In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the southeast coast of Japan. The nuclear reactors at Fukushima survived the earthquake; they were designed to. But the earthquake triggered a tsunami, which flooded the back-up generators in the reactor complex basement. Without power, the cooling pumps couldn’t function. Without cooling water, the reactor rods melted down and contaminated the local countryside. The system failed because the interaction of the parts was not fully understood.
Systems Engineering (SE) was created to address this challenge, its roots in the space programs of the 1950s and 60’s. It plays a role in the development process from the earliest “whiteboard” conceptual architecture to final product documentation. It tries to answer some basic questions:
- What is the purpose of the system?
- How does it work?
- Who are its users?
- How does it interact with its environment?
- What constraints must it obey?
But, too often, the SE effort has not been well integrated into the rest of the engineering process. It winds up in a reactive role rather than encouraging creativity and cross-communication.
Now, organizations are adopting SE as a core component of their strategic approach to innovation. Their goals are to speed up the product development cycle while reducing error and redesign. This is widespread in aerospace, defense and automotive, where SE has strong historical roots, but increasingly in fields like energy, consumer products and biomedical devices.
To achieve this, systems engineering must be tied more closely to existing engineering tools for design, analysis and simulation. Most critically, it must be integrated with Product Lifecycle Management (PLM). Like SE, PLM operates across the full range of engineering disciplines, but with a different objective. PLM is concerned with the coordinated development, maintenance and use of all relevant engineering information in the entire distributed product lifecycle. SE is concerned with specification of the system architecture and its performance against requirements. Combined, they can help create a clear understanding of complex systems.
InterCAX LLC has released SLIM (System Lifecycle Management), an advanced software tool that takes advantage of the synergy between SE and PLM. SLIM gives system engineers more opportunity to share information with the rest of the development team, while expanding the reach and user base of the organization’s PLM infrastructure.
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