helping to apply SE to a light-rail project in the suburbs of a major metropolitan region.
Experts like Augustine give the world a failing grade in SE, in part, due to the chasm between what a strong SE orientation can contribute to organizational success and the lack of commitment to SE among corporate and government leaders.
“The gap is huge, and it is very costly,” said Daniel Krob, president of the Center of Excellence on Systems Architecture, Management, Economy and Strategy (CESAMES) in Paris and professor of computer science at the École Polytechnique.
Charles F. Bolden Jr., administrator of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a former astronaut, agrees: “Large companies whom we thought had a strong systems engineering approach don’t, or have let it falter, resulting in lost [business] opportunities, lost time and cost and schedule overruns.”
A large part of the problem, these experts agree, is that engineers in different disciplines don’t collaborate – or even communicate – as much as they should, and that corporate leaders don’t force the point or provide the tools to make collaboration easier. “Without systems engineering, the most likely outcome is a number of separately optimized parts that inefficiently perform the task of the whole, or perform it not all,” Augustine said.
The optimal system of systems rarely arises by optimizing each subsystem, NASA Chief Technologist David Miller explained. The interfaces between subsystems, and between systems and the external environment, are where a system of many systems succeeds or fails, he said.
“In our business, when we think about systems of systems,” Miller said, “we need to take into account not just the performance of the space vehicle, but adaptability to a changing environment and the like — something that I like to call architectural resilience, meaning the ability to be insensitive to change.” That ability will also be central to the success of a constantly evolving system such as the IoT.
Continue reading the rest of this story here, on COMPASS, the 3DEXPERIENCE Magazine.
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