By: MIT xPRO on May 22nd, 2023
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How to Unlock Innovation with Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE)


Today’s business leaders and decision-makers know that innovation plays a critical role in everything from retaining top talent to improving productivity.

There are many ways for organizations to drive innovation. Just ask Dr. Bruce Cameron, Director of MIT's System Architecture Group and lead instructor for MIT xPRO’s four-course program, Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems. Dr. Cameron instructs engineers and systems engineering professionals across a wide range of industries on how to innovate and optimize their practices and products, together with 8 MIT Faculty who co-instruct in this Program.

The third course in the program focuses on model-based systems engineering or MBSE. Keep reading to learn about why MBSE is important, how it unlocks innovation in teams, the challenges businesses face in adopting MBSE, and implementation strategies your team can leverage. 

What role does MBSE play in 21st-century organizations?

For the last 60 years, engineers have leveraged systems engineering principles to design, manage, and optimize complex systems. The standard approach has involved using templates and documents that contributors can fill in to create a focus on a particular dimension. For example, a team might use a template to create a list of requirements or to produce an estimate of a design’s potential risks. 

While this approach may have been sufficient 60 years ago, times have changed, and technology has evolved. Today’s engineers can think bigger than using a Word document to manage their requirements lists, and that’s where MBSE enters the picture. 

“MBSE is trying to carry the principles of systems engineering into the 21st century using our modern IT tools,” explains Dr. Cameron. 

Leveraging databases 

Dr. Cameron references databases as an example of a modern IT tool. Think about all the limitations of sending a document around via email. It’s difficult for two people to collaborate on the document simultaneously, and there’s no versioning logic, to name a couple of drawbacks. Now, imagine using a database instead. 

“If you’re building a new electric vehicle and trying to update how heavy it is as a function of what batteries you use, rather than having to email the person responsible for the battery design and ask them for the latest estimate on the weight of the batteries, you can query a shared database,” says Dr. Cameron. 

Connecting different models 

Engineers spend a significant amount of time running models. But those models can be fairly siloed, requiring the engineers who run them to be the “human glue” that connects one model to another manually. MBSE enables a more automated and seamless connection between different models.

How can mbse unlock innovation in teams? 

According to Dr. Cameron, there are three ways to think about how MBSE unlock innovation in teams.

1. Managing complexity and configurability 

"Many companies are drowning in the complexity of their own products, and one reason for this is the number of options they make available," says Dr. Cameron. At one point, the Ford F-150 was available in billions—yes, billions—of combinations.

“If you go to buy a vehicle as a consumer, you could have 50-70 decisions to make. Managing all those decisions is very hard for a company from an inventory perspective. It’s also expensive from an engineering perspective because the engineers have to figure out how all the different combinations interact with each other,” Dr. Cameron continues. 

MBSE helps teams manage configurability challenges without requiring extensive bandwidth. As a result, companies are empowered to continue innovating and offering more options.

2. Creating the bandwidth to explore more concepts 

“Innovative ideas come out when we deliberately try on more than one thing at a time,” says Dr. Cameron. He explains that models-based systems engineering gives teams additional  bandwidth to explore multiple concepts simultaneously so that there are “more shots on the goal.”

3. Providing more time for higher-value work 

Like any automation solution, automating parts of the design process via MBSE relieves humans from performing tedious and repetitive tasks.

“Engineers are the people who install smart lights in their homes so they don’t have to turn the lights off. Yet at work, they often live in a world of manual changes and painful processes,” says Dr. Cameron. “When an engineer no longer needs to spend their time manually updating Word documents, they can spend more time on the intellectual work that leads to innovation.”

What are the biggest challenges leaders face in adopting a mbse approach?

When adopting a MBSE approach, companies must change their infrastructure in significant ways. “It’s not as simple as transitioning from email to Slack,” Dr. Cameron notes. 

Creating a new IT infrastructure requires a sizable investment and a general willingness to disrupt existing processes. And companies can’t just “set and forget” the models; they need to carve out funding to keep them running. 

Another challenge leaders face is what Dr. Cameron calls credibility vs. fidelity. “We’ve seen that when teams start working with models, even if those models are high-fidelity (e.g., highly detailed, well-anchored to the data), a decision-maker may not find them credible,” explains Dr. Cameron. 

One of Dr. Cameron’s former students was a locomotive expert who built a MBSE environment to estimate how long a locomotive engine would last before it had to be rebuilt. Historically, the company would build several engines and run them until they experienced problems or failed. 

“People thought the original process was credible because you could see what was happening with your own eyes. When the team built a model to complete the same test analytically, they found that their management still wanted to do the physical test,” Dr. Cameron says.

What steps should companies take to adopt mbse?

Companies interested in unlocking innovation with MBSE should follow these steps to get their initiative off the ground, according to Dr. Cameron: 

  1. Setting the scope and purpose. “Scope is essential to consider, as you don’t want to unleash this kind of transformation across the whole organization all at once,” he advises. “You want to bound the scope initially, whether it’s one program or one functional area within engineering. It’s also important to clearly articulate the purpose of the transformation to justify the investment in it.”
  2. Developing a training plan. Dr. Cameron notes, “Now that MBSE has been around for some time, companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Begin looking into the training available and exploring what other industries have done to train their teams.”
  3. Taking inventory of existing models. “One way to build this initiative is to look at the models you have and plan out how to connect them,” says Dr. Cameron.
  4. Determining ownership of the initiative. Dr. Cameron advises that “as with any kind of change management, it’s important to have somebody coordinating the change. You don’t just want to set it and forget it.” 
  5. Establishing checkpoints to measure progress. “At what milestones will you evaluate how the initiative is working and what pivots you need to make?” says Dr. Cameron. For example, companies might determine that they’ll check at nine months to make this initial assessment. 

What are some ways your program teaches participants to use mbse to unlock innovation? 

Dr. Cameron’s program aims to get participants up to speed on MBSE in a few key ways: 

  • Providing a sandbox to try out MBSE “Engineers tend to reason from the concrete to the abstract,” notes Dr. Cameron. This MIT program gives participants direct access to the process, which makes them more receptive to the guiding principles.
  • Setting out the principles and methods in a tool-agnostic manner. “There’s more to adopting MBSE than buying a software package,” explains Dr. Cameron. There are also IT and engineering staffing implications, to name a couple of examples. “Providing a headset for the scope of the problem or the opportunity is important,” he adds.
  • Facilitating connection among peers. “Many participants enroll in the program for benchmarking purposes. They want to see what their peers and other industries are doing. We try to facilitate that connection as much as we can,” explains Dr. Cameron.

Ready to take the next step in unlocking innovation at your company? Enroll in Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems.