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Friday, July 16, 2010

Objectives of Part I, Fundamentals of Systems Engineering

Part I is intended to provide three understandings:
1.      The Key systems engineering activities that are critical to the success of product development
2.      How and why product development has evolved
3.      The roles and responsibilities of systems engineers and other team members in modern product development
However, before we begin to address these three understandings there is some introductory material that needs to be explained. In addition to the three understanding listed, Part I seeks to explain important processes and tools available to engineers for reducing product development time, shows some practical examples of the processes and tools and provide the reader exercises to practice applying these processes and tools.
Understanding how and why product development has evolved over the past century is helpful in understanding modern methods. It also aids in encouraging the use of modern methods. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of systems engineers and other team members helps promote working as part of a team and hopefully encourages system engineers and their managers to involve design engineers, suppliers and manufacturing people earlier in product development. Understanding key system engineering activities helps encourage focusing on the product under development, not the development process and helps understand the implications of the complexity of modern systems and how to deal with this complexity.
The objective of product development is to achieve the shortest practical time from concept to production, which we can call development cycle time, at the lowest cost consistent with the required product quality. Numerous books and papers have discussed the importance of being first to market, or if not being first, getting to market with cost or feature advantages. Unfortunately, product development managers too often attempt to shorten the development cycle by limiting the systems engineering effort or terminating the systems engineering too early. Study after study has shown that cutting corners in systems engineering to save perhaps 5% in development cost or time results in problems in the later stages of the development cycle, like system test and in initial production, that increase development costs and time by 50 to 100%. The reason this happens is also revealed in such studies of costs over the development cycle. The systems engineering phase of product development typically costs about 10% of the total product development. However, it is found that often 80 to 90 % of the system costs are determined by decisions made while spending this first 10% of the development cost. There are two important consequences of this finding.
One is that it is possible to explore many design approaches during the systems engineering phase at very low cost. Only a portion of the systems engineering costs are spent exploring design approaches; the rest is spent on requirements analysis, documentation and communication. Thus it's possible to explore perhaps twice as many system design approaches for an increase in total development cost of only about 2%.  Since doubling the number of design approaches explored significantly increases the likelihood that a higher quality or lower cost design approach is found it is well worth the extra expense.
The second important consequence is that systems engineering occurs at the beginning of the development cycle and no product development manager wants to deviate from a planned budget in the earliest stage of a project. It takes exceptional courage for a project manager to overrun the planned budget during the systems engineering phase no matter how well the manager understands the likely consequences. It is just human nature to hope that past lessons learned won’t apply to the current project. Thus managers are tempted to cut corners during systems engineering rather than conduct a thorough job even though doing a thorough job is highly likely to save costs in the long run.
There is a way out of the manager's dilemma and the way out is to use modern systems engineering methods that dramatically shorten the time and cost of the systems engineering phase of product development and improve the quality of the systems engineering work at the same time. I know that this sounds too good to be true but it has been proven to work.
 If the modern methods are so effective why isn’t everyone using them? Good question. In my experience one reason is that organizations are reluctant to try new methods and another is that these new methods can be costly to implement if not done properly. I hope to show that there is a very cost effective way to implement these new methods. That is the subject for Part II of this work. But before we begin to explore new methods it’s important to understand how to best use traditional methods because using best practices with traditional methods carries over to helping achieve the best use of more modern methods.

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