Systems Engineering is not Mechatronics

DN Staff

October 1, 2008

6 Min Read
Systems Engineering is not Mechatronics

What is the role of a systems engineer?

A systems engineer ensures a company’s product is going to function within cost, specification, while satisfying the user, making the trade off decisions between features, solving problems without an obvious source, and of course much more. An exemplary systems engineer has significant education and experience, leadership, good communication skills and common sense. A few things I’d like to touch on, include what a systems engineer does, how a systems engineer gains required skills, personal characteristics of a systems engineer, and finally touch on a personal experience related to systems engineering.

What is systems engineering?

I define systems engineering as the process of using engineering knowledge to design or improve a system from conceptualization and design through use and disposal. This may include outside influences, interfacing specialized interconnected components, safety, sustainability, and more. Also, a systems engineer will balance other engineers’ requirements and desires for their subsystem. The systems engineer must do this with an utmost advocacy for the entire system’s stability and functionality. This means a systems engineer must make decisions ideal for the system as a whole. This zoomed out perspective on a system, as opposed to a strict domain-centric view is much more difficult to obtain than mechanical system experience or even mechatronic experience.

How do you gain the insight to become a superb systems engineer?

Majoring in systems engineering is a great start, but more importantly a larger variety of in-depth engineering courses is a great foundation to start a systems engineering career. However expansive an educational foundation a systems engineer has, previous experience designing or fixing systems is the key to becoming a great systems engineer. This experience is ideally obtained in a company because politics, finances, schedules and lives affected by the decisions of a systems engineer. It is more difficult to see all the influences on a system in academia, where profits and many other factors are likely not the main focus.

Systems engineers must possess common sense. The natural or acquired feeling of instinctually knowing when something is wrong is very helpful. This sense for systems engineering is obtained by experience: trial and error of solving many problems in various situations. Knowing where to look for a problem and finding the problematic subsystem is a valuable skill for a systems engineer. The systems engineer does not necessarily need know how to fix the problem, but must be able to isolate the problem for a specialist to solve. Common sense is important in the entire engineering profession, but no place greater than a discipline where so many things need to be considered and balanced. Also, communication is very important aspect of the systems engineering perspective.

What is different about a systems engineer?

Systems engineering forms a bridge between different engineering disciplines, but a systems engineer often functions as a guide for other engineers and plays a part in the overall design process. This may sound like a systems engineer is a type of manager and this is both true and false. A systems engineer does not manage people, but instead mediates people to manage the system and be the system advocate.

As with every engineer, systems engineers should communicate clearly, concisely and often. However, because systems engineers often have the added task of working with different groups of people and systems engineers also require information from other professionals, it is important that systems engineers handle themselves well, and are particularly effective in their communication and requests of others. Systems engineers heavily rely on the documentation of others, which immediately introduces the need for two-way communication for clarifications. This is why a systems engineer must be adept at communication and ‘speak the language’ of other engineering domains.

One of the major differences between many fields of engineering and systems engineering is the demand for a greater number of personal attributes in systems engineering. Systems engineers have to have leadership abilities to work with other engineers to e.g., solve a problem or make a compromise that’s best for the system. This also implies that a systems engineer must be socially adept, working with many different groups of professionals.

A personal experience…

A personal systems engineering experience is from my past summer working in the Institute of Control Systems at the Kaiserslautern Technical University, located in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The research group has a robotic arm used for developing control algorithms, but their electrical current measurement of each motor in the robotic arm was so noisy it provided very little usable data. Since this problem was inhibiting many control algorithms from working properly, I made this my priority and went through each subsystem and component to ensure everything was functioning properly. More than ten electrical components and hundreds lines of code formed the current measurement subsystem. However, in order to diagnose the problem, I had to learn how to use the rest of the system, including half a dozen subsystems such as intersystem-communication, position sensing, multiple digital signal processors, motors and hardware. Almost any part of the current measurement subsystem could be the root of the problem, or even a different subsystem. After meticulously testing each component, I found it was a complex combination of problems crossing subsystems included coding errors, lack of memory protection, and a poorly chosen resistor value. These problems were could likely be contributed to a lack of internal documentation of the system, as well as inaccurate and poor documentation from the hardware vender. More to come on this.

Although I do not have substantial systems experience, I was able to solve a complex problem that multiple PhD students and masters students hadn’t yet solved. However, this may not be as remarkable as it seems. The researchers are very focused on control algorithms and likely had not used many electrical skills since early college, which may seem as long ago as algebra to the general public. As a completely new person working on the project, I took a top-down approach to learning about the system and solving the problem. The researchers knew much more about the intricacies of certain subsystems than I do, but I was able to solve a problem that crossed subsystems. This is likely because I was not as focused on any particular subsystem and could have a better ‘zoomed-out’ perspective.

Although my personal experiences do not reach very far into the field of systems engineering, I have had much electromechanical (mechatronic) experience interfacing hardware and software components of electrical and mechanical systems. This falls very short of managing external influences in large systems engineering problems, such as logistic support, capabilities of operating personnel, politics, staffing, operational environment, etc. In any case, I think that engineering experience is excellent preparation for becoming a systems engineer. The aggregate of varied engineering experiences amounts to the ability to work within different domains of engineering – an important aspect of systems engineering.

I feel that the steps to become a systems engineer may be more expensive, vague and time consuming than other engineering degrees, but the problem solving and responsibility of keeping a system functional are exciting, difficult and critical. Not anyone can become a superb systems engineer, but various professionals such as mechanical engineers, chemical engineers and even entrepreneurs extend themselves to solve demanding problems in impressive and complex systems.

Share your opinion.

Now that you’ve read my opinion of systems engineering, what do you think? Be sure to post below, and I’ll respond to any questions you may have.

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