In a recent blog post entitled: “Systems Engineering is just plain old Engineering — not more and certainly not less“, the author questions and discusses systems engineering, engineering systems as part of engineering.
Deeper insight is gained by looking at the definition of engineering itself. One good definition of engineering is: “Engineering is the professional art of applying science to the optimum conversion of the resources of nature to benefit man.” In the same book, we find: “Engineering is an art requiring the judgement necessary to adapt knowledge to practical purposes, the imagination to conceive original solutions to problems, and the ability to predict performance and cost of new devices or processes.” (D. W. Oliver, T. P. Kelliher, and J. G. Keegan, Engineering complex systems with models and objects. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997, pp. 25.)
The real question is whether engineering — as it stands today — does indeed meet these definitions. Any discipline when analyzed traditionally is two things: a core of methodological activities and a set of typical applications. So the question becomes whether these methodological activities are sufficient for the applications; the practical problems that when solved would benefit man.
One challenge of modern engineering is its division into multiple disciplines. Mechanical, electrical, civil and chemical are but a common few. Each of these comes with their own core of methodologies and typical applications. Therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult even within engineering itself to apply methodologies from one engineering discipline into another. It is equally difficult to apply core methodologies in atypical applications.
Coming back to the definition of engineering, some practical problems are simply so big that they require methodological activities from multiple engineering disciplines and in of themselves are the union of multiple typical domains of application. Here, it is important to recognize the common adage: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts“.
And so traditional systems engineering was born shortly after World War II. Defense applications like jet fighters and satellites clearly draw from mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. Astronautical and Aeronautical engineering departments naturally recognize the need for cross-disciplinary activity and have often included the Systems Engineering Handbook within their curricula. Similar trends emerged in nuclear power plants and even highly automated production facilities.
The four research themes at the Laboratory for Intelligent Integrated Networks of Engineering Systems are further examples of this continuing trend. The energy-water nexus draws heavily from electric power engineering and water resources management. The electrification of transportation draws heavily from transportation engineering, electric power engineering, and the mechanical engineering of cars and trains. Smart (power) grids — as cyber-physical systems — recognize that electric power engineering must expand to include new developments from control systems, optimization, signal processing, communications and information technology. Similarly, reconfigurable manufacturing systems are cyber-physical and integrate similar subjects.
While integrating knowledge from multiple engineering disciplines is helpful, it is insufficient to meet the original definition of engineering as above. What if the engineering application requires natural resources that are deemed too large by society? Till today, people ask this of the Big Dig project in Boston. Another question. Does the engineering application truly benefit mankind? We ask this today in the context of nuclear disarmament. These questions draw heavily from economics, management, political science and ethics. And they are relatively subjective as compared to the typical methodological activities found in the engineering disciplines. And yet, it is naive to think that their solution does not require engaged participation of engineers and their disciplines.
These types of questions dominate 21st century problems as compared to those of the 20th century. In the 20th century, traditional engineering disciplines began from a set of requirements and ended with some product or service as a solution. These requirements represented the economics, regulations, policies and ethics as an operating box for engineers. This role, however, is changing. In the 21st century, engineers no longer take these “requirements” as given but instead have an expanding role of influence. Chief technology officers have increasingly important roles in the innovative success of modern companies. Government regulators often seek engineers within their ranks. And many nations are finding engineers within their legislative and executive branches of government. We’ve moved from a decomposed top-down world to one that is innovative and bottom-up.
It is from this lens that the field of engineering systems finds itself. It’s still the same engineering definition but the nature of the problem has changed. This is a good sign. Engineers are increasingly bringing pervasive solutions to benefit mankind. As they do, they will increasingly interface with the disciplines devoted to people and society: the humanities and social sciences. As that happens, adhering to the definition of engineering will require engineers to converse with these disciplines. Common definitions and methods are likely to develop as all of these disciplines collectively work to solve mankind’s techno-economic-social problems.
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