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Digital Engineering in difficult times

Michael Louis Morua
31 May 2024

Digitalization and revolutionary change within commercial aerospace

Information is the resolution of uncertainty

Claude Shannon, American mathematician, electrical engineer, computer scientist and cryptographer

Commercial aerospace in the ‘sea of chaos’

Today’s aerospace industry is under considerable pressure, which comes from several directions, and all at once. Climate change, rapid developments in digital technologies, the move to electric propulsion, the uptake in the acceptance of autonomous air vehicles and progress toward intelligent production methods – all add complexity to our business. But how do we optimize our businesses in this chaotic environment? How can we define a growth strategy with a clear path, amongst all this complexity? Where does one begin?

Traditional methods of technical management and systems engineering no longer appear able to keep our businesses afloat in this massive ‘sea of chaos’, made up of rapid macroeconomic changes and similarly disruptive trends. Timeframes are shortening. New digital methods and techniques are needed to cope. We must be able to better understand this complexity with sufficient insight – to avoid its dangers and seize its opportunities. And we need these answers soon, so we can chart a course through the chaos. Inaction or indecision aren’t viable; they leave us at the mercy of these chaotic outside forces. Instead, leadership is required. Being purely reactive is rarely good, but it’s dangerous in the current economic climate.

It won’t be easy, but there is a way through. That is the subject of this article.

Aviation operations, support, and innovation in the Digital Age

Since the 1970s, commercial aviation has trended towards larger aircraft that can support increased passenger numbers to and from major airport hubs. The author worked for Boeing in 2003. At that time, the commercial aerospace industry was at a crossroads. Should we build larger aircraft, like the Airbus 380 – or should we choose smaller, fuel efficient, lightweight aircraft – like the Boeing 787? The answer? Do both.

It turns out that the world could support both solutions for a while. The A380 allowed large quantities of passengers to fly in relative comfort for long haul flights to the other side of the world. However, the introduction of these huge aircraft forced airports to redesign their gates, operating and maintenance facilities to accommodate them. The 787 allowed economic travel for more regional and short haul flights, but this meant more aircraft in the air – with impacts on air traffic density, airport operations tempo and the need for new and larger airports to accommodate all these aircraft. 

As the above demonstrates, for every change in aircraft design, there are infrastructure, environmental and traffic density impacts to consider. In some cases, these impacts are discovered too late in the planning process, leaving us with subpar solutions and increased operating expenses. This problem often stems from a kind of discontinuity: aircraft production, maintenance and airport operations/management aren’t always designed together.

However, today this “do both” mentality has reached a limit with concerns over aviation’s impacts on the environment. The A380 has been discontinued. Technologies have been used to make aircraft lighter and more fuel efficient with an objective to transition to electric or biofuels to reduce carbon. “Doing both” is no longer sustainable. More discontinuities arise as a result.

Defeating discontinuity through the system groups

But what if we could address such discontinuity? Designing these processes together using our digital tools, through model-based methods – combining digital information sharing and visualization technology? As a result, we could merge these models and make better use of our technical skills to design and deliver well integrated ‘system groups’. These groups would be comprised of different aircraft types (plus their supporting airport and facilities infrastructure) so that, together, they deliver the desired business and environmental benefits.

With the right digital environments, we could design and optimize these system groups early and well before we physically build them.  This will allow us to anticipate and address problems before they become reality.  This might be called a ‘digital first’ approach, a concept in which we first digitally design, build and optimize the system, before building it physically. This has been very successful when building aircraft components and smaller systems.

The result? Once the new aircraft is put into operation, improvements can be continually made to facilities, air traffic management schemes, carbon emission schemes and, above all, our passengers’ aviation experience.

Since the data is flowing in a digitally continuous environment, it can be combined with business and project data to better measure, manage and realize business and societal benefits. The result is long term cost savings and improvements to society in general. 

But for changes necessitated by the sea of chaos, this approach might not be enough. For example, it may be difficult to make meaningful comparisons of the various ways to optimize the design of these system groups to achieve business and societal objectives without the help of advanced digital engineering tools, like simulation, digital twin technologies and AI decision support. Not only do we need more technology, but, above all, we need organized and efficient technical processes, decision making and leadership. Technology can only go so far.

A solution: digital engineering and System Groups

The aerospace industry has responded to this challenge and is investing in improved technical and systems engineering methods. For example, Boeing has developed the ‘Digital Engineering Diamond’. This describes how model based engineering could be used to improve systems engineering, provide a single source of engineering data, apply digital system models to represent physical ones and use digital twin models and a digital thread to better manage the entire system lifecycle. It basically combines the traditional Systems Engineering ‘V’ for designing physical systems with a virtual ‘upside down V’ for the development of virtual systems that complement the physical ones. It is considered a digital first approach.

Similarly, Rolls Royce’s Digital ‘O’ also provides a digital first approach that combines traditional systems engineering concepts with digital models, simulation, and continuous design verification – as part of an overall digital first strategy to manage its products throughout their lifecycle. 

Boeing and Rolls Royce are not alone. Other aerospace players have begun formalizing the use of digital engineering to better manage their products, technical effort and, most importantly, to accelerate their ability to perform systems engineering.

Of course, this isn’t a simple matter of deciding to ‘be more digital’ and licensing powerful CAD software or acquiring cloud space. Digital engineering has specific requirements and overheads. For example, there must be sufficient hardware and software solutions to provide a single source of data environment, the model-based tools to conduct design, simulation, and virtual integration, as well as the communications and culture to allow remote working – thereby bringing skills together from across the globe for improved value.

Digital Engineering capability that can realize business and societal benefits must be managed and implemented such that people can provide their intelligence and insight to solve more complex problems. Once we have harnessed the power of digital engineering, we can use it to help us navigate through the “sea of chaos”.

Climate change is one of the largest societal problems we face. We need digital engineering to help us connect the discontinuities and we need effective leadership to manage the delivery of solutions.

Ready to chart your course?

This poses the obvious question; are your systems ready to deliver at this level? If not – we can help. What is needed is a way to manage your digital and systems engineering processes and transform your organization at the same time.

This is indeed a colossal challenge, however, if properly managed and supported by people who have ‘been there’, a solution tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of your organization can be achieved. People, processes, digital infrastructure, architecture, and transformation activities can be coordinated and managed – to produce the best result for the future you want.


Michael Louis Morua

ER&D Senior Systems Engineer, CEng CSEP and PMP
Mike graduated from the University of California Berkeley (BSEE) and later the US Navy Postgraduate School (MSEE). He was a US Naval officer and later a systems engineer. Mike specializes in Systems of Systems, systems thinking, MBSE in defense rail, and infrastructure projects. He now resides in Britain, and is a member of IEEE, IET, INCOSE and PMI.

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