Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SDM grad applies systems lessons to manufacturing, health care - SDM Pulse, Summer 2008

Harris Lieber, SDM ’02
By Harris Lieber, SDM ’02

One of the most rewarding aspects of going through the MIT System Design and Management Program is the broad applicability of the lessons I learned. After many years at Ford Motor Company, in January 2007 I took a job as systems engineer at Bayer Healthcare Diabetes Care. I am happy to report that the skills I acquired at MIT are as applicable to health care as they were to the automotive industry.

When I arrived at MIT, I was already on the path toward a career in managing engineering tradeoffs between disciplines and taking a systems view of product development. I graduated in 1996 with a BA in engineering sciences and a bachelor of engineering, and then proceeded to get my master’s in engineering management in 1997, all from Dartmouth College.

My first job out of school was at Ford, and I was working on the electric power train of Ford’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicles when I joined the SDM program in 2002. After I graduated from MIT, I first officially held the title of systems engineer, working on a team developing an electric transaxle for a new generation of hybrid electric vehicles.

At Bayer, I am responsible for trading off interests of different functional groups, external partners, and suppliers, as well as making engineering tradeoffs. I evaluate the advantages of the lowest cost solution for a particular problem versus modular or platform architecture that can be flexible enough to optimize overall cost and development time for future expansion opportunities.

While Bayer may be most famous in this country for aspirin, it has a long history in the diabetes care business. Today, Bayer Healthcare Diabetes Care is one of the largest self-test diagnostic businesses in the world, with customers in 100 countries. Our products include two families of blood glucose meter systems and PC-based diabetes management software.

As small, portable consumer electronic devices become more ubiquitous, Bayer has become more focused on the design of our products and the overall user experience. Music players, PDAs, and cell phones concentrate on industrial design, touch and feel, and integration with their customers’ personal computers and other devices. We are taking our products in the same direction. The biggest challenge is that we cannot allow safety, accuracy, and ease of use to suffer as a result of improving these other attributes.

In my experience, the practice of systems engineering in the health-care field is similar in many ways to its practice in the automotive industry. The engineering practices of requirements management and risk management are used in both industries.

However, the influence of a systems engineer on the final product is, in my experience, very different. At Ford, two to six engineers were responsible for systems engineering on a very complicated subsystem of a vehicle. The subsystem sometimes fit into a platform that was already on the market and sometimes a totally new vehicle, but we always designed with very tight constraints. At Bayer, one systems engineer is responsible for two to six total product systems. The systems are far less complicated than a whole vehicle, but I deal with and understand the larger issues of product development and product marketing that were obscured by several layers of system design at Ford. I find that the systems engineer has far more influence over the final product at Bayer.

If there is one way in particular that my nine years at Ford prepared me for my career in the health-care industry, it is in the practice of failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA). This practice was an integral part of Ford’s system of robust product design, and it is also relied on heavily at Bayer.

The core courses of the SDM program definitely prepared me for life as a systems engineer. In particular, systems engineering and systems architecture are applicable everyday. I even found myself illustrating an architecture problem with an object process model, which I’ll admit I didn’t expect while taking Professor Ed Crawley’s class in system architecture. In addition, three classes I would highly recommend for anyone who wants to go into systems engineering in a product development environment are product design and development, manufacturing processes and systems, and entrepreneurship lab.

Looking ahead, I think the SDM program could focus more on the regulatory impact on systems design. At Bayer, I have learned a great deal about how health-care products are regulated, and I have had to become very familiar with the applicable standards and directives. Identifying the applicable standards for a product and understanding the design impact of those standards is a large part of my responsibility; identifying the correct requirements to meet the standards and protect the end user’s safety without over-constraining a product design is a challenge for every project.

Another area of great concern in the health-care industry is product and system risk management. Two techniques we use extensively at Bayer are FMEA and top-down hazard analysis as detailed in ISO 14971 (an international standard). There is a lot of work going on at MIT on managing risk, as evidenced by a risk management conference at MIT which I attended in March. The conference was cosponsored by the SDM program and several ESD faculty members gave fascinating presentations. I particularly appreciated the presentations by Professors Nancy Leveson and Olivier de Weck, which addressed new methods of more robustly quantifying and managing system risk. These professors’ work will make an excellent base for SDM theses in the health-care field.

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