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MIT Engineering Systems:
Answering the Challenges of a Complex World

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 2004

The engineering profession today faces a number of unprecedented challenges, many reflecting the changed context in which engineers practice. It is no longer enough to design a product or a system without accounting for the world in which it will operate.

Today, many large-scale, extraordinarily complicated systems call out for a systems-driven engineering approach. Just consider a few of these critical systems challenges:

  • redesigning transportation systems such as airline, rail, and urban highway systems that have increasingly reached their capacity and created enormous delays;
  • using information technologies to create products that are more timely, less expensive and increasingly responsive to consumer needs;
  • reconciling the inevitable growth in world-wide energy demand with potential environmental costs;
  • creating product development systems that address the full spectrum of conceiving, designing, and developing a new product; and
  • developing manufacturing systems that are more attuned to the human impacts they generate, from wage attenuation and job losses to dislocations linked to globalization.

At MIT, our role is to help meet these and other societal needs, through leadership grounded in technical excellence and innovation. Indeed, we feel an obligation to focus our attention on addressing these challenging issues. We believe that the converging forces of increased system complexity and the social impact of technology -- combined with a need for increased leadership by engineers -- create opportunities for new directions in engineering education and practice. The most successful engineers must possess superb professional skills as engineers, including a keen understanding of social, regulatory, environmental, cultural, and other forces. In short . . . we need Engineering Systems.

How can we educate today's engineers for such unprecedented challenges?

Today, MIT is continuing to redefine and advance engineering education to prepare leaders for academic, industry, and public service, leaders who can effectively tackle the world's system challenges. To do so, we are engaging several of our departments as well as our interdisciplinary Engineering Systems Division (ESD), combining the strengths of engineering, management, and the social sciences in this critical area.

MIT has already created several relevant professional programs that educate engineers to take a broader view of the field and become leaders in engineering and society. These programs include the Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM), the Technology and Policy Program (TPP), the Master of Engineering in Logistics (MLOG), and the System Design and Management Program (SDM).

On the undergraduate level, the School of Engineering is broadening the undergraduate curriculum with programs such as the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), to teach our students the practical aspects of engineering, including a systems perspective. As another example, the Conceive Design Implement and Operate program (CDIO) brings a systems perspective to what an Aeronautical/Astronautical engineer does. And, Civil and Environmental Engineering offers related programs examining the effect of technology on the environment. These initiatives, in tandem with our professional programs, mean that a wide range of our graduates will play leadership roles in creating, designing and managing engineering systems.

Additionally, ESD has created new Master's and PhD programs in engineering systems. And, recently, the National Science Foundation awarded MIT $2.97 million to launch an innovative, multidisciplinary program that will provide graduate students with the expertise to assess the economic, security, environmental, and ethical consequences of emerging technologies.

How can we shape the development of new knowledge in Engineering Systems?

By integrating the knowledge, analytical tools, and values of multiple disciplines, we anticipate new, comprehensive solutions to systems challenges to emerge.

Engineering Systems is pervasive throughout the School of Engineering, with anchors in the Aeronautics and Astronautics, Civil and Environmental, and Mechanical Engineering departments, and the Engineering Systems Division.

Within the departments, the focus of Engineering Systems is context-dependent. For example, Civil and Environmental Engineering is concentrating on urban transportation issues, including a new effort in "sustainable transportation," transportation that contributes to a sustainable society, has a minimal impact on the environment, and functions over long time periods. Mechanical Engineering is conducting research on manufacturing technology and systems. One example seeks to create a mathematical model of the entire manufacturing system, working in partnership with major automobile manufacturers.

In Aeronautics and Astronautics, the analysis of systems examines things that fly, such as satellites, airplanes, and communications systems. As another example, MIT is partnering with members from other universities, industry and government to identify solutions for present and future aircraft noise and emissions-related problems. Thus, the engineering system in question could be a complex airplane, such as the 777, or it could be the industry overall. [For an example of Engineering Systems in aerospace, see our video on the Lean Aerospace Initiative.]

Formed in 1998, the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) is conducting research that is more generic than the departmental approaches. For example, ESD researchers examine systems issues that apply to many applied settings, such as manufacturing, communications, or transportation. In addition, in partnership with MIT's Sloan School of Management and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the ESD will often address broad social, political and management issues in an industrial context. ESD's Engineering Systems Learning Center serves as a repository and enabler for cases, simulators, and other educational material on complex systems. Also, several research centers in the School, including the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development (CTPID), the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), and the Operations Research Center (ORC), conduct research involving complex technical systems.

By creating outstanding educational programs in Engineering Systems, the School of Engineering is educating a new generation of leaders who will change our world. By conducting fundamental and applied research in Engineering Systems -- leading to textbooks, research papers, and learning modules -- the School is creating a body of knowledge that will play a vital role in the world's future, a knowledge base that will affect the very technical, economic, and social fabric of our society.