Defining and embedding Systems Engineering at HTSC

The S in HTSC is rather important; on the one hand it designates the focus area of the center (high-tech systems) while on the other it reflects the systems engineering approach the center proposes taking for its research and design activities on high-tech systems. This focus is rather explicitly spelled out in our vision document. The following two citations convey this:

  • More complex systems call for multi-disciplinary fundamental research and proven practices in the synthesis and design of technically advanced systems.
  • Systems engineering is the keyword at the High Tech Systems Center. We will teach and innovate the system design and synthesis of complex equipment, instruments, robotic systems, manufacturing systems and systems-of-systems.

On the agenda

Now, the fact that systems engineering is so explicitly part of our strategy does not imply it has already been thought out completely. Stimulated by our advisory board and by a key customer, we have put the topic quite prominent on our agenda for this year. Also, the TU/e board has put the topic of “systems thinking” on their agenda for this year. With such focus, we will see progress. Let’s give you an update on some our current insights. We would like to welcome you, both as a reader of this article as well as a stakeholder in the discussion, to share your own ideas and experiences!

“Systems engineering is a consistent, interdisciplinary approach for developing multidisciplinary systems. Not only does it address the system to be developed, but also the associated project.


Systems engineering is very multifaceted. It originates from systems theory and has been evolving steadily. The catalyst was always the increased complexity of problems. The current research topics Industry 4.0 and Cyber-Physical Systems are significant driving forces behind systems engineering.” [3]

Training in design

At the moment much of the training of bachelor, graduate, PDEng and PhD students focuses on the scientific side of engineering, i.e., analysis. This is not specific for TU/e, but has been recognized more broadly and internationally. For a balanced systems engineering approach, also the design side of engineering, i.e., synthesis, is required. I would like to invite you to read a very nice paper on this topic, based on a lecture by one of NASA’s distinguished systems engineers [1]. A first task of HTSC will be to help bring some balance by promoting more attention for design training. Given the development of university focus as mentioned, the involvement of industrial systems engineers and system designers is crucial to achieve this balance.

Connection software discipline

A second important focus area is the connection of the (embedded) software discipline to the other disciplines relevant for machine design. We have seen many disciplines operate under the umbrella of mechatronics (even called mechaphysics by some), but the discipline of embedded software engineering has not always been well connected. This is, however, crucial – and will become even more so. Much of the value-added functionality in high-tech systems already is or will be implemented in (embedded) software. A modern car already contains 100 million lines of code [2]! The complexity of the (embedded) software will increasingly drive the complexity of our engineered systems and we’ll need a systems engineering approach inclusive of the software discipline to manage it. 

Our focus

These two focus areas should be addressed in the context of model based systems engineering. According to a study by Heinz Nixdorf Institut and Fraunhofer IPT, we should not expect a unification of engineering models (supporting “domain-spanning system architecting”) to happen any time soon [3]. Nevertheless, we see it as an important dot on the horizon. For now, we will develop ways in which the systems engineering approach can handle multiple, significantly different models, such as event based descriptions for supervisory control and state-space descriptions for motion control. Training of students in both the general principles as well as the various flavors of system modeling, is a necessary ingredient.

At HTSC, we are now focusing on translating these three aspects into a practical implementation at the center and the university. As a fellow at HTSC, I have picked up the responsibility for systems engineering and I’ll keep you posted – in the meantime you’re always welcome to get in touch.

Ton Peijnenburg

[1]   System Engineering and the “Two Cultures” of Engineering, Michael D. Griffin, Administrator National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Boeing Lecture, Purdue University, 28 March 2007 (retrieved from
[2]   Infographic on code bases:
[3]   Systems engineering in industrial practice, Heinz Nixdorf Institut (Universität Paderborn), Fraunhofer IPT and UNITY consulting & innovation, 2015 (retrieved from