System architecture and architect: critical enablers

With new technologies and more electronics, products in general have become more complex as compared to the times when a product had little or no electronics. To make things even more complex, connectivity possibilities have changed the game yet again and complexity has grown even further. We also see that market competition is imposing strictly timed product introduction time-windows. Companies that would manufacture the whole product themselves are outdated. Nowadays, companies usually manufacture a product that integrates parts supplied through a supply chain. Technology is evolving at a very rapid pace which means that engineering companies have to reinvent themselves often due to these changes in technology. In the near future we see new opportunities on the horizon with industry 4.0, servitization paradigms and sustainability.

When confronted with this contemporary situation, companies often worry about the following:

  • Maintaining a healthy product portfolio while keeping R&D costs low
  • Lowering operations costs
  • Managing so that there are enough resources available for innovation
  • Adapting to the inevitable market and technology evolution
  • Coping with disruptive technology changes
  • Coping with new competitors appearing that lead to business model changes
  • Enabling not only a product but also the allied services and solutions

One may think that the majority of the issues pointed out above have to do with the operations and marketing processes within an organization. However, we think that there is a lot to be said about how the system architecture could help improve the organizations effectiveness. Management would do well by looking for solutions to the above points also in architecture.

Below are a few thoughts that point out several aspects of system architecture that make a big difference in how effective your products are and how profitable your organization can be.

Recognize the architect

Very often in these days, a product is not a standalone product and needs to operate in an ecosystem. Selecting an architecture that fits the customer & business needs, the company strategy, your partners in the Ecosystem and the company’s capabilities is essential. It starts with recognizing the role of an architect in an organization as a technical lead, who gives technical guidance to an organization. The architects have to understand that they are leaders in an organization just like the marketing and operational leaders. Secondly, the architects should be capable of reasoning beyond the technical aspects and link the architecture to the commercial as well as the operational aspects of an organization. They then will play a bridging role. In selecting the appropriate architecture, the architects should balance between the company strategy, its manufacturing capabilities and its operational capabilities. They should provide guidance for evolution of architecture and the operational and manufacturing updates for this evolution in line with the strategy. Architectural thinking by architects can also feed technical aspects to a company’s strategy. They do this by tracking the social, market, legal and technology trends. The architect should be involved in portfolio management and resourcing decisions to provide technical guidance. This ensures optimal use of resource and balances the product portfolio from a technical as well as from the operations and market point of view.

Know the key requirements

One of the first jobs in architecture creation is understanding the needs of the different stakeholders. The customer needs include the needs of the end user of the proposition or the product. In general, it is important to understand the needs from your customer’s customer as well. The business needs include how to bring a product to the market, the business case and how to maintain it in the market. These may include compliance to the regulatory requirements and the claims that the business wants to make for a proposition. When this set of needs is collected and translated into requirements, one may find that the number of requirements is so high that it becomes very difficult to understand which requirements are more important than the others. As a result, the architecture can lose focus and the effort spent in implementing an architecture can become too high to sustain it. When analyzing the requirements, one may find that some requirements are a license to play in a market and must be met, while others may be deferred. Finding and classifying these key requirements will help in containing the development costs while still keeping a product attractive for a market. This can also help in understanding and prioritizing the new requirements as a result to the changing market, technology and business models. A well prioritized and maintained set of requirements is crucial to be able to create an architecture that can be resilient to changes.

Govern the architecture

New business models change how the business is conducted and can change the partitioning of a system design which is one of the major concerns of system architecture. The architects should actively look for possibilities of modularization that should promote reuse of existing designs as much as possible. While cutting on redevelopment costs through modularization and reuse is obvious, designing-in reuse is not obvious at all. This requires that the architecture decisions in partitioning and interfacing are made and enforced top-down. A proper system partitioning and aligned interfaces from strategic view, will enable less expensive products that require low maintenance. Another very important aspect of architecting is to make sure that an optimum solution is found that fits industrialization and supply chain. Supply chain optimization and industrialization can have a very profound effect on the maintainability of an architecture for an organization. The organization has to allow a controlled evolution of the architecture that can cope with the many changes in the market and technology.

We have mentioned a few of the aspects that are important for an organization in the present day. We have pointed out only a few possible directions for management to improve their organization, however, there are many more system architecture related aspects that could help the management in constantly adapting to the contemporary and future market situation. These aspects impact company strategy, system design, supply chain & manufacturing set up, life cycle management of products, sustainability, and roadmaps to name a few.

aly syed philips industry consulting

Dr. Aly Aamer Syed

Consultant Innovation management & System architectures
Industry Consulting, Philips Engineering Solutions