Complexity Engineering

Why highly complex systems usually operate in failure mode

130814-O-ZZ999-280 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 14, 2013) An F-35B Lightning II aircraft lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) during the second at-sea F-35 developmental test event. The F-35B is the Marine Corps variant of the Joint Strike Fighter and is undergoing testing aboard Wasp. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Andy Wolfe/Released)/Released)
(U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Andy Wolfe/Released)


The complexity of modern products, as well as the associated manufacturing processes, have been increasing over the past few decades and there is evidence the trend will continue. Complexity means functionality. Consider how many things can be done with smart-phones, in addition to making phone calls! Think of automobiles, which can maintain distance from the car in front, or engage emergency braking, not to mention warning drivers if they drift from one lane into another. Evidently, an increase in complexity points to growth, to evolution. Think of the biosphere. From single-cell organisms, capable of performing only basic functions, evolution has spawned intelligent and sentient beings. So, on paper, an increase in complexity is good. This is true, but complexity comes at a price.

Let’s first define complexity. Complexity is not about counting the number of parts or components in an assembly, or the number of functions a product performs. Complexity is a function which takes into account two major aspects of a system: the topology of the information flow inside it – basically the ‘mapping’ of what happens between the inputs and the outputs and the ‘uncertainty’ involved in this flow. This second component, of paramount importance in Nature, is called entropy. In engineering entropy has many faces: manufacturing tolerances, scatter in material properties, assembly imperfections, uncertainty in operational conditions, etc. The more entropy the less accurate and predictable the behaviour of a system is. But, because in Nature entropy can only increase, things degrade and become less predictable and less precise. In essence, the number of inputs and outputs, as well as the network of inter-dependencies between them define how complicated – not complex – a system is. When entropy (uncertainty) is added to the picture, we obtain a measure of complexity. Complexity manifests itself in the ability of a system to deliver unexpected behaviour. A complicated watch movement cannot deliver surprises. A child can. The higher the complexity the more “modes of behaviour” given system can deploy. This means that if products become more sophisticated and more functional it is necessary to resort to higher manufacturing quality, to better materials, to stricter tolerances in order to maintain quality and avoid surprises.

Evidently, complexity means cost. A more complex product is more expensive to design, to engineer, to manufacture, to service and to operate. An experienced engineer may be recognized by the fact that he instinctively seeks a simpler more elegant solution to a given problem. However, today there are less experienced engineers around than there were in, say, the 1970s or 1980s. The speed of our economy pushes people to change jobs more often, meaning that it is increasingly difficult to find engineers who remain for decades in the same company, gaining huge experience and knowledge. Moreover, the turbulences in the global economy are affecting corporations at top management level, not just the employees. When turnover of management is high it may inhibit long-term programmes to complete successfully. This is why programmes such as the F-35 the multi-role/multi-everything fighter, the 787 and the A380 have been so slow to deliver products which, in some cases, still cause problems long after launch. In the mentioned cases we’re talking of innovative products that are highly complex and are built by international consortia, scattered over the globe. Cultural differences, high employee turnover, a plethora of different procedures, very low profit margins, focus on short-term revenue, a turbulent economy, all these factors make it very difficult to run a complex programme of global proportions and finish in time as well as within budget. If that were not enough, another alarming trend one observes is the declining level of preparation of university graduates. Putting all these factors together may help explain why the manufacturing industry is struggling to roll out complex innovative products (that work) in a timely and efficient manner.

There are two possible approaches at this point. One is to focus on the development of less complex, less ambitious more robust products and, maybe most importantly, with less geographic dispersion. In the past aerospace companies built an entire aircraft, today their function is to try and fit fuselage sections manufactured on two continents. The second approach is to incorporate complexity as a design attribute and objective, just like stiffness, safety factor, mass or cost. However, to accomplish that one must measure complexity. Counting parts or suppliers is not measuring product or project complexity.



Established originally in 2005 in the USA, Ontonix is a technology company headquartered in Como, Italy. The unusual technology and solutions developed by Ontonix focus on countering what most threatens safety, advanced products, critical infrastructures, or IT network security - the rapid growth of complexity. In 2007 the company received recognition by being selected as Gartner's Cool Vendor. What makes Ontonix different from all those companies and research centers who claim to manage complexity is that we have a complexity metric. This means that we MEASURE complexity. We detect anomalies in complex defense systems without using Machine Learning for one very good reason: our clients don’t have the luxury of multiple examples of failures necessary to teach software to recognize them. We identify anomalies without having seen them before. Sometimes, you must get it right the first and only time!

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