Design & SimulationJanuary 21, 2021

Digital Transformation Starts with Concept Design

2020 was a challenging year for Aerospace & Defense, but especially so…
Randall Newton

2020 was a challenging year for Aerospace & Defense, but especially so for commercial aerospace. Not only did the pandemic cause a drastic drop in passenger traffic, but the repercussions of the Boeing 737 MAX grounding created a ripple effect through the massive supply chain. 2021 looks to be a recovery year, as commercial traffic picks up and Boeing resumes delivery of new 737 MAX aircraft.

The effects of 2020 in commercial aerospace won’t be completely washed away in 2021. Analysts like Deloitte foresee a slow uptick in demand.

Traditionally, years of decline or slow growth are considered the best time to update design and engineering technology. Even though the aerospace industry is generally considered an early adopter of new technology, such adoption is uneven. Such hit-and-miss technology upgrades are especially challenging because of the increased importance of the supply chain. Every member of a supply chain needs to benefit equally from best-in-class engineering technology.

Supplier-created content in all of Aerospace & Defense (A&D) now represents between 50%-60% of all value in a typical project, according to Bob Stevens, Retired Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation. The shift is mostly attributable to demand for more affordable products. Industry OEMs are outsourcing complex critical systems to their supply chain, increasing the design complexity required of Prime and Tier 1 suppliers. These top-level suppliers roll the complexity down to their smaller Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers.

“Digital transformation” is the buzzword for the current round of technology upgrades. Digital transformation is more than upgrading some software, it is a reworking of basic workflows, data models, and organization oversight to achieve the full potential of contemporary technology. Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers need to embrace digital transformation as much as the largest manufacturers.

It is generally agreed the first step on the road to digital transformation is to adopt Model Based Design (MBD), required in order to advance into a Model Based Enterprise (MBE). Design principles don’t change just because one moves from a drafting table to the computer. The goal of digital transformation at the initial design stage is to capture every concept into a shared environment, so data can be accessible to all. When concepts move to engineering, all the ideas and the architecture behind them are immediately accessible.

Model Based Design sets collaboration as the standard from the start. Key decisions captured during concept design are moved into detailing automatically. Existing legacy software, with its reliance on file-based data, does little to help companies reduce the number of design or engineering iterations. Beyond Version Control, Model Based Design always has all the data and all the changes available as needed. Time savings are significant, with a positive ripple effect throughout the entire product development process.

Concept Design today is about much more than matching shape and function to a goal. This is the age of robotics, machine vision, and additive manufacturing. Even at the early conceptual stages, logical and physical ideas for both mechanics and electrical systems must be established. Using flexible 2D/3D tools allows even the smallest members of the supply chain to study possibilities, test kinematics, and reach concept validation sooner.

MBD is holistic; it drives benefit to the entire design-to-manufacturing chain. A key driver of this holistic approach is visibility. Collaboration and traceability is easy when all data is visible to every team member. Sending files back and forth is replaced by opening a dashboard and going to work; the current state of design is always online.

Team members can sometimes work in parallel, such as wiring schematics and harnesses in tandem with 3D mechanical design. The newest CAD tools for model based design feature generative design tools, which partially automate the search for optimal geometry. Generative design also is important when designing for additive manufacturing, simplifying such tasks as lightweighting.

Model based design workflows also allow formal tracking of requirements from the earliest stages, and continue in an unbroken thread to manufacturing.

Model based design follows the old adage about change orders: the earlier you make changes in a project, the less such changes cost. Late-stage design issues are costly.

Digital transformation is not going away. For smaller firms, it is better to take it a step at a time, starting with model based design. As engineering teams become more adept with the new workflow, it becomes easier to pursue additional digital transformation initiatives.

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