Design News bills itself as a property aimed at system designers. That sounds simple enough, or at least it did to me. One day not too long ago, someone asked me, “What’s a system?”
That caught me off guard, because I thought it was obvious, at least until I thought about it a little bit. Then I asked a bunch of other folks what their definition of a system was. It turns out that, depending on your perspective or your job, you may have a very different definition than I do.
Let’s start with my definition:
A system is a series of subsystems that takes one or more inputs, does some measuring (even minimal in some cases) or processing, and outputs a result. That result could be data (in the case of an electronic system), or it could be something else, like a material, or even a motion. I know that’s pretty vague, but the more you think about the question, the harder it is to answer.
I posed the same question to a bunch of experts, some of whom reside on the Design News Advisory Board. Here are the answers I got back.
Mark Minnichelli of BASF had a definition that’s not too far from mine. He said:
“I would define a system as a group of individual components which combine/interact to perform a specific function; i.e., act on a set of inputs or perform operations to create a set of outputs or a desired response.”
Chris Loberg, of Tektronix, also agreed with me (I think):
“The term system in the context of system designer has many different meanings and is best helped with another qualifying adjective. Because in the design environment, an engineer could define a system as something that processes an input (or series of inputs) and produces a computed result or output.
“For me, when I think of system, I think of a series of items (software and hardware) that work together to solve a problem or perform a function.”
Mike Campbell hails from PTC. PTC is involved in a different part of the design cycle; hence, his view is somewhat different for the component suppliers.
“Because ‘system’ is pretty vague, we like to consider ‘system engineering’ as the early part of the process after requirements have been understood and the high-level structure of the design is defined,” he said. “This is where mechanical, electrical, and software design activities begin, driven from the high-level system requirements.”
Scott Hibbard, of Bosch Rexroth, gave me the disclaimer that his company generally doesn’t use the system designer term. That said, he responded:
“I would define a systems designer as one who takes subsystems from one or more vendors and performs the engineering required to integrate them to achieve a specific function.”
“A ‘system’ is exactly that -- a combination of components that work together as a whole to achieve or produce something. The system designer is concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole system.
Ken Karnofsky, from MathWorks, offers what I think is the most literal definition:
“A system is an entity whose behavior is defined by the interaction of its elements and its interaction with its environment. Specifying the behavior of the individual components is insufficient to determine, let alone optimize, the behavior of the whole. Within the engineering world, dynamic systems are the most important and common type of system. In dynamic systems, the behavior also depends on time and prior state of the system.”
Finally, Advisory Board member Ron Martino, of Freescale, responded with:
“A system designer is a person who defines the architecture, requirements, and selection of an optimum implementation scheme for an electronic system and/or subsystems.”
There you have it. Ten responses and I’m still not sure what the right answer is. What’s your definition? Tell us in the comments section below.
Dear Rich In your article, "Simple Question: What's a System?" you presented several answers to the question, "What is a system?" It strikes me that all of the answers really gave the same concept, even if they worded it differently. Dave Heacock gave perhaps the most succinct answer, "When I think of a system, I think of a series of items that work together to solve a problem or perform a function." (Italics mine).
For example a mousetrap is a system. If you take away any of its components, the base, the spring, the bait, the swinging arm etc, the mouse trap won't work. All of the components have to be present for the mousetrap to catch a mouse. Also, these components must be assembled correctly. Simply stacking these components one on top of the other will not let them work together.
Tom Connelly said " a combination of components that work together .. to achieve or produce something. Same concept as Dave's.
Mark Minnichelli said, "... a group of individual components which combine/interact to perform a specific function" This is the same concept as Dave, just worded differently.
Chris Loberg said, " ... system is something that processes an input, and produces a result." I doubt that he was thinking of something as simple as a stick that we kick. (The input is our kicking the stick. The stick 'processes' the input by moving, and perhaps poking a hole in something.) I would infer that Chris was actually thinking of some multi-component device, such as a computer [whose components work together] to produce a computed result or output.
Scott Hibbard commented, "a systems designer as one who take sub-systems ... to integrate them." Again, there is the concept of a series of items that work together (integration)...
Ken Karnofsky, " ... A system is an entity,... Specifying the behavior of individual components is insufficient to determine the behavior of the whole." Again, there is the concept of a number parts that must work together.
Mike Campbell speaks, "A System is pretty vague, .. system engineering is the early part of the process after requirements have been understood ... this is where mechanical, electrical, and software design activities begin... . Again, this definition requires that a series of components [mech. elect, and software] must work together to do a function (the requirements).
I wonder if Mr. Campbell's concern about the vagueness of a definition for a system came from the fact that he was inter-mixing the concept of complexity with the definition of a system.
As an aside, if we go to the concept of complexity, complexity is the qualitative concept that has to do with the number of interactions within a system. A mousetrap is relatively simple, as it has less than maybe a dozen components. A rocket ship is very complex, as it to do with many more components, and many more laws of nature, all interacting with each other.
Such is the engineer's concept of a system.
Before departing from the concept of a system, there is another, broader, definition for a system. "A collection of parts that are related somehow." For example the solar system. Although the parts (ie planets) do not work together per se, they are all held in place by the sun, and their gravitation pulls do influence each other to varying degrees.
The engineer's system is a sub-set of this definition, i.e. the components are related in that they must work together to do a function.
Here two last questions for you,
Does it take intelligence to create complex 'engineering' systems?
Does it take greater intelligence to design more complex systems?
A system is defined by the job being performed. I'm typing this on my desktop computer system. Then again, I sometimes find myself fighting the system and in some cases, throwing a wrench in the system. Now I'm confused.
When I was a teenage boy working part-time so I could afford some nice things, it was popular to ask the other guys to see their "system". The term system was automatically known to be one's music sound system (girls tended to have all-in-one cheap systems). The systems were put together with a variety of electronic items called "components", including a (central) receiver (sometimes separate amp and tuner), turntable, cassette deck, equalizer, and speakers. Some even called their multiple different speakers their "speaker system". We guys took great pride in having a high-quality system that we could listen to music and show-off to friends.
The term ''system'' comes from the Latin word systēma, which is described as being ''whole compounded of several parts or members''. I know that sounds very broad, but as Engineers we're supposed to be keeping things simple, aren't we?
A system is anything for which you can't be bothered to find a meaningful definition.
Often it's just an appendage to make a product seem more sophisticated - a "home theater system" is just a higher priced "home theater" for axample. (I wrote "theater" rather than "theatre" out of respect for non-true English speaking American readers)
@Nancy, i completely agree that every conmpany's definition of "system" is different; you can't assume that you understand what it is just by walking in the door. It calls for lots of questions and a fair amount of time. And that definition will change depending on who you talk to *within* a company.
The way i've always understood a system is that it is completely defined by where you draw the boundary. As an example, to a mechanical engineer a "system" could be an automobile and the driver and pedestrians are the environment of the auto. However, to human factors engineers the "system" could *include* the driver, and the city/country/wherever is the environment. OTOH, to municipal planners, the "system" can include the auto, the driver, pedestrians, roads, and parking.
It's tough to give an exact definition to "it depends." In reality, we are trying to define something that in itself is a definition!
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