Industrial Engineering

How virtual reality can enhance systems engineering

How virtual reality can enhance systems engineering

ISE Magazine October 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 10

By Stephanie G. Fussell

Systems engineering requires a “cradle to grave” view of system creation, integration, support, sustainment and retirement. This approach espouses a holistic and methodical view of the system through its life cycle. System engineering also considers the business and technical needs of the customer to provide a quality product – the system. The global expansion of many businesses has caused a shift in how systems engineers collaborate as a team and with others.

Historically, teams working in separate locations have used technology to increase efficiency and communication among collaborators. The advent of the internet, email and other communication platforms made collaboration faster and more convenient. Today, a virtual team can use technology to overcome distributed expertise, work with the rapid development of products and lower travel costs.

Utilizing technologies for virtual collaboration is all the more critical given the global shift of business operations due to the COVID-19 pan-demic. Businesses and their employees rapidly changed their daily operations and communication strategies. Conferences were reformatted for virtual platforms. Several technologies have been created or expanded to enhance virtual collaboration, such as shareable documents and online repositories, phone and video conferencing services, and project management platforms.

Virtual reality (VR) is the latest technology to facilitate collaboration when teams are geographically challenged. VR is a 3D digital, fully immersive, realistic environment in which the user interacts with objects as in the real world. With global expansion, systems engineering teams need to change the way they collaborate along with the technology that they use. Virtual reality offers an immersive way for systems engineers to collaborate, work with a 3D model of the system and trouble-shoot problems.

In this article, we examine systems engineering management and processes as well as the use of virtual reality in systems engineering, management and other related fields.

Review of relevant literature on VR

Collaboration has been at the heart of product design and development since time immemorial. Historically, teams comprised of two or more people working face-to-face toward a com-mon goal (“Facilitating Contagion Trust Through Tools in Global Systems Engineering Teams,” Ban Al-Ani, Sabrina Marczak, David Redmiles and Rafael Prikladnicki, Information and Software Technology, 2014). Eduardo Salas and his colleagues in 2008 noted that teams exceed the capabilities of the individual, can decrease error in com-plex situations and offer collective in-sight and experience that can enhance decision-making.

The global expansion of businesses confounded a practice that had largely remained unchanged for centuries. As team members became geographically dispersed, the need to work independently through virtual teams arose and a shift was made to electronic communication platforms while pursuing a common goal. James Dulebohn and Julia Hoch in “Virtual Teams in Organizations” (Human Resource Management Review, 2017) reported that the trend of using virtual teams to organize and execute work is expected to continue and increase due to globalization, rapid development requirements, improved collaboration technology and expertise distribution.

Despite geographical and temporal dispersion, some authors, including Dulebohn and Hoch, argue that virtual teams offer distinct advantages over collocated counterparts. These include 24/7 productivity enabled by global distribution of expertise and production teams, decreased travel and associated costs, and increased knowledge and skill acquisition. Of course, challenges are also present, such as communication and collaboration disruption. Additionally, geographical and temporal distances can impede the social bonding of the team.

The success of a virtual team is con-tingent upon several factors. Virtual teams must prioritize communication as well as rules of engagement to ensure efficient and complete information exchange, accomplish tasks and mitigate conflict. The team may not meet in person during the project, impacting trust and the ability of the team to work cohesively and efficiently. It has also been argued by Ban Al-Ani, et al., that innovative tools can support the development of trust in teams impacting overall productivity. Online repositories and collaborative documents have the advantage of accessibility and real-time, updated information. Inter-active communication technologies, such as video conferencing, offer better support for topic convergence, conflict resolution and ensure all team members understand expectations, timelines and goals.

Although the above examples demonstrate efforts to enhance virtual teamwork, they may not facilitate trust, resulting in the loss of an important component of teamwork. Ban Al-Ani, et al., found that many teams rely upon Web applications and office technologies for rapid, synchronous work and may compensate for face-to-face inter-action. In a virtual environment, social cues may come forth through virtual avatars, offering a social connection for collocated teams.

The sudden shift from in-person operations to telework with virtual meetings, precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, also highlights the need for utilizing technology in efficient yet flexible ways. Having a virtual environment that capitalizes on VR technologies can enhance the team’s inter-action and communication strategies. The personalization of avatars and the ability to project one’s image into the virtual space allows not only ownership of one’s virtual self but also the ability to interact with others in a more realistic manner. Given the reduction of both personal and business travel, virtual reality also offers a way to connect with team members more genuinely than email or even video conferencing can provide.

In systems engineering, teams include individuals involved in the many aspects of the process, such as software developers, contract lawyers, developers, program managers, etc. Multiple communication and SE-specific tools must be adopted as well as adapted to overcome geographical and temporal challenges. Although virtual teams are utilized in systems engineering, there is little research that explores the topic.

Incorporating virtual reality into systems engineering

The system life cycle model conceptualizes the stages of a system from conception through development to retirement. Virtual reality offers the systems engineering team a unique opportunity to collaborate as a team across many lo-cations as well as design and test products and systems. Virtual reality may be utilized throughout the system life cycle to enhance the processes as well as collaboration.

For example, VR may be utilized during the system conception stage to visualize where the system physically fits into the world of the user and create graphical illustrations, charts and other imagery for stakeholders and the systems engineering team to interact with. During system design and development, models may be produced and explored in the virtual environment, allowing members to see the concept, suggest changes and interact with prototypes. Multiple prototypes and designs may be created and tested so that alter-native solutions may be explored while saving money, time, and other resources. System production may be enhanced by using VR to reassess the design, development and new risks quickly and efficiently. During system deployment, scenarios may be developed and rehearsed in virtual reality to ensure a smooth deployment and integration of a system.

Virtual reality could also be used to introduce the system to a potential user, in which the team would model the system, demonstrate it and allow the potential user to engage with it. Training in the virtual environment may also be feasible, allowing multiple users to train or watch a training session from multiple site locations. Once the system is in operation and supported, the team can use VR to continue to develop the system to enhance performance and create updates for the user. The user may experience the update in virtual reality and decide if they should implement it, saving time and resources for both sides.

Finally, virtual reality can be used in the system retirement stage to create and practice removal scenarios, facilitate communication for system removal and to ensure everyone understands the process.

Facilitating long-term collaboration

As a collaborative process, systems engineers and others involved in the life cycle process of a system may, by nature, need to collaborate over a long period. Technology that facilitates this process is an important consideration, along with other factors. The pricing and financial aspect of incorporating virtual reality technology into systems engineering must be considered. VR may be used for collaboration, proto-typing, design and development and more.

Virtual reality technology also allows for saving in many avenues, including travel expenses, product redesigns and prototyping, communication efforts and improved processes. As systems engineering teams consider immersive, virtual technology for collaboration, they must also consider which virtual reality and virtual platforms will best suit the needs of the team. A cost-benefit analysis, as well as a comparison of multiple VR systems and virtual teaming platforms, may guide the team to a configuration that provides the capabilities required for the project at hand.

When coupled with other virtual collaboration technology, virtual reality may be utilized to facilitate the systems engineering process and system life cycle to enhance productivity and promote virtual teamwork through the system life cycle.

References: IISE Magazine October 2020 (