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Digital engineering offers both a new design technique and a way to transform how agencies manage the lifecycle of systems, from acquisition through retirement.
DE is rapidly establishing itself across the Defense Department. From new weapons systems to the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system, agencies now employ digital engineering to reduce risk, cut time to fielding capabilities and to better understand future maintenance and modernization costs.
John Grigaliunus, technical advisor for flight test and evaluation at the Air Force Test Center, views digital engineering as consisting of three components: acquisition, model-based systems of engineering and what he called the execution environment. That last one he described as the infrastructure supporting workflows and data flows for digital collaboration.
Collectively, these three components help reduce risk for the Air Force and for DoD, Grigaliunus said during a Federal News Network panel on digital engineering. “Because the threat is changing so rapidly, it enables us to work more continuously and update systems more rapidly in a digital environment,” he said.
DE has become a priority for the Office of the Secretary of Defense — not just for the military services. The National Defense Strategy “calls out the need to buy down risk and accelerate our timeliness and delivering capabilities faster to the warfighter,” said Daniel Hettema, director of digital engineering, modeling and simulation in the Office of the Undersecretary for Research and Engineering.
DE will be a “key enabler of being able to buy that down,” Hettema said
As a practice, the approach ties together phases of engineering projects in a more integrated way than is possible with traditional means, in part by data sharing.
“It’s really establishing sources of truth in models that can be broadly used, digitally, by other engineering processes,” said Mike Nash, director of digital engineering solutions at GDIT. “If we can execute these processes faster, we’re saving money, saving time. … We expect the execution of these processes to be higher quality, and that higher quality leads to lower-risk products.”
Much more than simply computer-aided design, which it incorporates, DE enables the building and testing of products as digital models before committing anything to metal or software code, Nash explained. Those “sources of truth” form a digital thread linking the lifecycle phases of each product, he added.
DE happens when you combine modeling, which is defining structure, behavior and sources of truth, with simulation, which is executing those models to get results, Nash said. In doing so, a project team can then do analyses against multiple paraments and research alternatives.
Achieving the goals of DE — less risk, faster deliverables and lower lifecycle costs — requires new ways of working, plus learning new tools. Therefore, moving to DE approaches in turn requires transforming the acquisition, design, engineering and maintenance workforces.
A case in point: the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division of the Naval Air Systems Command. Sandy Neville, digital engineering influencer with the division, said NAVAIR’s leadership encourages cultural change. Somewhat ironically, it requires risk-taking to acquire the skills and methodologies of DE to achieve lower risks in projects, Neville pointed out.
“We just need to figure out what the challenges are in the workforce,” Neville said, “What is the resistance? How do we need to train them? How do we bring them into the fold and feel comfortable? I look at my job as getting people comfortable in this arena.”
That skill and comfort level extends to people early in a product’s lifecycle, particularly the acquisition team. Tony Still, digital engineering subject matter expert at the Army Development Command’s Aviation and Missile Center, said the acquisition challenge stems from “being able to quickly and seamlessly — and with as little friction as possible — accelerate that acquisition development process using these tools.”
As an eventual system of systems, JADC2 components are under development as separate projects within the armed forces. A Pentagon-level cross-functional team oversees integration of the armed forces’ components, under the 2022 JADC2 implementation plan.
The Air Force provides one view of how this would work. Grigaliunas described a comprehensive digital modernization initiative that includes development of the Advanced Battle Management System. ABMS is the Air Force’s part of JADC2. (Project Convergence will come from the Army, and Project Overmatch from the Navy.)
The Air Force has taken several steps to bolster a DE approach to ABMS and other projects, Grigaliunas said.
“We’re really trying to do five things: improve and develop infrastructure, establish data platforms, create and scale applications, empower people and teams, and improve processes,” he said.
These efforts required technical upgrades, including development of a tool called the Multi-Analytical Computational Environment. MACE enables faster movement of data among developers in multiple locations, and it’s “a server running models to do more digitally informed physical tests,” Grigaliunas said.
DE requires uniting both physical locations but also digital ones, the Army’s Still said.
“Part of the challenge that all the services are facing now in this digital engineering world, in this model-based world, is that convergent space between operational technology and information technology is not as clean.” He said the infrastructure to support DE must let people share data, drawings, models and test results across domains in a collaborative way.
“How do we not just email and clone and grow these files, but rather how do we streamline things like authorization and access across IT environments?” Still said.
Another digital engineering adoption challenge? Avoiding vendor lock-in. “Being locked into a single vendor is definitely a big concern we have across the department,” DoD’s Hettema said. “We know that [industry is] out there doing great, innovative approaches. So, from a policy and guidance side, we focus a lot on how we make sure we’re applying the proper open standards” for processes like modeling and data interchange.
Added GDIT’s Nash: “We think we should have solutions that utilize those open standards for the definition of digital threads. Any government agency that utilizes that can then be able to shop around and find the most effective solution within that framework.”
JADC2 offers a perfect example of why open standards are essential because of “the continuous nature of information pulled precisely from many different applications,” Nash said. “That must be represented in a common fashion.”
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