Why Do We Need Model-Based Systems Engineering?

MBSE is one of the latest buzzwords to hit the development community.

The main idea was to transform the systems engineering approach from “document-centric” to “model-centric.” Hence, the systems engineer would develop models of the system instead of documents.

But why? What does that buy us? Switching to a model-based approach helps: 1) coordinate system design activities; 2) satisfy stakeholder requirements; and 3) provide a significant return on investment.

Coordinating System Design Activities

The job of a systems engineer is in part to lead the system design and development by working with the various design disciplines to optimize the design in terms of cost, schedule, and performance. The problem with letting each discipline design the system without coordination is shown in the comic.

If each discipline optimized for their area of expertise, then the airplane (in this case) would never get off the ground. The systems engineer works with each discipline and balances the needs in each area.

MBSE can help this coordination by providing a way to capture all the information from the different disciplines and share that information with the designers and other stakeholders. Modern MBSE tools, like Innoslate, provide the means for this sharing, as long as the tool is easy for everyone to use. A good MBSE tool will have an open ontology, such as the Lifecycle Modeling Language (LML); many ways to visualize the information in different interactive diagrams (models); ability to verify the logic and modeling rules are being met; and traceability between all the information from all sources.

Satisfying Stakeholder Requirements

Another part of the systems engineers’ job is to work with the customers and end-users who are paying for the product. They have “operational requirements” that must be satisfied so that they can meet their business needs. Otherwise they will no longer have a business.

We use MBSE tools to help us analyze those requirements and manage them to ensure they are met at the end of the product development. As such, the systems engineer becomes the translator from the electrical engineers to the mechanical engineers to the computer scientists to the operator of the system to the maintainer of the system to the buyer of the system. Each speaks a different language. The idea of using models was a means to provide this communications in a simple, graphical form.

We need to recognize that many of the types of systems engineering diagrams (models) do not communicate to everyone, particularly the stakeholders. That’s why documents contain both words and pictures. They communicate not only the visual but explain the visual image to those who do not understand it. We need an ontology and a few diagrams that seem familiar to almost anyone. So, we need something that can model the system and communicate well with everyone.

Perhaps the most important thing about this combined functional and physical model is it can be tested to ensure that it works. Using discrete event simulation, this model can be executed to create timelines, identify resource usage, and cost. In other words, it allows us to optimize cost, schedule, and performance of the system through the model. Finally, we have something that helps us do our primary job. Now that’s model-based systems engineering!

Provides a Significant Return on Investment

We can understand the idea of how systems engineering provides a return on investment from the graph.

The picture shows what happens when we do not spend enough time and money on systems engineering. The result is often cost overruns, schedule slips, reduced performance, and program cancellations. Something not shown on the graph, since it is NASA-related data for unmanned satellites, is the potential loss of life due to poor systems engineering.

MBSE tools help automate the systems engineering process by providing a mechanism to not only capture the necessary information more completely and traceably, but also verify that the models work. If those tools contain simulators to execute the models and from that execution provide a means to optimize cost, schedule, and performance, then fewer errors will be introduced in the early, requirements development phase. Eliminating those errors will prevent the cost overruns and problems that might not be surfaced by traditional document-centric approaches.

Another cost reduction comes from conducting model-based reviews (MBRs). An MBR uses the information within the tool to show reviewers what they need to ensure that the review evaluation criteria are met. The MBSE tool can provide a roadmap for the review using internal document views and links and provide commenting capabilities so that the reviewers’ questions can be posted. The developers can then use the tool to answer those comments directly. By not having to print copies of the documentation for everyone for the review, and then consolidate the markups into a document for adjudication, we cut out several time-consuming steps, which reduce the labor cost of the review an order of magnitude. This MBR approach can reduce the time to review and respond to the review from weeks to days.


The purpose for “model-based” systems engineering was to move away from being “document-centric.” MBSE is much more than just a buzzword. It’s an important application that allows us to develop, analyze, and test complex systems. We most importantly need MBSE because it provides a means to coordinate system design activity, satisfies stakeholder requirements and provides a significant return on investment.  The “model-based” technique is only as good the MBSE tool you use, so make sure to choose a good one.