Systems Engineering and Chemical Engineering Design

Article by Rob Kirkpatrick CEng FIChemE

Rob Kirkpatrick explains teaching of soft skills

This article discusses my personal opinions on the way our system engineering course, at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland, New Zealand, interacts with our chemical engineering courses, specifically design. I believe chemical engineers should perform vital roles as we tackle the complex global problems ahead – sustainability, climate change, Paris 2050, poverty, housing, social inequality and so on.

Traditional engineering education breaks knowledge into bite-sized pieces which are then taught in detail in a single course. Design tends to be the only course which integrates these pieces. Design may not be sufficiently “applied” if taught by a research academic. Few engineers leave university with an ability to think at large scale, and even fewer understand they will need to interact with stakeholders, other engineering disciplines, other professions, and the public and private sectors. We want graduates to be confident in tackling mega challenges with other professionals, the public, and government. Our students must also have a clear knowledge of their own ethical position and importantly, that of other cultures and countries.

Systems engineering

Systems engineering has many definitions. For example if you Google “NASA and systems engineering” you’ll find it defined as a methodical, multi-disciplinary approach for the design, realisation, technical management, operations, and retirement of a system!

At Auckland, our systems course encompasses simplified systems engineering but also covers professional and interpersonal skills, group work, and value creation. The course is common across all engineering disciplines and is taught as a single large class of ~800. I am responsible for third- and fourth-year chemical engineering design and fourth-year systems engineering. (Our degree is not just chemical engineering but also includes materials engineering.)

Two major advantages stand out when considering the chemical engineering discipline:

  • Our discipline starts at the raw material supplier or earlier, and finishes when the facility, product or service is delivered to the customer; often including end-of-life and remediation. Many other engineering disciplines look at only a portion of the overall process. The end-to-end responsibility of chemical engineers provides a strong linkage with systems thinking.
  • Process engineers think and work in moles. This is the way the world behaves. Reactions occur in moles not mass. The complexity of trying to understand biomass calculations in mass units is fraught with trouble. Mass of air per mass of fuel can be confusing when considering stoichiometry limitations.

Our design and systems teaching uses a common language and skills. We refer to stakeholders, stakeholder’s requirements, common and conflicting requirements, options, and ethics and instruct students on how to recycle between stakeholder, requirements, options, cost, and value to get a “best fit” outcome. We try to teach design balancing economics and value theories with real-world analysis whereby economic and value analysis is critical prior to gaining approval for more resources to move to the next stage in a gated process (with each necessitating more engineering and more financial analysis).

Teaching principles

A few thoughts on running a systems course. Our third- and fourth-year systems courses include professional and interpersonal skills, value and finance, and systems methodology. In my view it is important to start by having our students understand some context of their own personality traits and development prior to learning how to best deal with others. This is followed by discussions on how to work successfully in a group and then on to the importance of high-quality communication once conclusions need to be passed on to senior managers. We focus on writing quality executive summaries, rather than the more common research or lab report.

The systems methodology helps students start a large systems initiative where scope cannot be defined until a systems and sub-systems study is completed. The pinnacle of our engineering students’ experience is a week-long intensive systems assignment that requires both their interpersonal skill to work in a large group and their systems methodology and an understanding of how to manage a problem of major complexity and ambiguity.

Starting a systems course represents a major institutional challenge. It requires integration of a practitioner perspective with theoretical groundings, which is often difficult to find within a research institution. It is often best delivered by someone who has worked extensively in the private sector that also has sufficiently broad engineering discipline knowledge and credentials to earn the respect of research-active colleagues.

The course attempts to develop an appreciation for the balance and importance of developing a “T-shaped” engineer, where the vertical bar of the “T” represents depth in a single technical discipline, and the horizontal bar the professional skills.

Article by Rob Kirkpatrick CEng FIChemE

Adjunct Professor at the Chemical and Materials Department Engineering Faculty at the University of Auckland

The views in this article are his personal views, and not those of the university

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