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Systems, teams take center stage

Systems, teams take center stage

No man is an island.

Neither is an engineer.

Nor are parts in a design.

Today, and into the next century, engineers will work on systems, not just parts. In this years exclusive Design News Career Survey, 58% of those polled predicted that the primary role of engineers at the turn of the century will be systems designers. And they'll do this work increasingly as part of a team.

The days of one engineer independently working on the AB switch and another on the BC switch are over says Gary McCormack of software developer CoCreate (Fort Collins, CO). "There is a movement afoot that we call shared engineering, where many engineers work on the same part at the same time."

Other names for the same trend: concurrent engineering, team engineering, systems design.

This concept is not new. "A good engineer from time immemorial has always been a systems designer," says Edward Goldman, senior vice president of Foster-Miller, an engineering firm in Waltham, MA.

However, it has become more important.

The concept of system design actually originated 20 years ago, says Brent Anderson, engineering specialist for Lockheed Martin (Fort Worth, TX). "And it's been growing in popularity ever since," he says, driven by the complexity of technology.

As a support engineer for the Joint Strike Fighter project, Anderson sees hundreds of engineers working together. "Plus, you have different companies working side by side. Keeping the larger picture in mind is critical to the entire project."

Goldman sees the greater emphasis on teams and system design as a result of corporate downsizing. "Downsizing has led to a different business model," he says. Fewer people means a tighter design team. A tighter team forces a more efficient product design, resulting in fewer product definition mistakes and a faster time-to-market, says Goldman.

Outsourcing--the tendency to look outside company walls for design assistance--is another factor, says Dean Lamb from fastener manufacturer CamCar Textron (Rockford, IL). Take automotive interiors, for example. Company A use to supply only the dashboard, and the automobile manufacturer designed the rest. Now, the automobile manufacturer is asking Company A to design the entire interior, including the air bag, steering wheel, and a lot of integrating systems.

"Our engineers not only need to know fasteners, they now have to know the customer's product," says Lamb. "Our end users are coming to us for more than just supplies. They are seeking guidance and information."

An engineer's business always has been and always will be system design," says Goldman. "That's what an engineer does. He doesn't design parts. He designs things that work."

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