System: more than the sum of its parts

Why system standards and conformity assessment need a different approach

By Morand Fachot

A system by definition combines a number of different elements. Each of these elements by itself has a limited and defined function. However, when they are brought together in a system they are able to produce results that are more than the sum of each part and that could not be achieved outside the system. A systems perspective helps us understand how different elements influence each other or the system as a whole. With it, it is possible to determine whether an improvement in one area may adversely affect another area of a system.

The systems approach is increasingly used in IEC standardization and conformity assessment work The systems approach is increasingly used in IEC standardization and conformity assessment work

Not new, but increasingly applied

Systems thinking in itself is not new to the IEC. In select areas, both in standards development and conformity assessment, this methodology is regularly applied. What’s new is that this approach is now increasingly being used to tackle a growing number of subjects in fields such as computing, engineering, information science, health, manufacturing, sustainable development and the environment, where it requires contribution from diverse technical disciplines. By providing a holistic view of the development effort, a systems approach helps “mould” all technical contributors into a unified team approach, forming a structured process, which can include design, production, operation, and possibly termination and disposal.

Converging technologies

In the past, most products and applications were developed as stand-alone devices. A fridge just cooled your veggies, a television allowed you to watch your favourite programme and your washing machine helped keep your clothes clean. Today, the refrigerator is connected to the Internet allowing you to check its content remotely; it contains an integrated screen on which you can tweet or watch TV. You also may have a special agreement with your electricity provider that lets them remotely stop your washer/dryer during peak hours, when extra power is needed.

Increased efficiency…and complexity

Another good example of this whole-systems approach is the smart building. Here the use of intelligent software, sensors, energy generation and storage allows for controlled heating, lighting and cooling of a building, depending on its occupancy and use. Looking at the whole system is much more efficient in terms of energy use and conservation than the lighting, heating or cooling of a single room or apartment. It is the combination of all of these technologies that transforms a building into a safer, more reliable, more efficient and greener place. But an intelligent building may only be a tiny part of a smart city and the smart grid, which are infinitely more intricate. Furthermore, some factors may not be foreseeable and require a risk management approach. 

There are different ways of looking at systems and this in turn impacts on standardization work and conformity assessment.

What is a system, where does it start or end?

For an engineer a system may be the sum and interaction of many different elements, combining top-down and bottom-up points of view.

In this case, the question is where to draw the line, because often a component that is part of one system can also be viewed as a system made up of multiple components, and this can sometimes continue across several layers.

Following this logic a system would have to reach across several TCs (Technical Committees) to “deserve” a system standard. For example an electricity transmission and distribution system would require a system standard because it comprises many different parts that are standardized in different TCs. However, a transformer, which is itself built from thousands of components, but also a part of the electricity transmission and distribution system, doesn’t require a system standard. Here the work is done in a single TC that has liaisons with others, if needed.

In this scenario, conformity assessment and certification follows after standardization has been completed.

A systems approach guided by the need to manage risk

There are cases, where a technology requires a systems approach, for example in conformity assessment because investors, regulators or insurers need this to manage their risks. In this context standards will be useful and essential for certain aspects of the system but would not be able to cover everything in the life-cycle of the technology and its installation.

Such systems combine known elements, which can be standardized and unknown factors that need to be risk managed. Different projects and installations may not be sufficiently similar to be able to write a complete system standard to cover every aspect; in this case available technical and system standards would be just one element in the risk mitigation effort. It may therefore not be necessary to wait for all technical standards to be finalized before drafting the systems approach; technical standardization would not be the main driver.

Technical standardization: understanding the system and its components

In standardization, growing technological complexity and the merging of individual devices into increasingly complex systems means that it is no longer possible to solely focus on the individual parts of the system. There is a need to also take into account interactions and interdependence, and this requires an overarching understanding of the top-level structure as well as the many individual system elements. The development of systems standards entails the coordinated and early participation of many experts from different technical areas. Over the past months the IEC has put in place many of the processes and structures that will allow it to develop these new types of International Standards.

Defining scope and boundaries for standardization

The IEC is creating SSGs (Systems Strategy Groups) that are tasked with pinpointing all stakeholders who are impacted by a given system. The aim is to define the scope and extent of a given activity, map and identify participants, and establish an overview of the timeframe and type of work that needs to be accomplished.

The SSG will define the overarching systems architecture, build road maps and trace the boundaries of the system. In this context it will need to define the breadth of the system, which normally will reach across several technologies and require the involvement of multiple TCs. The Group is also tasked with identifying standardization gaps and missing processes. Participation in an SSG is not limited to the normal IEC community; other interested parties may also be called upon to actively contribute.

Determining relevance and needs

In the process of setting up an SSG, the IEC community will clarify amongst other things:

  •  market relevance/need
  •  scope, activities and technology areas
  •  regulatory demands or other restrictions in different countries/regions
  •  required expertise and potential participants
  •  related work and information from other organizations/industries
  •  gaps in standards or other deliverables

The following areas have been identified as candidates for system standards in the near future:

  •  Smart Grid
  •  Renewable Energy integration into the grid
  •  Ambient Assisted Living
  •  Electrical installation systems
  •  Electro-mobility
  •  Electrical Energy Storage systems

Coordinating technical standardization work

Specialized STCs (Systems Technical Committees), sometimes born out of the SSG will build reference architectures, identify use cases, functionality, interfaces and system interactions. The STC will be very similar to a normal TC in structure and operation. Additionally, it will set high-level interfaces and functional requirements and collaborate with the product TCs to coordinate technical work. The aim is to achieve consensus on a work plan that is then followed by the STC and the relevant product TCs as active participants. 
Finally, specialized system experts will guide the development of tools and software applications for systems standardization.

Conformity assessment of systems

Standardization work is just one side of the coin; the IEC is also heavily involved in putting in place the structures that will allow it to deliver conformity assessment services across systems. In addition to the systems approach that is applied in IECEx (as defined in the IECEx Rules of Procedure), active work is on-going in Energy Efficiency as well as for Wind and Marine energy generation.

Simplifying life for manufacturers

Today products and components need to be verified several times to enable manufacturers to declare that they can fit into a given system. Going forward, the aim is to find ways to allow manufacturers to use a single, modular approach to conformity assessment to accomplish the same result. To do so the IEC builds and expands on the systems approach that is already in use, for example in IEC TC 31: Equipment for explosive atmospheres, which develops “intrinsically safe systems” that are deployed in instrumentation and communications.

Supporting the development of new technologies

System certification can however represent a particular set of challenges. For example, in CAB(Conformity Assessment Board) WG (Working Group) 15: Marine energy conformity assessment, only a few standards have been completed. Nevertheless, the deployment of marine energy can have potential environmental consequences that need to be understood, regulated and assured before marine energy technology is ready to be put in place. The WG is now studying ways of implementing a systems approach to certification and is viewing the issue from a risk management perspective.

Reassuring investors, insurers and regulators

Accessing the funding to support the development and commercialization of marine energy systems can be complex; private investment is needed in parallel with government funding. A systems approach to standardization and certification helps reduce the technology and performance risks for private investors and provides reassurance to insurers and regulators.

WG 15 believes that technical standards will be useful and essential for certain areas of the system but they will never be able to cover all aspects of the life cycle of a project/installation. By evaluating system interactions and risks early on, they feel they can develop a system certification that identifies technical standardization needs while incorporating best practice risk mitigation.

Satisfying many requirements

The IEC is looking at these different needs from all angles, to define the best way forward both in standardization and conformity assessment. We have an important role to play to ensure interoperability and safety in increasingly complex systems.

The systems approach is increasingly used in IEC standardization and conformity assessment work The systems approach is increasingly used in IEC standardization and conformity assessment work
The IEC is studying ways of implementing a systems approach to certification in the field of wind... The IEC is studying ways of implementing a systems approach to certification in the field of wind...
...and marine energy generation (Photo: Siemens) ...and marine energy generation (Photo: Siemens)