Aerospace Design and Structures

Systems engineers draw lessons from artistry

The Systems Engineering Technical Committee supports efforts to define, develop and disseminate modern systems engineering practices.

It is not uncommon for the lifecycle of complex engineered systems to span decades. This presents a problem because systems engineering, or SE, at its core is a set of tools to design and manage these complex systems over their respective lifecycles. Currently, testing SE tools quickly requires modeling that can simulate the lifecycle of systems.

In searching for a more innovative method to evaluate SE tools, researchers turned to artistic fields in 2018 because of their analogous natures. According to Bryan Mesmer, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the arts provide “a short time span, wide availability and similar human interactions” to complex systems. Researchers can compare the lifecycle of a complex engineered system to the creation of an oil painting or symphony, for example.

The creative process for an artist writing a symphony involves many of the hallmarks known in complex systems: networks, human capital, schedules and more. The obvious differences between artistic projects and engineering projects are their subject matter and their time scales. However, imagine if the techniques, processes and lessons can be generalized from the arts and applied to engineering. In 2018 researchers tested new SE tools on arts projects to increase maturity and confidence prior to using them with engineered systems.

“You can refine a new process over five or 10 lifecycles when you apply the process to an art project,” said Mesmer, “whereas it is difficult to test a new theory over the lifecycle of a new aircraft.”

This year, there was a marked increase in the field’s focus on the arts as a proxy for engineered systems. “We really think this niche in systems engineering will develop into a viable incubator for lifecycle thinking,” said Alejandro Salado, an assistant professor of systems engineering at Virginia Tech. Salado’s early 2018 research analyzed master painter techniques that could be transferred into use by systems architects to reduce system complexity. Virginia Tech led this field’s innovation with an SE course that is taught like a studio art class. The course started in August at the beginning of the fall term.

Systems Engineering experts posed a key question in 2018: As systems grow increasingly more complex, will SE ideas grow in complexity also, or will a new approach gain momentum? For those studying the link to the arts, it will be the simplicity and creativity from the arts that aids decision-makers when solving SE problems.

In April, researchers on a project at the University of Alabama in Huntsville took a novel approach to improve stakeholder preference communications. The research team analyzed effective storytelling elements that could be adopted by engineering managers to better communicate stakeholder preferences. The research found that backstory structure in case studies does not significantly affect reader performance but does impact case study length. Another project this year focused on the ways in which filmmaking techniques can improve how systems engineers view and illustrate models through model based systems engineering.

An example from theater productions compares the milestones known in SE to those that are accomplished in theater. Think about everything engineers can learn from surrogates. The system requirements review becomes an apt stand-in for pre-production steps of casting and script refinement in a theater production. Similarly the preliminary design review and the critical design review mimic a play’s early rehearsing and later dress rehearsals. Perhaps the SE field can learn from the mistakes a theater production makes and apply those lessons to a complex engineered system.

“Solving systems engineering challenges through the lens of the arts is such a compellingly simple approach,” said Mesmer, “that it just might work.” He added, “The past year has set us off in a new direction.”

Photo: Understanding the functioning of an orchestra could help systems engineers be more effective. Orchestras are complex, low-cost proxies that are hierarchical, involve multiple disciplines and have a lifecycle. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Systems engineers draw lessons from artistry