It’s an intriguing time to be a product engineer in A&D. Digital innovations in product design and delivery are giving engineers and designers new and powerful capabilities. They are modeling equipment, operations, business scenarios, and many other factors not previously possible in the paper-based world using sophisticated 3D digital tools. This is ushering in a new era of high-performance products, rapidly and iteratively designed with the aid of physics-based modeling, which outclass the competition, exceed customer demands, are profitable to manufacture with fewer quality issues and ready for the rigors of long-term sustainment typical in A&D. It is the digital thread coming to life with digital twins at the epicenter.
This arrives just in time for today’s hyper-competitive environment driven by the realization that a finished product is no longer the end game for the OEM. Rather, this is only the beginning of long-term sustainment contracts where OEMs place major bets and power-by-the-hour deals which can determine the profitability of the program or product for decades to come. To survive and succeed in this new operating and competitive reality, A&D product developers and engineers must be able to take advantage of data from the entire value chain, incorporate these learnings in their work and make critical advancements in these complex products and systems.
This means 2D drawings, static documentation, and traditional practices of the product engineer driving product requirements are no longer suitable. The entire process, its tools and its skills must be transformed into something vastly more intelligent, more insightful, more realistic, faster, and more connected to manufacturing and sustainment. It is the digital thread in action.
The important role of the digital thread and digital twins
Next generation engineers will rely on state-of-the-art tools, simulation, and analysis to optimize designs, improve quality, reduce lead times, and reduce costs. System-to-system interconnectivity, data collection, and interpolation must be enabled from the outset, thus creating a collaborative exchange of product data and models along the value chain from engineering, to the factory floor, into service and sustainment and back again to engineering in a continuous closed-loop accessible and secure environment.
Two computing and operational concepts are helping make this vision possible. The digital thread which seeks to enables A&D companies federate lifetimes of design, manufacturing, operations, and service management data from throughout the lifecycle of A&D systems, and, digital twins, which can give engineers a digital model or replica of each component, subsystem or entire aircraft, vessels, weapons, or space systems
For the engineer, the digital twins and digital thread, along with analytics, are a fountainhead of new insights into the real-world state and performance of products over time, across different conditions, in different use scenarios and countless other dimensions that help them make smarter design decisions and ultimately better products.
Amid all these new opportunities, engineers face new technical challenges with their data and software. Internal and external collaboration are becoming more critical and more complicated. Customer expectations and product complexity continue their never-ending march towards the future. And now sustainment and aftermarket service are becoming another dimension to the product engineer’s imperatives as greater emphasis is placed on the total cost of ownership with binding contract SLAs. Engineers are burdened to balance all of this while timeframes are compressed, resources are thin, and necessary talents are harder to come by.
Focus your digital transformation to power your future
To address these challenges, and those of the future, the approach going forward needs to be focused, bold and transformative. Embracing the digital revolution accelerates everything that’s achievable at entirely new adoption rates, incorporating the necessary uplift in digital intelligence and targeted investments. Here are three areas to focus on that companies can leverage and start evolving their engineering organizations towards a model-based future state:
1) Digital engineering technologies: Engineers and their supporting IT departments should embrace the latest engineering modeling tools, product lifecycle management technologies, visualization, and analytical platforms. A detailed roadmap towards fully functional digital thread/twin capabilities should be designed, built, and deployed to the product design process.
While the digital thread/twin capabilities will require broad participation beyond engineering and design from the entire value chain, product development should play lead role in its overall conception and implementation.
2) Connectivity, interoperability, and collaboration: Efficiently accessing and sharing product information plays a key role in next generation product development efforts. digital threads feed digital twins and are comprised of data of high integrity and fidelity but, the connection, interoperability, and collaboration required are non-trivial hurdles to overcome. This is not an afterthought; this is a prerequisite. These are ecosystem-wide collaboration and interaction models that do not exist today.
3) Data-driven everything: Data is the lifeblood of smarter engineering and model-based product development. All insights, all digital models of reality, all prediction, all simulations, the threads and twins hinge on the fidelity, completeness, and timeliness of the necessary data.
Sadly, some things never change. It is “garbage in – garbage out” when it comes to data and digital twins and threads. Virtually all A&D companies suffer from decades of M&A activity, program-specific IT platforms mandated by the customer, and operational reality – all affecting the quality, integrity, and fidelity of their data. Again, this is not an afterthought; this is a prerequisite. Getting the data “done right” and overcoming ownership and IP challenges are paramount to the success of model-based engineering and product design.
The next conversation
The A&D future is reliant on digital transformation. Digital engineering and product development are at its core with smarter everything where digital is “engineered in” at every level and ecosystem-wide collaboration makes everything work in concert. Our digital future is unfolding now. Engineers are uniquely fortunate to be the benefactors and the designers of this future. It’s time to make it happen.
To learn more about these key forces shaping the future of A&D product development, read our full white paper here: