The truth of design specifications is that a single engineer is usually responsible for a subsystem (for a while, an unofficial title of mine was “the valves guy” for a project I worked on). Each subsystem with an associated specification needs to be integrated in order to make a coherent whole. This phase of design is called system integration, and is one of my favorite phases of design.
When you integrate, you’re not just bolting a bunch of functional subsystems together. If you do that, you still may have a system that works, but it won’t be pretty.
Instead, the integration phase is where parts can be made to come together seamlessly, and where the interfaces become even better defined. A well-defined interface between a camera and a phone may build a few pixels and camera firmware into a phone (like virtually every mobile phone out there). Another interface exists between components of a PC. If you’re old (like I am) and recall external zip drives, you know how buggy those interfaces could sometimes be. You could lose a lot of data very quickly if you weren’t careful. So, you needed to have a reliable interface between the hard drive and the external zip drive components.
The point I’m trying to make is that a well-integrated system is more than the sum of its parts. Often, the very act of integrating disparate elements creates new problems and innovative new solutions. Integration is the phase where you get to define functional interfaces, learn subsystem and component boundaries, and generally push the system’s limitations to learn what they truly are. It’s where you get to hack what you’ve just designed and built to add functionality, or increase value to the customer in new and exciting ways. You also often get to find new applications and capabilities of your existing system.
The Sony Walkman is a good example of well-executed system integration. Cassette players and portable radios both existed, but were not integrated, or made personal to quite the same extent. The Walkman gave everyone personal, on-demand music in their pocket. It also shipped with quick rewind and fast-forward capability, as well as a built-in radio, in a variety of new colors. Naturally, it became one of the most popular personal electronics products of all time.
Now, I’ve implied that a system is often greater than the sum of its parts. This may imply that a system that is only the sum of its parts is not an optimal system. That’s not necessarily true (see Wayne Wymore’s essay on this topic here - yes the title’s dumb, but the point is good), although it’s frequently true. I’ll talk about optimization strategies in a future post, but suffice it to say, optimization and integration often go hand-in-hand.
Now, I’m opening the floor to stories. What systems have you integrated and optimized lately?
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