Design News is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Simple Question: What’s a System?

Article-Simple Question: What’s a System?

Simple Question: What’s a System?

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.

Dave Heacock, of Texas Instruments, says:

"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."

From Tom Connelly, of ZL Engineering Plastics:

"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."

Got it?

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.

Related posts:

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.