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What Is Systems Engineering?

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

IE Applications and Systems

Tagged Division

Industrial Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1369.1 - 15.1369.10



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Paper Authors


Jane Fraser Colorado State University, Pueblo

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Jane M. Fraser is chair of the Department of Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo. She was formerly on the faculty at the Ohio State University and Purdue University. She has a BA in mathematics from Swarthmore College and MS and PhD in industrial engineering and operations research from the University of California-Berkeley.

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Abhijit Gosavi Missouri University of Science and Technology

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Abhijit Gosavi is an Assistant Professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He was formerly on the faculty at Colorado State University-Pueblo. His BS and MS is in Mechanical Engineering, and his Ph.D. in industrial engineering is from the University of South Florida.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

What is systems engineering? Abstract

ABET has recently proposed to expand its list of program criteria to include criteria for systems and similarly named engineering programs. Industrial engineers have often claimed the ownership of the phrase “systems engineering,” even incorporating it into the names of some departments, e.g., industrial and systems engineering. While defining terms can be a sterile exercise, in this paper we concentrate on the practical implications of defining “systems engineering.” Some of the questions we address here are as follows. What are the real-world problems that systems engineering claims to study, what are the principal methods of systems engineering and how different are they from those of industrial engineering, and what is and should be taught in programs in systems engineering? What can students expect to learn and what jobs can they obtain after completing their studies?


With two recent actions, the industrial engineering community seems to have relinquished any exclusive claim on the use of the phrase “systems engineering.” Those actions are (1) the vote by IIE membership to reject a proposal to add “systems” to its name and (2) the determination that ABET’s new criteria for “systems engineering” programs will not apply to industrial and systems engineering programs.

In December 2008, members of the Institute of Industrial Engineering voted to retain the current name, rejecting the change to Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineering. In a September 2008 article in Industrial Engineer, Editor Monica Elliott8 gave reasons for and against the change. As a point in favor of the change, she wrote: “The education and practice of industrial engineering encompasses complex systems, but other organizations are taking ownership of systems activities that fall within our profession.” As a point against the change, she wrote: “The word `systems’ means a lot of things to a lot of people, which could bring about confusion and dilute instead of strengthen our identity. Many people think of computer and electrical systems when they hear the word `systems’ in connection with engineering.”

After the vote rejecting the change, IIE Executive Director Don Greene commented:7 “With this vote, the members have affirmed the breadth of industrial engineering. Although our profession undoubtedly encompasses a systems approach, it isn't necessary to communicate the broad reach that IE has through our name alone. Instead, industrial engineers around the world express who we are and what we do through our accomplishments. Particularly in our current economy, organizations are looking to industrial engineers to positively impact productivity and efficiency. Now is the time for IEs to step forward and make a difference.”

Fraser, J., & Gosavi, A. (2010, June), What Is Systems Engineering? Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15816

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