Systems Thinking and the Electronics Engineer

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A few weeks ago I was wondering if there are any systems thinking training for electronics engineers is available. I am a member of the IEEE. I’ve been on and off (mostly off) for a very long time. The IEEE has two courses that appear when the term “systems thinking” is requested:

  • Humanities and Sustainability at IEEE
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives on humanitarian action and sustainable development

Immediately it rubs me wrong. These results suggest that systems thinking is only an aspect of “humanitarian” or “sustainable” technology development. You know the extra things that hug a tree. Now that I was much younger, I attended many Grateful Dead concerts, so I know something about tree hugs.

But systems thinking is much more than that. In the case of e-design, it considers the interdependence of the product with, for example, design tools, sources of supply, environment and uses, conditions after use and so on.

An introduction to systems thinking is used here in the second year, above. Although it in itself has a certain value, it has no direct bearing on electronic products, their specifications, design or production. Compared to the video of the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (ACS GCI) on this topic, it is a swing and a miss for the IEEE training course. Watch a short video of ACS GCI; despite the chemistry and the environment, it is almost entirely applicable to electronics because it is all about product development.

You can either design the product with only the inputs and outputs that start and end at the product’s interface with the outside world, or you can consider all the systems that will lead this product to implementation as well as the environment in which the product will coexist. By “environment” I mean the technical, financial and physical spheres. Incorporating this extended perspective into the product lifecycle management process will result in a more reliable product.

I was looking EE Times for “systems thinking” and received two hits:

  • April 20, 2004: “Dean Needs Change in Engineering Education” – Roman Unnicrishnan, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California-Fullerton, said that the education of “useful engineers” should include “basic knowledge in software, nanoelectronics , biological sciences and systems thinking ”.
  • February 22, 2019: “The Age of Data Requires Systems Thinking” – Gurtay Sandhu, senior researcher at Micron Technology, doesn’t really describe “systems thinking”, but the whole article demonstrates the result along with solid advice: “Don’t be afraid to go beyond the comfort zone to experts in other disciplines to explore new ideas. Any of these ideas could lead to the next big breakthrough. ”

Just two strokes. EE Times published continuously since 1972; I don’t think all of its production is online, but at least for the last 20 years you can search. The topic deserves more attention (although my son, who received an ECE master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer engineering this year) believes that much of what Unicrisnan said in 2004 is still valid today if the coursework is chosen correctly.

So, this is the third article in 20 years.

Examples where systems thinking should play a role but often do not play, of course, abound. For example, you can design an electronic product using a single source of production for each component. But this ignores the constant risk of supply constraints caused by surges in demand, natural disasters, geopolitics, pandemics. Given the system of interaction of product design with supply sources and in addition how these sources may be violated, the engineer can expand design considerations to take into account supply constraints by identifying more sources, redesigning the scheme to use more multi-components from sources and so on. Systems thinking forces the search for components – and thus production – to be made more sustainable.

For example, in a treatise on component development written 20 years ago, I mention just such a catastrophic product design that I encountered in my first consulting project. While I was tasked with identifying processes and procedures that would allow the company to avoid this kind of problem (among other things) in the future, the rest of the company spent a huge amount of time, money and energy that should not have been needed to allow bulk production.

Similarly, various aspects of product design can be optimized by considering external and structural realities and reducing them to certain design rules. In the same article, I also mentioned the design of a network switch, which tried to functionally optimize each partition of the product separately, using seven different memory devices from five separate manufacturers. Meanwhile, the competitor’s product was optimized as a holistic system and used a single memory device from multiple sources. The latter won the turning point of the day war.

Thinking more broadly and at a higher level allows you to make a more robust design. This is “systemic thinking” in a nutshell. Governments and markets continue to force this expansion to cover areas (such as the impact of electronics on the environment and human health) that the vast majority of us have not even thought about at the turn of the millennium.

Thus, the definition of what is considered “reliable” evolves over time.

More on this topic next month.

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