An Introduction to Systems Engineering

Author: Dr Liam Critchley

As computing and other technologies advance, new ways of working come into play. One such example is systems engineering, which has gained a lot of usage across many engineering disciplines and factors in a multi-disciplinary approach to designing, and re-designing, new systems. In this article, we look at what systems engineering is and how it used in across the engineering space.

What is Systems Engineering?

First, let’s look at the definition of a system from an engineering perspective. A system is an engineered construction that fills a specific need which cannot be obtained by just using each element individually. Only the collective sum of the parts can produce the desired result using the known internal requirements of the desired system.

Systems engineering is an integrative discovery process which encompasses both engineering and engineering management to aid in the creation and management of new systems. In essence, systems engineering is a way to solve the complex problems facing today’s society and is a commercial construct that addresses the needs of a customer. It is also a full-cycle approach that not only has to account for the initial design, but also the manufacturing, operational and disposal factors.

In taking this approach to solving a problem, the process needs to factor in all the relevant elements of the system, including the hardware, software, firmware, people, information, techniques, facilities and services.


How Systems Engineering Works

There are four common principles to developing a new system. These are holistic, multidisciplinary, integrated/value-driven, and long-term/life-cycle oriented principles. Aside from these principles, there is a logical step-wise order to achieve an efficient system. This order commonly takes the form of identifying the problem, followed by investigating any potential alternatives, modelling the system, integrating the system, launching the system, assessing the performance of the system, re-evaluating and applying necessary variations to the system.

Holistic principles consider the whole system from both a technical and non-technical point of view. This can include any performance criterion, as well as the impact on society and human factors. The multidisciplinary principle incorporates engineering, natural, computational and social science factors to address the needs of the customer and/or stakeholders. Integrated and value-driven principles also consider the impact of the end user or stakeholder. Finally, the long-term principle essentially evaluates the ‘cradle-to-grave life’ of the system. The complexity, uncertainty and heterogeneity of the system are also factors that are considered when engineering a new system.

A way in which system engineering should be perceived to work, is as a method. A method which can utilize and identify common rules within existing systems and apply these rules to novel systems. In short, it should be seen as an engineering decision process which utilizes the above principles.

Applications of Systems Engineering

Because it is an interdisciplinary field, systems engineering can be used in a wide range of engineering industries. There are some fields which are prominent than others and it is these fields that have collectively helped system engineering methods to gain widespread usage with engineering professionals. As such, you can’t really say where it has specific ‘applications’, although it plays a major part in the transport, health, food, finance, security, military, education, aerospace, social and energy sectors.

The fields that have contributed to the success of systems engineering and use it the most include cognitive systems engineering, configuration management, control engineering, industrial engineering, interface design, mechatronic engineering, reliability engineering, safety engineering and software engineering, to name a few.

What Next

The extended access to big data from sensors, together with concepts and technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, offers an opportunity for system engineering to grow and expand. The bottom line is that SE should move from being focused on documents to an approach being driven by data (from D to D). This transition involves new and old disciplines such as computer simulations, statistically derived design and operational spaces, multivariate process control and monitoring, prognostic health management, complexity management and performance evaluation methodologies. A transition from D to D is posing a range of analytic challenges including sophisticated predictive analytics, data integration accounting for information generated at various levels of form, resolution and speed. Questions that need to be considered regard the evaluation of high level and detailed designs, setting up of test suites in parallel with system development and advanced support to decision making providing an indication of impact of alternative scenarios. These questions relate to the design of alpha and beta tests and the proper analysis of feedback from field tracking studies.

Want to Know More?

Whether or not you already knew about how systems engineering processes work, or if this article has opened your eyes to new possibilities, there is a way to gain a fundamental understanding of system engineering processes in today’s market.

Wiley & Sons are set to release a new book titled “Systems Engineering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: How Big Data and Novel Technologies Affect Modern Systems Engineering”. It has been constructed by leading figures in the field and investigates how systems engineering has evolved over the last 70 years to keep up with the changes in technology. It is a sure read for anyone who is interested in how system engineering can be adapted to keep up with today’s technology and consumer demands.

Another forthcoming book by Wiley on a related topic is “Analytic Methods in Systems and Software Testing” (


Loughborough University:
Warwick University: