Monday, June 2, 2008

MIT-University of Cambridge workshop to focus on engineering change - SDM Pulse, Summer 2008

Professor Olivier de Weck
By Lois Slavin, MIT SDM communications director

When SDM ’06 alumna Monica Giffin examined radar systems development for her MIT thesis, she began with approximately 41,500 engineering changes requested over an eight-year period.

“The sheer volume of change requests is daunting (from the perspective of someone trying to understand them), and the relationships between the requests started out as complex and became more convoluted from there. By the time you hand a system over to the end users the complexity goes through the roof because as you develop, integrate, test, and field the system, every bug fix, every change, and every added bit of functionality has the potential to cascade into many additional and unforeseen accompanying changes,” said Giffin, a systems engineer at Raytheon. “We know it happens, we try to keep it from happening, but still we can't prevent it.”

On October 30-31, 2008, a workshop titled “Engineering Change” will be held at MIT’s Endicott House for representatives from industry and academia to address the critical need for industry to deal more effectively with the impact of engineering changes on existing products and systems. During the two-day US workshop, attention will be focused on a systems approach that embraces the technical, managerial, and social components of engineering change. A major takeaway for MIT—in cooperation with University of Cambridge—is to develop the research agenda and theoretical foundations in the areas of design for changeability and engineering change management.

Monica Giffin, SDM ’06
A UK workshop on this topic was conducted in April 2008 at Trinity Hall College, University of Cambridge. Both the UK and the US workshops were organized by Professors Olivier de Weck and Richard de Neufville at MIT’s Engineering Systems Division with Professor John Clarkson, Dr. Claudia Eckert and Dr. Rene Keller at the University of Cambridge. According to de Weck, working with Giffin on her thesis, “Change Propagation in Large Technical Systems,” was the inspiration for his involvement.

Understanding how to predict, engineer, and manage change is critical to competing successfully, whether in evolving existing products and platforms or developing new ones, according to de Weck, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems. Change management will become increasingly important as the pace for customization in the global marketplace continues to accelerate.

Giffin says her research was intended to provide a better understanding of what actually transpires in industry. “The ‘holy grail’ of the research would result in creating tools or methodologies that help predict, or at least better manage, change propagation from the start,” she said. “That would save enormous amounts of time and money. The benefits can only increase as we conjure up ever larger and more intricate systems.”

Most complex products and systems are designed by modifying existing products and systems, de Weck explained, in order to limit the risk associated with product innovation and to reduce the complexity of the development process. Changes to existing products are also integral to the life cycle of all products—companies make changes to eradicate problems, make improvements, and to respond to evolving customer needs.

“In carrying out such changes companies are anxious to avoid unnecessary knock-on effects to other parts of the products, especially those where the design is already complete,” de Weck said.

When faced with the need to evolve existing offerings, product developers often approach the task in a linear
way that can be problematic, de Weck said. In these instances, there is usually an opportunity to use a “clean sheet” approach similar to that used for a new product. “The reality is more complex,” he warned, “because the questions that need to be asked for next generation products are often different than those asked for the first generation.”

With a new product designers gather requirements, assess market needs, develop concepts, select one, evolve the prototype, test, then go to market. The reality for evolving existing products involves asking what to keep or change, such as requirements for meeting new emissions and crash standards or the preferences of new market segments.

Many companies, such as Xerox and Boeing, focus on how to integrate new technologies into an existing product to achieve a greater state of optimization and are actively engaged in planning for change and avoiding any unintended “knock-on” impacts.

Many decisions seem to be driven by organizational issues, not just technical and financial ones, de Weck says. “Perhaps surprisingly, while the challenges of engineering change have long been recognized as an issue by companies, academia has only realized its importance relatively recently and is still developing the research agenda and theoretical foundations in the areas of design for changeability and engineering change management.”

Giffin noted that a major learning from her thesis is that change propagation happens not just within a physically or technically connected system, but within an organization’s socio-political systems as well. “Seemingly minor changes in the language used in the political arena to discuss a system can change the interpretation of operational policies, and eventually cascade all the way down to hardware and software changes,” she said.

“Many decisions seem to be driven by organizational issues, not just technical and financial ones,” de Weck agreed. “The intersection of engineering, management, and social science has not yet been fully addressed, so an engineering systems approach is needed.”

Giffin, who will be attending the October “Engineering Change” workshop, said she would like to work with attendees to address an area not covered in her thesis—the “people” network issue. “From my observations, the tremendous impact that particular people who participate in a given change have on the final outcome is often due to their role in the social network, rather than their technical savvy,” she said. “There is a large amount of data (that I gathered for my thesis but have yet to mine from this particular perspective) from which I can hopefully tease out some of those threads.”

The MIT-University of Cambridge workshop on engineering change is an invitation-only event. For information on attending, please contact SDM Industry Codirector John M. Grace, jmgrace@mit.edu, 617.253.2081.

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