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Ecology
graphic showing the concept of  systems engineering

Systems Engineering to Save the Planet?

Posted by Battelle Insider on Aug 27, 2018

OK, it might not be quite that dramatic, but systems engineering is playing a significant role in better understanding the ecology of the third rock from the sun. 
Systems engineering at its most basic is the engineering of complex systems and managing them through their lifecycles. 

Mike Stewart has more than 20 years of experience in systems engineering and is putting that expertise to good use for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project. The national-scale NEON project offers free and open data on the drivers of and responses to ecological change.

But the only way to ensure the 30-year NEON project is successful – with data coming in from 81 sites across the U.S. – is with systems engineering.

“This is the first time systems engineering and ecology have worked together. That’s very exciting,” said Mike, who serves as NEON’s Lead Systems Engineer. “The breadth of standardized data collection is what makes this project extremely unique.”

The first challenge to address for the NEON project was the design of the systems needed to collect and share data. 

“We had no predecessor system. When I worked in the automotive industry, when there was a new vehicle, you just took the existing structure and incorporated some new designs into it,” said Mike. 

Conversations with team members to find out exactly what needed to be measured and why helped start the process for this project. 

“We created the first and only framework for capturing requirements for this type of system. Every time we stand up a new site, we learn something new,” said Mike. 

Process typically isn’t addressed in systems engineering, but the NEON project is an exception. When Battelle won the contract in 2016 to complete the construction, commissioning and initial operations of NEON for the National Science Foundation, there were several processes we were asked to help improve. One was the transition to operations process and one was the design process for instrumented field sites. 

For example, before the process component was addressed, delays and quality issues related to submitting transition to operations packages to the National Science Foundation (NSF) were significant. Transition to operations packages are reviewed and approved by NSF to determine if an observatory site or system can be transitioned from the construction phase to the operations phase. Prior to process improvements, delays and quality issues were costing the construction project an unplanned $3 million. 

With the design and implementation of processes that work, delays were significantly reduced, backlogs were cleared and the quality, measured by the average number of questions for each package, decreased from sometimes dozens of questions per package to zero questions per package. The delay in submitting packages to NSF, which grew to an average of 310 days measured from our internal review/approval to submission to NSF, was due to quality issues and uncertainty around the process. Since the installation of the new process, the time to submit a package to NSF after internal review/approval has been reduced to an 11-day average, which is a 96 percent improvement. 

With multiple decades remaining in the NEON project, systems engineering will continue to play an important role in the success of the project. 

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