A Synopsis of CSER 2019 (Conference on Systems Engineering Research)

Thoughts from the Conference on Systems Engineering Research (CSER) held last week at the National Press Club in Washington DC.  

By Christian Manilli


As many of you may know the CSER was organized by the Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC), the University-Affiliated Research organization of the US Department of Defense.  The SERC leverages the research and expertise of senior researchers from 22 universities throughout the United States.  The SERC is unique in the depth and breadth of its reach, advocacy and evangelism of the systems engineering community through its support of research and education of systems engineering.  Events like CSER show the commitment to the advocacy of the Systems Engineering profession. 


Ok enough of the ad for the SERC. The two day event was filled with an impressive line-up of speakers with deep understanding of practice and nuance of the subject.  The venue was exceptional and the opportunity to interact with peers and colleagues from academia, industry and the research community was eye opening.  


As I am a relatively new member of the SPEC Innovations team I had the good fortune to attend the conference with Dr. Steve Dam.   We shared with the CERC community information about a free for academic use, model-based systems engineering software, Innoslate. Innoslate is currently being used in over 100 Universities around the world. The first day had a succession of remarkable speakers, the first Key Note was James Faist who is the director of Research and Engineering for DOD and he covered Advanced Capabilities.  Break out sessions were held during the mid-morning and topics covered ranged from AI to Agile SE to SE effectiveness.  Lunch then the second Key Note was given by Dr Jeffery Wilcox Head of Digital Transformation at Lockheed Martin.   Who would have known that interfaces between systems and process are becoming more important than they already were.  This was followed by afternoon breakout sessions and an evening reception.  


It was funny during the morning of the first day I noticed an older gentleman at the next table who seemed to be keeping his own company.  I nodded to him he nodded back and I went about going to a break-out session.  Day two’s morning Keynote speaker was Kristen Baldwin Deputy Director for Strategic technology Protection and detection at DOD.  She covered Strategic Technology Protection and Exploitation.  This was followed up by breakout sessions that ranged from Model Based Engineering to SE Decision Making and Resilience.  Lunch was next followed by the final Keynote speaker.   To my surprise the final speaker was also the older gentleman that I had noticed by himself the previous day. He happened to be William Shepard a retired Navy Captain who previously had served as a Navy SEAL platoon commander and Operations Officer.  About mid-way through his Naval career Captain Shepard decided to put in a package to the Astronaut program.  He was selected to the Astronaut Corps and made three space shuttle flights.  He then went on to command the initial flight that built the International Space Station.


His Keynote presentation started with a video presentation of the preparation and training of his Space Station crew.  It was a three man team commanded by Captain Shepard and two Russian Flight Engineers.  All of the training and the launch was conducted in Russia and Kazakhstan. They reached orbit and began the initial construction of the International Space Station.  Several Shuttle missions docked with the Station during this time as construction of the Station grew to add a living space, solar panel and multiple labs. After more than four months the crew returned to earth. 


What struck me the most about Captain Shepard’s address was the enormous Systems Engineering challenge that was overcome during the planning, design, integration, test and most importantly to them in the operations of the crew.  If you think of the challenge of a joint NASA/Russian space mission the Systems Engineering challenges are enormous.  All three crewmen needed to be fluent in both English and Russian.  Systems and modules were made by multiple NASA contractors, multiple Russian contractors and multiple European Space Agency contractors.   Yet all were able to be integrated and distilled into a model-based approach.  Captain Shepard said that the key to adding the new modules, troubleshooting onboard issues and scheduling upgrades was the Model based approach that was used.  If he and the Russian crew members would come to a language impasse they would reach for the SE models that both intertwined in depth schematics, color coded processes and color coded call outs.  These models were used to ensure that all crew members understood the approach, and then they could take action.


However, the models he was talking about were the “old fashioned” physical models, not Model-based Systems Engineering (MBSE) digital models. The question is can we replace the physical models with digital ones? The answer “yes” can only happen when we obtain enough data to fully represent the physical system and have a way to organize and visualize that data. Innoslate provides a large step in that direction. It already provides the cloud-native access to large amounts of computational power and data storage. It also already has many ways to visualize and track the data in the database. What’s the next step? Continue to watch as SPEC Innovations pushes the boundaries of MBSE.