— In business, the adage says, the customer is always right.
That doesn’t exactly fly at Old Dominion University, where engineering instructors are working with Navy civilian engineers on an approach that stresses how to define a problem before rushing to “solve” the wrong one.
“We kind of have a commandment,” says Kevin MacG. Adams. “The customer never knows their problem.”
Adams is a principal research scientist at the National Centers for System of Systems Engineering at ODU, and no, he doesn’t think his customers are stupid.
In fact, he and other ODU officials say they have been impressed with Navy engineers and technicians who have been exposed to the philosophy.
But think of what happens when someone visits a doctor, he says. The patient may feel lousy and blame it on dinner, but it takes a doctor to step back, give it a longer look and say, no, you havediabetes.
That bigger-picture philosophy is at the heart of the “system of systems” approach.
ODU has won a three-year, $2.4 million contract to hold training seminars for the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, which has 700 engineers, technicians and technologists in Norfolk. It has already completed a pilot program with 15 to 20 Navy personnel.
This is not about building a better mousetrap — engineers sometimes do that — but more about how to attack problems more efficiently and avoid more costs.
The approach could find traction at a time when Congress is looking to cut defense spending and the Pentagon is trying to proactively identify more efficient ways to do business — something that was at the heart over the debate about whether to close Joint Forces Command.
“We are engineers, so we do think in terms of real-world problems, and solving those,” said Chuck Keating, the center director.
Here are two examples that the center has worked on. In both cases, it wasn’t just about the technology.
The Department of Homeland Security wanted a better understanding of how to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles along the U.S. southern border. An engineer could have taken the narrow approach: find the best way to get the UAV airborne so it could take photos.
But ODU engineers looked at the broader ramifications. If the UAV worked, more people would be arrested, which required more jails, which would affect court schedules. Political and cultural considerations played a role, such as getting permission to fly over Native American land.
“All of a sudden, the problem becomes much more complex,” Keating said.
This sounds like common sense: If you arrest more people, you’ll need more jails, right?
“But you don’t have the benefit of hindsight when you start it,” said Joe Bradley, a principal research scientist at the center. “People are looking at the purely technical issue. Can we make this UAV fly and can we see people? That’s a relatively easy thing to answer. Those are usually not the folks who have to worry about all the other problems when you have this new solution.”
The project culminated in a three-day workshop for Customs and Border Protection that covered everything from the technology applications to border differences in law enforcement philosophy.
The ODU engineers say this work is a sample of things to come.
“The engineers of the future have to be much broader,” Keating said. “They’ve got to think in terms of the whole system problem.”
A ‘system of systems?’The facility: The National Centers for System of Systems Engineering is a research center at Old Dominion University, located in the College of Engineering and Technology. It was established in 2002.
Philosophy: A new class of complex problems is emerging that require engineers to look beyond purely technological solutions. In these cases, a system is part of a larger group of systems — like an aircraft carrier and the ships in its strike group.