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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Is part-time study worth it?

By ucaklmu, on 22 April 2014

Although there are some that choose to study full-time, most MSc Systems Engineering Management (SEM) students are professional engineers in full-time work. It’s not an easy option – balancing work, study and your home life – so why do it? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently as I am also in the middle of a part-time programme – in my case an MBA with the OU. Having taken an eighteen-month pause when starting with UCLse, it’s now time to get on and complete it.

Even though I’m just over half way through I still had a lot to think about in deciding to get back to it. After all, half way means at least another eighteen months of studying after work and at weekends – more, if I pace out the modules a bit. I have to admit I don’t think I’ve found a killer argument for doing this, though I’ve discussed it with a lot of people. Often the horror of having to put yourself through more exams is mentioned and it’s true that’s not greatly appealing. What I’ve found harder is the discipline of continuously doing the extra study throughout the course. A 15-credit module is equivalent to around 150 study hours. With work and personal life going on, that implies quite a commitment every week, even before you throw in some family holidays and life’s little hiccups (obviously, just how much depends on the length of the course).

Despite this, I’ve still been motivated to continue as I’ve found that there’s so much you get out of it even as you go along. I was initially surprised how much the study could have an immediate impact on what I was doing work-wise – and of course this only builds as time goes by and you get more experience. Though I didn’t know it when I started, I think that’s now one of the key justifications for me, in addition to having the qualification when I finish.

What do you think about the part-time study experience?

For more information about the MSc Systems Engineering Management course and how we support our part-time students:

Mission engineering for Sentinel 1

By Ian Raper, on 31 March 2014

This week will see the launch of Sentinel 1, a radar imaging satellite designed to deliver land and ocean monitoring services. If you would like to know more about the mission you can find that on ESA’s mission page https://earth.esa.int/web/guest/missions/esa-future-missions/sentinel-1

Before joining UCL I worked in the Earth Observation, Navigation and Science division of Astrium and I was heavily involved in the mission and systems engineering of Sentinel 1 in what is known as the Phase A-B1 studies. In ESA parlance Phase A is when the feasibility of a mission is studied. This primarily involves finalising the statement of need and proposing candidate solutions to meet the needs. Phase B is then the stage of coming up with a preliminary definition of the mission checking that the proposed solution will be able to meet technical requirements and that this can be done within schedule and budget. Phase B1 specifically delivers the system requirements that can be carried forward in the project.

One of the most important activities within these stages was the development of the Mission Operations Concept. This involves thinking through all of the periods of operation, so that is launch and early operations, nominal operations, non-nominal operations and eventually disposal. Thinking about how the mission is expected to operate in each of the periods really helps to define the mission architecture, i.e. the way the spacecraft, the launcher and all of the systems on ground that communicate with the spacecraft work together, and then helps ensure all the necessary requirements to enable the operations are captured.

The operations concept also proves to be a very useful communication tool between the many stakeholders involved in the project including the various technical experts from the customer, the industrial space segment team and the industrial ground segment team. By talking about how it is envisaged to operate the mission the various different viewpoints (e.g. the best way to do it from a spacecraft point of view and the best way to do it from a ground segment point of view) can be discussed and traded-off eventually leading to a decision that should work for everyone and delivers the mission objectives.

So for me the operations concept document is one of the most important systems engineering products and should be started at the earliest possible opportunity in a complex system project. It aids architectural definition and requirements capture but perhaps most importantly it facilitates better communication amongst the people designing and developing the system which should lead to a better outcome.

UCLse Twitter Q&A #AskUCLse

By ucaklmu, on 28 February 2014

Our social marketing droids were running dangerously hot this morning handling a raging Q&A session on twitter @UCLSe. Well, not that busy, but active enough. At the moment we don’t know how much better this is to putting out standard FAQ, so we are thinking about the next one. Here’s a summary of a couple of the more interesting questions, allowed to expand slightly over the 140 characters.

@AilsaPrise : what’s the difference between the established Systems Engineering Management MSc and the new MSc in Technology Management?

This is a good one as they are admittedly in a similar area, so it’s nice to clarify their distinctive features. The main difference in terms of content is in the research and coursework. The new MSc will include a group project in emerging technology (there’s no group project in SEM) – and it is expected that the individual dissertations will also have a different focus. Of course individual projects range quite a bit in topic in the MSc SEM already – but in the new MSc there’s not the need to remain so systems-focused, so it’ll be interesting to see how these research themes develop over time.

In terms of modules, those that are Core (i.e. must be completed during the programme) are different for both MScs, but otherwise students will initially study from the same Options menu – with the exception that there is the new Technology Strategy module in prep that is exclusive to the new MSc. In time we’ll be adding to this menu, but we expect that some modules will remain common to both programmes.

The biggest difference, however, is in terms of delivery. The MSc SEM is a modular/flexible programme and, though it can be studied in a full-time mode, it is designed to be completed part-time while working in industry. Typically students are required to have a few years industry experience in order to come on to the programme. However, MSc TM is full-time only and doesn’t require experience – it is designed to prepare students just starting their careers for employment.

@geoffpknott asked “what are you looking for in personal statements?”.

Marketing droid @whyndham_UCL, aka Matt, who supervises Admissions for our work unit, sees a lot of Personal Statements, and thinks there is a factory somewhere churning them out. So he tends to have strong views.

What he likes to see are some clear things that demonstrate that the applicant has read the prospectus and is applying to the right university (some applicants leave in the name of other institutions!), and has a career plan that looks like would benefit from the programme.

And then there’s an additional, difficult to define, perhaps ineffable factor. This certainly doesn’t come across in the boilerplate statements! It comes down to seeing a sense of commitment from the person making the application.

Systems thinking

By Michael Emes, on 19 February 2014

The term ‘system’ crops up all over the place. But what does it mean?

I like to think of it as a way of looking at something – a lens you can choose to look through when you are thinking about an object or a process in a particular way.

A bicycle is the same collection of metal parts (usually with a few bits of plastic, and if you are really lucky, carbon fibre) whether you call it a bike or a personal transportation system. But when we choose to use the term system, it implies that it’s no longer just a homogeneous object that is the same throughout; it’s an object made up of multiple parts that are connected in a way that means that the whole thing has emergent properties or behaviour that are not exhibited by the parts in isolation. For the bicycle, the parts of wheels, frame, handlebars, brakes, pedals, etc. have little value in isolation. But when put together according to a particular design, my bicycle ‘system’ has the emergent property of enabling me to propel myself in an incredibly efficient way.

In making the choice of how we see the system, we also need to specify a system boundary, which defines the scope of the system. This may seem trivial, but it’s particularly important to make sure we are clear about which parts we will develop or optimise, and what we are assuming about external interfaces. An interface challenge for the Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ aircraft is that it is simply too big to be accommodated in most airports.

There is no rule to say whether something is a system or not – it depends on your point of view at the time. When I’m talking to my kids about how they are going to get to school – scooter or bike – I don’t think in terms of systems. But when I am thinking about how to repair the bike or make it work better, the system lens becomes useful.

At UCL Centre for Systems Engineering, we apply systems thinking to understand how to improve the design of spacecraft instrumentation, asking questions like ‘what are the difficult interfaces’, ‘how much can we compromise on detector resolution to save a bit of mass’ and ‘how might the system fail’? But it’s not just technology that benefits from systems thinking – we also apply the systems view to soft systems in which people and processes are the major focus of attention. For example, we have recently been undertaking a study with a local hospital to understand the tensions between keeping frail elderly patients in the hospital and seeking an early discharge with support in the community.

Next time you use the term ‘system’, challenge yourself: what is happening inside the system? What are the component parts (or subsystems)? Where are the tricky interfaces? How does it change over time? What higher level ‘systems’ does it work within? When you start to think in these terms, you really are ‘systems thinking’.

IET accreditation awarded to UCLse MSc in Systems Engineering Management

By Simon Jackson, on 7 February 2014

Our MSc in Systems Engineering Management has been running for nearly 15 years with great success.  Throughout this time the course has evolved to meet the requirements of our students for a course that incorporates up to date material and is relevant to their careers.

One piece of feedback from current students, which we have recently acted on, was that if the course were accredited by the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) then it would help them achieve CEng registration.  In addition, some potential students have told us that they would be more likely to enrol if the course were accredited.

So over a year ago we embarked on a project to seek accreditation for the course.  It has been hard work, especially through the summer when we had to prepare all the evidence required and submit it to the IET.  Also, during this process we identified ways we could improve the course, which we have now implemented.

In November 2013, after reviewing our submission, a panel from the IET visited us to meet our staff and students and ask us lots of questions.  The panel “found it to be an excellent programme highly valued by the students, some of whom had senior positions in industry and found the material very relevant and useful” and “the programme is also highly valued by industry”.

We had a small number of requirements that needed to be addressed, which we responded to in an action plan, before we were told that our application had been successful.

As a course team, we are delighted to have achieved IET accreditation, as we hope will be the many past, present and future students who will benefit.

Systems thinking needed for sustainable solutions to flooding

By Ian Raper, on 27 January 2014

The Somerset levels are experiencing the worst flooding that residents can remember, and this event is gathering a lot of press coverage.

Clearly we are dealing with a ‘water system’ here with the input of the prolonged and heavy rainfall, the elements of the fields, drainage system and rivers and the outcome of the water level. It is good to see that the news coverage recognises that there is no simple solution to this and have elicited views from a range of stakeholders.

This has highlighted that calling for the obvious fix of dredging the rivers actually would not solve the system problem of preventing the flooding. Put simply the capacity of the rivers is not sufficient, even if dredged to increase capacity by 50%, to carry away the volume of water on the land fast enough to prevent flooding if the recent rainfall is repeated.

The RSPB, for example, are promoting the need to look at a range of measures which suggests a level of systems thinking to the problem. These include holding water in upstream catchment areas and releasing it slowly, allowing flood plains to do what they say, i.e. flood, and designing town rainwater drainage systems to delay rainfall being released.

This situation also highlights the human issue when confronted by a crisis. Human nature demonstrated in these circumstances seems to demand instant answers, someone to blame, and a quick fix. In the face of this pressure it is hard to maintain an unbiased and long term view of what needs to be done. But this is the challenge that systems thinkers must stand up to.

It is only by taking this systems view, and recognising that our man-made systems such as towns, farms and transport systems have to work within the bigger natural system, that we will reach sustainable solutions to these issues.

Welcome to the UCLse Blog

By Ian Raper, on 13 January 2014

This blog is owned by the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering (www.ucl.ac.uk/syseng). UCLse is a centre of excellence for Systems Engineering and the Management of Technology Projects. We balance the practical application of systems engineering in research and development projects with investigations into how to advance the practice.

This blog will contain posts from our staff on matters of interest to the world of systems engineering and technology management. We’re likely to cover thought pieces, basic principles and understanding, commentary on events in the world around us and matters related to education.

We are also active on twitter , LinkedIn and Facebook