Teaching open systems to the next generation of defense engineers

Anyone who has needed to charge a cellphone and been unable to find a spare cable with the right-shaped plug for their device can understand the concept of open systems. As John Snoderly put it, “It would be a lot easier if everybody had the same charging mechanism.”

In fact, he said, having an open system means one could solicit other companies to build the technology cheaper.

John Snoderly, learning director of engineering at the Defense Acquisition University.

Snoderly applies that idea to weapons system interoperability in his role as learning director of engineering at the Defense Acquisition University in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He oversees the curriculum of nearly 40,000 engineers and makes sure they are up to date on changes in system engineering. That includes open systems.

“We want our designs right because we’re building things that the future people who go to war are going to have, and we want to make sure we bring our sons and daughters home safely,” Snoderly said on Federal Monthly Insights: Open Systems Month. “As you get more complex and talk about a weapons system, we’re talking about a system that has a lot of subsystems. We want to make sure that they all interplay together. And in the past what we’ve had is each system has subsystems developed by other contractors with unique connections, unique interfaces with the tool system.”

That means if they break, the Defense Department has to go back to the contractor who built the subsystem. Snoderly called this “vendor lock,” but he sees why a vendor would maybe not sign up to design something which the government can compete with other companies.

The downside to a closed system is that as parts age it becomes more difficult and expensive to repair or replace them. Snoderly used Apple products as a example, which put out new generations every year or so and are not always compatible with other devices. A new iPhone may release each year, but DoD has to think more long-term.

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“But we build systems that last 30-50 years or longer,” Snoderly said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “The B52s is aircraft for the Air Force [that] has been around, I suppose, 80 years, something like that. We build things that last a long time so when you go out to buy parts, if it’s no longer manufactured then you’ve got to start up a manufacturing line and pay a lot of money the to get that part or design a new subsystem altogether.”

Overall, Snoderly said agencies in DoD are receptive to open systems. It’s the slow speed at which government has adopted the idea that needs overcoming. Nearly everything is run by software at this point, which behooves government to catch up to the pace of software houses.

“What we’re seeing today is a push towards digital engineering, we’re digitizing everything,” he said. “And modular open system approach is an important part of digital engineering.”

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