Benjamin Franklin dubbed human beings homo faber, the animal that makes. We design and manufacture products, equipment, and devices that we can generally call systems. The space of application of these systems goes from the sea floor to outer space, in all industrial sectors.
At the sea bottom there is a nuclear submarine able to reach depths of 800 meters, and devices called Christmas trees installed at depths of up to 3,000 meters to extract gas and oil. At the surface there are vessels, if we’re on the ocean, or vehicles, industrial robots, high speed trains, quantum computers, electromedical equipment, cell phones with an infinite number of applications, meteorological radars, etc. on land. The air is filled with planes and drones, with satellites orbiting the Earth. In outer space, the rovers Mars Exploration Spirit and Opportunity are surveying the surface of Mars while the space probe Voyage 2 is exploring interstellar space.
What the design of those submarines, Christmas trees, Martian rovers, and space probes have in common is the discipline and methodology that allowed them to be invented and designed: systems engineering. Systems engineering is the process of analyzing needs and opportunities and designing and developing systems that efficiently and effectively satisfy them throughout their operational life. This is a discipline that arose at the end of the 1940s, as a result of the formidable challenges entailed by many of the programs of unprecedented complexity undertaken, e.g., the Apollo program.
If that spectrum vertically goes from the sea floor to outer space, horizontally, the spectrum goes through the industrial and professional spaces in which you can find the applications of systems engineering. The industrial sector or the size or complexity of the system to be developed does not matter. The characteristics of systems engineering, which include seeing the big picture, separating the domain of the problem from the domain of the solution, the existence of an objective and the importance of feedback (verification and validations), among others, make it the best way to analyze problems and opportunities in order to design the systems that provide users with the necessary or required capabilities.
Conventional engineering analyzes the design of certain types of systems (an aeronautical engineer will design devices that fly, while a marine engineer will design devices to be used on the ocean). However, true innovation arises when the type of solution to be invented is not determined in advance. By separating the domain of the problem from the domain of the solution, the definition of the capacities required for the new system is emphasized, without preconceptions of how they will be achieved. This does not mean that a systems engineer can design any system, from a submarine to a space probe. What they can do is successfully lead multi-disciplinary teams of experts in different areas that, in applying the systems engineering methodology, are able to translate the needs identified and the opportunities detected into systems that satisfy them. Systems engineers are usually experts in a specific area related to their initial educational background (they usually have degrees in a conventional engineering field), which they then develop into a bigger picture view through their extensive professional experience and a formal education in systems engineering. From the sea floor to outer space, and in any industrial sector, systems engineering is the best guarantee of success a professional can have to solve the increasingly complex challenges facing society.