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Digital Transformation: A Necessity for Aerospace and Defense

Under pressure to modernize operations, aerospace companies and defense agencies around the world are seeking to transform themselves and their businesses to be faster, more agile, innovative and sustainable – while at the same time, reducing their overall program risk and cost to improve program execution.

Already A&D companies are grappling with modern-day challenges such as how to build existing systems and platforms faster within budget; how to best embrace our current wave of innovation to develop new, highly integrated and connected systems and products faster; the increased integration of mechanical, electrical, electronics and software systems/subsystems into a single platform; and how to better support products once in service or deployed.

The Great Digital Transformation

If the industry is to survive or even thrive in this increasingly challenging environment, it is incumbent upon aerospace companies and defense agencies to digitally transform their operations to be more productive, innovative and collaborative. The key to their business transformation is digital transformation.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Electric aircraft startup, Bye Aerospace, has embraced the digital transformation to develop and integrate structural and mechanical systems quickly and more easily, along with creating significant advances in aerodynamics. By implementing a seamless, end-to-end development process, the company benefits from cost savings and improved overall operating performance across the entire product development lifecycle.

Leading aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, has also instituted its own set of digital transformation processes. In the area of electrical/electronic (E/E) systems development, the company will have a highly unified design environment in place for its multi-country development team for engineering and manufacturing of electrical systems and wire harnesses.

We’re also seeing adoption in the defense sector as well.

A good example is the United States Air Force. To fulfill its vision during these times of intense competition and growing program complexity—the USAF decided to fight these head winds by adopting a digital transformation plan. In early 2021, USAF announced plans to use Teamcenter as the foundational system to support modernizing its digital acquisition and sustainment strategies for design, build and repair.

A short time after the USAF announcement, Northrop Grumman, announced that they too would be expanding their use of Siemens Xcelerator to complement their digital initiatives. The company will leverage Xcelerator as part of their technology stack to help manage the digital engineering design process, integrate repositories of program data, seamlessly share product performance, and a whole lot more.

The old saying “time is money” resonates loud and clear in this industry. Nothing is more critical to lowering program costs than reducing cycle time and getting those capabilities into the hands of customers. When Lockheed Martin Aeronautics selected the Xcelerator portfolio for all new and existing programs, the primary driving force was the idea that the company could transform its business with a modern, integrated and open digital solution approach which could reduce program cycle time by greater than 50 percent. The power of the comprehensive digital twin connected with a robust foundation of digital threads enables a robust understanding of the new systems capabilities (and how to produce them), streamlines workflows, and acts as an authoritative source of truth, fostering both transparency and visibility – exactly what companies need to effectively lead their programs.

Whether it’s an agency like the U.S. Air Force, a large OEM like Airbus, or a startup like Bye Aerospace, the goal is the same – to not just bend the cost and schedule curves, but to break them in an era where new aircraft are exponentially more complex. Companies are embracing digital transformation in a way that benefits their unique demands and challenges.

Defining the ‘Digital Transformation’

To successfully complete a digital transformation, aerospace and defense companies—along with their supply chain partners—need to have both a digital twin and digital thread in place. When we talk about a “digital transformation” we’re talking about both a digital twin and multiple digital threads. A comprehensive digital twin enables a company to better predict product performance and production processes by analyzing, simulating and verifying before physical production begins. “Flying it before you build it” can significantly reduce development time and costs and speed delivery of the final product.

Now here’s where it gets interesting, while a digital twin can be set up for just about anything in the engineering or manufacturing disciplines, if it’s not connected or integrated to all phases of product lifecycle development, companies are not realizing the twin’s full potential. In the aerospace and defense sector, we see examples of the digital twin and 3D CAD implementations. But it’s more than just managing 3D CAD – teams need a digital thread that seamlessly connects all aspects of the product twin to other phases of the development and production program for the continuous exchange of data – the automation of data – up and down the product development lifecycle (Figure 1).

Verify on the Fly Siemens
Figure 1: By implementing a digital thread, teams can verify requirements of complex systems faster – and share that information with teams from other product design domains.

With the digital thread, all processes are connected. Customers gain a deeper understanding and greater visibility into all product development phases up and down the value chain.

Digital Transformation and the Future of Manufacturing

Ultimately, if aerospace teams and defense agencies are to succeed in their digital transformation, global collaboration along with the latest tools must be introduced into the production and assembly process. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies will play a key role in the future.  

Siemens AR on factory floor
Figure 2: AR on the factory floor – a key component to an end-to-end, model-based enterprise.

VR and AR technologies strengthen the link between the virtual design world and the physical factory floor (Figure 2). With a proper set-up, teams are able to replace 2D drawings and work instructions with 3D augmented reality. This allows users to locate parts using the rich features already available in the 3D models, thus completing an end-to-end, model-based enterprise operating in real time.

Tailored work instructions using AR is another feature of the smart factory. In most situations, work  instructions are based on the complexity of the installation; how often the task is performed, or whether the installation has changed since the last time it was completed. With AR tools, teams receive automatic verification notices once the part is installed, and the work is completed. This type of data can be shared across teams and across multiple locations. On the factory floor, this can be implemented via smart wearables freeing up the technician to do other activities simultaneously.

Time to Make the Digital Transformation Part of Your Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

At Siemens, we are committed to the overwhelming success of our aerospace and defense customers whether it’s large established leaders or emerging startups. Our goal is to help our customers achieve their strategic objectives for innovating new products faster with a focus on digitalization and sustainability. Siemens Digital Industries Software offers the broadest solutions for aerospace engineering and manufacturing. And as a trusted A&D partner, and through the power of our Xcelerator portfolio, we enable the further enhancement of automation and collaboration across all domains from engineering to manufacturing to product sustainment.

Considering a digital transformation within your agency or company – at a pace that fits your goals and objectives – is exactly what the industry needs right now. Let’s all join together to build products faster, at less cost, and in the process, create something that’s truly a game-changer.  

Dale Tutt is the Vice President of Aerospace and Defense Industry, for Siemens Digital Industries Software. He is responsible for defining the industry strategy for Siemens, leading definition of industry solutions for Aerospace and Defense customers.