System engineering tools have been in place for more than 10 years and are now used extensively across many industries. The concept of system engineering tools was developed to provide engineers with a mechanism to capture their ideas in a more formal way and to enable system design to be recorded within a central ‘point of truth’.
Where are we today?
In an era where PC screens displayed black and green pixels, tools were very limited in what assistance they could provide to system engineers. But with the evolution of computers, hardware and software tools, vendors have reinvented themselves and developed solutions that have attempted to more accurately model systems, contributing to better management of system complexity.
Initially, UML and other associated tools provided a mechanism to capture software design, and SysML was created as an attempt to construct better models of systems. Whilst the intention of building these initial tools and models was worthwhile, they were limited in their model checking capabilities, model consistency and general soundness. Things evolved however, and simulation tools were eventually introduced, which enabled the animation of models and the verification of solutions in a simulated environment. Tools like Matlab, Simulink and other derived modelling languages provided systems engineers with the confidence that the models being created were accurate representations of the system at stake and that designs were correct, reducing the risk of issues arising later on in system implementation phases.
In parallel to the evolution of these tools has been the development of an alternative set of tools and methods that make most system engineers jump out of their metaphorical windows: ‘formal methods’. Formal methods has actually been around for a long time, ever since set theory and first order logic began to be considered. But the actual real-world application of these methods in solving complex, software-oriented systems engineering problems occurred much more recently. Despite the advantages formal methods promises, its principles scare many system engineers, largely because the frameworks and language which the models are expressed in are not easy to grasp. Formal methods is also often seen as a largely theoretical, academic project, with its real-world value is still to be fully demonstrated.
The final piece in the jigsaw is the set of Microsoft tools that have been used extensively to manage complex systems engineering projects, tools such as Visio, Excel, Word and Project. These tools have been used and, despite the disadvantages of additional costs resulting from the duplication of information and lack of traceability they often bring, complex operational systems are indeed being specified using them.
Is there a case for change?
With the advent of autonomous systems, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage all of the information, artefacts and people involved in engineering processes. On top of all of this, today more and more people tend to be dispersed across multiple work sites, including those working from home. There is a need to adapt systems engineering tools to this changing world, reflecting mobile working practices and the move towards increasingly complex and autonomous systems. Ultimately, system engineers will need ways to quickly generate system designs, automate verification steps and gain more useful mechanisms to access information, regardless of their working location.
So what of the future?
So what does the future of systems engineering like? While the application of mathematical principles provides the maturity and the soundness that has previously been lacking, already existing technologies enabling voice recognition and natural language translation will start to come together to ‘hide’ the complexities that scare so many systems engineers from deploying formal methods techniques. As far as the human side is concerned, at the risk of becoming a bit Hollywood, technologies illustrated in films like Minority Report are perhaps not too far off the mark, with big screens easily able to fetch, associate and display data, with easy, almost post-human navigation of files and folders. And jumping films for a moment, the Star Wars movies also provide some inspiration, where Jedi council meetings are held not only with the physical presence of individuals, but also with the 3D projections of individuals who are remotely located elsewhere. This would obviously enable people to be based anywhere in the world whilst being “physically” present elsewhere, in a three-dimensional way, building on current telecommunications capabilities. These are just some of the possibilities. The real question is, who will take the lead in breaking away from current systems engineering practices? Who will begin to fully realise the future?
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