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Digital Transformation in Mobility Engineering

Posted: January 11, 2023 

Part 1 of a 2-part series on digital transformation initiatives in the mobility industry.

The U.S. Air Force’s new T-7A Red Hawk aircraft is a sleek, efficient pilot training platform with fighter-like capabilities. Using digital twin and digital thread technology to model and manage the design/build process, development partners Boeing and Saab were able to take the plane from concept to wheels-up in just 3 years—that’s 2 years faster than the industry average of 5 years.

While that’s impressive, the partner companies also reported that their use of digital tools in the process enabled a 75% increase in engineering quality, an 80% reduction in assembly hours, and a 50% reduction in software development and verification time on the Red Hawk project.

Taking the digital leap in the design, build, test and maintenance of complex products and systems, like aircraft, can transform the development process from beginning to end and can allow significant benefits in productivity and ROI across the business model.  From aerospace companies to construction firms, organizations across industries are finding that digital transformation can do the same for them.

How Aerospace Benefits from a Digital Strategy

In a recent study focused on aerospace companies, industry consultant Accenture noted that “Companies that embrace digital at the core of their business achieve up to four times improvement on their digital investments than other industry players. Their digital returns even beat the industry average for returns on overall invested capital.”

When implemented correctly, the move to digital can drive efficiencies that solve short-term problems while providing a foundation to achieve long-term business goals. A well-planned digital roadmap can allow for incremental system improvements along with their resultant gains. This approach can reduce the risk involved when companies attempt to take on too much change at once.

One area ripe for the benefits of digital transformation is the aerospace product development process. Incremental improvements achieved by the move to digital, like the Red Hawk example, have shown concrete results in the ability of companies to get products to market faster, maintain product quality, achieve design goals, and simplify requirements traceability.

Digital Twins and Digital Threads

There are two primary areas where digital transformation is helping to streamline the product development process:

  • Digital twins create virtual products, known as digital twins, that mimic the characteristics of a physical object or system. From a design perspective, this permits the manipulation and testing of design and performance specifications prior to manufacturing, saving time and prototyping costs.
  • Digital threads: form a data and communications framework connecting the various elements of a product’s lifecycle from design, test, and manufacturing, through  maintenance and even de-commissioning or disposal. This enables productive communication and collaboration among the various lifecycle participants and allows for full traceability in audits.

Why Use Digital Twins and Digital Threads?

Digital twins and digital threads form the backbone of the modern product development process. Their features and benefits have led an increasing list of companies to explore their use across the aerospace industry, however, the move to digital reinvention can be a challenging decision for some. In fact, in a recent study co-sponsored by McKinsey & Company and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) just 35% of aerospace companies reported the use of digital technology to refine their product designs or improve their engineering function. While the digital transition effort can look sizeable at the outset, the rewards can be impressive.

Digital Evolution in Aerospace: A Bit of History

The design of modern aircraft has been somewhat paperless since the 1990s with the growth and acceptance of model-based CAD systems in engineering and CAM systems on the factory floor. The early adoption of digitization in R&D and design departments was largely due to the complexity of the systems being developed and the need for speed-to-market while simultaneously meeting increased demand for system performance.

As Dale Tutt, VP of Aerospace and Defense at Siemens Digital Industries Software noted in a recent SAE International article, “Aerospace programs are increasingly more complex, and products are highly integrated and dominated by software and software-hardware hybrids. Addressing the rise of electrification, new technology, and new business models also contributes to growing complexity.”

The next steps in the complete digitization of the development process, however, have already been taken by some future-focused companies, as in the Boeing/Saab partnership on the Red Hawk trainer. Design and production numbers like this demand attention, and that attention is being given by companies seeking system-wide improvement. As professional services firm Deloitte noted in a recent report, “Digital technologies can open new opportunities for innovation in the aerospace and defense industry by not only reducing the time to design, develop, and commercialize new products, but also by providing insights and ideas from different stakeholders that feed back  into the development cycle”.

Next Steps in Digital Transformation

As the industry adopts faster-moving digital processes, how will compliance and change management keep pace? We address these questions in Part 2 of this blog series.