Sunday, March 06, 2011

Systems Engineering and Technology Insertion

Manufacturing constitutes about 12% of the UK economy compared to 25% of the German economy. There's no need to lose any sleep over this, however, because with the assistance of the East Midlands Development Agency, the UK now has a Systems Engineering Innovation Centre:

The Systems Engineering Innovation Centre at Loughborough focuses on systems engineering aspects which provide a framework for the integration of people, processes, tools and technology in order to improve the management of risk, product configuration and technology insertion for the development of innovative products.

Systems Engineering is an attempt to uplift engineering from a concrete, practical activity, into the information economy. It is predicated on the notion that because complex engineering projects are really 'systems of systems', it is necessary to create a separate discipline, with its own group of practitioners, which specialises in the abstract, top-down analysis of engineering projects in terms of requirements, capabilities and stakeholders, abstracted from concrete engineering issues.

One thing Systems Engineering has been very successful at is codifying the blindingly obvious, and transforming it into self-important acronyms and obscure management-theory language.

Consider technology insertion, one of the phrases used above to define the remit of the UK's Systems Engineering Innovation Centre. What could this possibly mean, given that engineering is all about technology anyway? What else could an engineering project consist of? Literary criticism perhaps? Fortunately, the University of Bath School of Management are at hand to provide a definition:

Technology insertion is achieved through managing supply networks whose business plans and supply interfaces are aligned to a system-level capability to insert technological upgrades into existing complex platforms.

So it's about buying new components to upgrade an existing system? Thank goodness we've been able to codify that. David Kirkpatrick of the Royal United Services Institute is able to offer further insight into this difficult concept:

Both military and industrial opinion has increasingly supported a policy of 'technology insertion' (TI) by which ageing weapon systems can be rejuvenated by successive injections of advanced technology to enhance system effectiveness and/or to reduce operating and support costs. The term 'technology insertion' can be used to describe minor improvements, in which one subsystem is replaced by a more modern version with essentially the same functionality, and also to describe major upgrades (such as the mid-life upgrades of some warship and combat aircraft) which transform the weapon system and its military capabilities. In either case the TI must be carefully designed to achieve satisfactory spatial, mechanical, electrical and electronic interfaces with the original weapon system.

Note that we've now got an acronym, TI, so this must be an important and profound idea. We've also got a proposed list of the requirements for successful TI: "it must achieve satisfactory spatial, mechanical, electrical and electronic interfaces with the original...system."

Golly. This means that a new component must actually function when it's fitted to the existing system. In particular, it must achieve a satisfactory spatial interface. I think that means it has to fit. If it's bigger than the space available for it, then it's no good brother.

But why does this list of requirements only speak of mechanical, electrical and electronic interfaces? Surely if we're going to explicitly codify the obvious, then we need to be exhaustive? Hence, there's the thermodynamic interface to think about; if the new component generates more heat than the old one, then you could be in trouble brother. And let's not forget the vibratory and shock interface; the new component might not be able to withstand the thumps and bangs the old one was capable of withstanding. And what about the radiation interface? Can the new component tolerate the electromagnetic interference from the rest of the system, and will it generate some interference of its own?

It's a good job that Systems Engineers are available to explain this type of thing, and the East Midlands Development Agency certainly aren't wasting tax-payers' money in this respect.

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