Systems Thinking and a Curious Case of Missing Electronic Designs

Systems Thinking and a Curious Case of Missing Electronic Designs

Systems Thinking is about maintaining a gestalt view of the design that then gets successively broken down into individual contributing elements. You know—seeing the forest AND the trees as one and the same. But, what if some “trees” are not explicitly defined in the big picture? Well, we then have a hole in the solution because we cannot see how these missing trees interact with the rest of the system. Such is the case of missing traceability between electronic design domains and system definitions (the MBSE or RFLP structures) when both are managed by PLM platforms. Just to clarify, electronics can generally be broken down into three distinct areas: integrated circuits (ICs), printed circuit assemblies (PCBs), and wiring harnesses. Here, I am focusing on the last two. ICs are different because of their unique design timelines and black box (used as is) nature once deployed in the rest of the electronics (e.g. PCBs).

Don’t get me wrong; managing electronic designs in a PLM platform is a long-established practice. For example, Aras’ industrial low-code platform has a well-defined data model for representing electronic design data that is subject to the platform’s configuration management services. And, Aras’ partners, such as Minerva Group A/S or XPLM Solution GmbH provide solutions built on top of this platform and are used by many customers. So, that’s not the issue.

The issue is that the electronic domain is typically managed in PLM without the context of the broader system, and without traceability to the other domains that make up that broader system. It is managed as if it is a standalone solution. Furthermore, organizations tend to manage the schematic view of a design as a set of configuration managed documents with little, if any, structure or intelligence. The layout view (the physical PCB layout) is managed with much more granularity of the data—such as the understanding of the board's physical layers and the component BOM with instance ID’s (so called RefDes) and X/Y/Z locations—because that is critical for the board fabrication and assembly.

This is curious for several reasons. First, the schematic representation is where the functional breakdown and the logical architecture are represented. Therefore, this is the point of traceability with the overall system model, in terms of design intent and flow of data and controls (think of the schematic as a sub-system within the overall MBSE system model). Secondly, the physical representation (PCB), is where a lot of overall system simulation is directly connected with the PCB simulation (thermal, structural, EMI to name a few). And lastly, wiring harness design (e.g.: connectivity, layout, and placement of sensors) is what connects the individual pieces of electronics across the entire system.

But I see a potential shift in this approach because of the increasing importance of MBSE in managing design complexities and because of the inclusion of the overall system model structures in PLM platforms (Systems Thinking!). Without that, it was hard to derive the benefit from a direct traceability between electronics and mechanical parts of the design except for 3D form/fit issues between the two. With the overall system model acting as a connective tissue for all design domains, organizations can, and should, see traceability with the electronic designs (within the Digital Thread) managed in a PLM platform as a key part of their long-term digital transformation strategy.

Fig.1 Digital Transformation

One way to start this process is by helping your organization to understand what Systems Thinking is and what the key benefits of embracing it are. A good place to visit for related information is Aras’ Systems Thinking web page, our overview document or a more detailed white paper.

Once the industry embraces that transformation in thinking and practice, I can finally retire knowing that the orphaned electronic designs finally became part of the diversity within the forest—helping organizations to get there has been, and will continue to be, my passion.

Mike Lindner