Part 2. Towards multi-disciplinary research & development

In the latest newsletter, a series of articles was started on Systems Engineering and HTSC. In the first article, the need for systems engineering was explained and focus was put on two aspects. First, the fact that design is a balance between analysis and synthesis was discussed, and how that balance needs to be restored in training new engineers. Secondly, the gap between the worlds of embedded software development and the other disciplines like mechanical and electrical engineering was identified and the need for closing this gap quickly.

Focus on the need

In this second article, focus will be on the need for multi-disciplinary research and development. The design of new technological systems has to address various technological disciplines at the same time, and requires teams that are set up to effectively and efficiently do this.

When I started my career at Philips Center for Industrial Technology back in 1992, I joined the mechatronics department of Jan van Eijk and was quickly trained in what mechatronics was about. Essentially, it was about collaboration between specialists who were familiar with each other’s existence, and who respected each other’s competences as being equally relevant for the design of mechatronic systems of the future. A mechatronics course program was developed at the time, where each specialist would teach newcomers about their specific field of activity. Understanding each other’s field and language is the basis for respect, which in turn is the basis for successful collaboration. Figure 1 shows a sketch of such a multi-disciplinary team.

In some cases, misunderstanding has developed over what a multi-disciplinary team is. Figure 2 shows another type of team, where each of the members has a broad understanding but misses in-depth knowledge of one (or more) specific areas of expertise. The team covers the required topics, but misses thorough understanding and is therefore not as effective as the previous team. It either has to consult with specialists on specific topics, which sacrifices efficiency of the team, or (which is worse) it is blind for their lack of knowledge, which also compromises effectivity.

Multi-disciplinary and still achieve depth and excellency

A key finding is that multi-disciplinary teams are actually groups of specialists; the fact that a team operates on multiple disciplines does not sacrifice the depth of understanding of single topics, or the excellence on such topics. It is this key notion that is the basis under the multidisciplinary working that TU/e High Tech Systems Center promotes; rather than training researchers and designers to become multidisciplinary themselves, we will train them to work in a multi-disciplinary way – as part of a team – but still achieve depth and excellent on their individual topics.

"A team operates on multiple disciplines does not sacrifice the depth of understanding of single topics, or the excellence on such topics."

Recently, this combination of depth in a certain field, combined with multi-disciplinary awareness and ability to communicate, has been described as a T-shape profile – which may be obvious when looking at the figures in this article and Figure 3. In addition to the T-shape, also the Π-shape is used to indicate that not one, but two in-depth knowledge areas should be part of an engineer’s profile. One can also use the M-shape – which makes a direct connotation to multi-disciplinarity.

In a discussion on this topic with a colleague at TU/e, I was made aware of another implication. When taking the perspective of company culture, specialization is key, not only in mono - but also in multi-disciplinary research & development activities. Companies should keep this in mind when selecting, leading but also rewarding their employees.