Digital engineering has been around for some time. But only now is it coming into widespread use, both for the design and development of new platforms, weapons systems, components, and software, and for sustainment and upgrading activities. Digital engineering has the potential to radically change the way the Department of Defense interacts with the defense industrial base. It can transform the defense industrial base and the way the defense department accesses services and support. Specifically, it offers a large number of companies, particularly those not currently engaged in defense work, the opportunity to participate in the defense industrial base.
A prime example of how digital engineering is changing how sustainment and upgrades can be done comes from Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). SNC is at the leading edge of the digital revolution. The company’s applications of digital engineering and related technologies and techniques are likely to result in a change not only in defense procurement and contracting practices, but in the overall defense acquisition culture, which was formed before the IT revolution.
What is digital engineering? One authoritative source defines it thusly: “Digital engineering describes a holistic approach to the design of a complex system: It uses models/data instead of documents, integration of data across models, and the culture change across project teams to realize significant risk reduction on construction cost and schedule.”
With digital engineering, rather than having to build a platform, system, or component, digital data is fed into validated models, which enables engineers to accurately create a digital representation of the object under investigation and use this representation in models to experiment with its functions, examine design changes or validate modifications. The digital representative of a physical object or system, however displayed or employed, is often referred to as a digital twin.
The defense department is pursuing a digital engineering strategy intended to transform the way platforms and systems are designed, developed, produced, and tested. This strategy also seeks to change defense acquisition culture by using digital engineering to speed the overall process and provide the tools needed to streamline sustainment and upgrades of existing, even legacy, capabilities. Recent applications for the T-7 trainer have been developed for the purpose of speeding up design and development.
The digital engineering revolution comes at a time when the defense industrial base is facing significant challenges. The U.S. economy has seen a decades-long decline in manufacturing with the losses of millions of jobs. In addition, there has been a significant consolidation of the defense industrial base since the end of the Cold War, leaving just a handful of major prime contractors and a supply chain marked by many single points of failure. The reduction in production capacity has also led to an ongoing tug of war between demands for new production and the needs for spare parts to support sustainment.
The innovative application of digital engineering, particularly to sustainment, could both significantly enhance the ability of the U.S. and allied defense industrial bases to meet wartime demand while also reducing defense department maintenance and support costs. The creation of validated digital versions of technical data packages that are high-fidelity representatives of existing platforms, systems, components, and parts would allow new and innovative manufacturing and integration companies to compete for contracts heretofore restricted to firms in possession of the needed intellectual property.
Sierra Nevada Corporation has been a pioneer in the area of digital engineering, demonstrating what can be done to improve sustainment and ease the process of introducing platform and system modification while reducing costs. SNC has demonstrated the ability to support and upgrade a variety of aircraft without the need for the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) proprietary data.
Using modern sensing techniques, including laser tracking and mapping, the company can create OEM-level technical data packages (TDPs) and even digital twins of existing platforms and develop the data to run high-fidelity models. The data collected by SNC is useful in creating and validating digital twins. These TDPs do not replicate all the data for a system and platform; rather, they are focused on specific areas for sustainment or modification. Consequently, neither the TDPs nor the models infringe on OEM proprietary intellectual property. Notably, SNC does not assert a right to the digital data it collects. Likewise, the data collected is limited to the information necessary to support specific work. Hence, it does not violate OEM intellectual property interests.
SNC has constructed TDPs for a number of platforms. For the Navy, the company has created TDPs for both the F/A-18E/F strike fighter and the CMV-22B Osprey. They have now expanded their efforts to support the aircraft of Air Mobility Command. SNC can provide its customers with all the necessary airworthiness certifications that support their modification and sustainment activities.
SNC is applying digital engineering in ways that can change the defense industrial base culture and the relationship between DoD and the private sector. The combination of TDPs, digital twins, and models could open up activities once restricted to OEMs. By employing digital engineering techniques, non-OEMs can undertake a broad range of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) activities. The OEMs, in turn, would be able to focus on what they do best, which is the development and production of new equipment and platforms.
In essence, Sierra Nevada Corporation has created the equivalent in defense sustainment of the “Right to Repair” that has become central to the relationship between automotive and electronics companies and independent providers of aftermarket parts and services. The use of digital engineering as practiced by companies such as SNC can significantly expand the pool of companies available to perform sustainment and modification beyond those traditionally part of the aerospace and defense sector. This supports greater competition, faster sustainment, and reduced costs.
SNC busts the traditional model for performing MRO work while demonstrating how mid-size high-tech defense companies can apply digital engineering to a broad array of engineering, design, development, installation, test, and certification services that were once the province of only a few defense primes. SNC’s employment of both digital engineering and digital twinning is revolutionary. This revolution must now embrace program managers, who need to develop confidence that the products of digital engineering are equal in quality and validity to what can be provided by OEMs.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.
This article was first published by Real Clear Defense.