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Systems Engineering

WRITTEN BY: Hendrik W. Bode and William K. Holstein


Systems engineering, technique of using knowledge from various branches of engineering
and science to introduce technological innovations into the planning and development stages
of a system.
Systems engineering is not so much a branch of engineering as it is a technique for applying
knowledge from other branches of engineering and disciplines of science in effective
combination to solve a multifaceted engineering problem. It is related to operations
research but differs from it in that it is more a planning and design function, frequently
involving technical innovation. Probably the most important aspect of systems engineering is
its application to the development of new technological possibilities with the specific
objective of putting them to use as rapidly as economic and technical considerations permit.
In this sense it may be seen as the midwife of technological development.
The word “systems” is frequently used also in other combinations, especially when elements
of technological advance are not so important. Systems analysis is an example. Systems
theory, or sometimes systems science, is frequently applied to the analysis of
physical dynamic systems. An example would be a complex electrical network with one or
more feedback loops, in which the effects of a process return to cause changes in the source
of the process.
In the development of the various engineering disciplines in the 19th and 20th centuries,
considerable overlap was inevitable among the different fields; for example, chemical
engineering and mechanical engineering were both concerned with heat transfer and fluid
flow. Further proliferation of specializations, as in the many branches of electrical and
electronic engineering, such as communications theory, cybernetics, and computer theory, led
to further overlapping. Systems engineering may be seen as a logical last step in the process.
Systems engineers frequently have an electronics or communications background and make
extensive use of computers and communications technology. Yet systems engineering is not
to be confused with these other fields. Fundamentally a point of view or a method of attack, it
should not be identified with any particular substantive area. In its nature and in the nature of
the problems it attacks, it is interdisciplinary, a procedure for putting separate techniques and
bodies of knowledge together to achieve a prescribed goal in an effective manner.
In general, a systems engineering approach is likely to differ from a conventional design
approach by exhibiting increased generality in its basic logical framework and increased
concern with the fundamental objectives to be achieved. Thus, at each stage the systems
engineer is likely to ask both why and how, rather than merely how.
In addition to systems engineering, it is important to define systems themselves. The systems
with which a systems engineer is concerned are first of all man-made. Second, they are large
and complex; their component parts interact so extensively that a change in one part is likely
to affect many others. Unless there is such interaction, there is little for the systems engineer
to do, at least at the systems level; he can turn immediately to the components themselves.
Another important characteristic of systems is that their inputs are normally stochastic; that
is, the inputs are essentially random functions of time, although they may exhibit statistical
regularities. Thus, one cannot expect to foresee exactly what the system will be exposed to in
actual operation, and its performance must be evaluated as a statistical average of the
responses to a range of possible inputs. A calculation based on a single precisely defined
input function will not do. Systems may also vary depending on the amount of human
judgment that enters into their operation.
There are, of course, systems such as electrical circuits, automated production equipment, or
robots that may operate in a completely determinate fashion. At the other extreme, there are
management and control systems, for both business and military purposes, in which machines
in a sense do most of the work but with human supervision and decision making at critical
points. Clearly these mixed human-machine systems offer the greatest variety both of
possibilities and problems for the systems engineer. Aspects of such systems are treated in
the article human-factors engineering.