When GE Aviation designs engines, like Catalyst, all data will now be housed a single spot so all team members can access it (Image source: GE Aviation).

Aerospace suppliers harness PLM, centralize data for collaborative system design and development

GE Aviation, Orbital ATK adopt PLM software to streamline engineering workflows and advance system designs.
As the complexity of aircraft rises, it’s becoming more difficult to ensure that all the mechanical and electrical elements work together well. To ensure that all designers work toward a single goal, some suppliers have moved to a centralized database tool that holds all design data, making it easier to see how one change impacts other aspects of the aircraft.
More companies are establishing data management schemes that enable design and manufacturing engineers to work more closely together. GE Aviation, a subsidiary of General Electric, in Evendale, Ohio, and Orbital ATK, an aerospace and defense contractor currently being acquired for $7.8 billion by Northrop Grumman Corp., in Falls Church, Va., are among the suppliers that have moved to centralized management systems for design and manufacturing projects that let engineers share electrical and mechanical CAD files.
“We went to a single library that supports multiple organizations,” says Travis Carter, senior electrical systems engineer at GE Aviation. “We have a global, centralized electrical computer-aided design/mechanical computer-aided design (ECAD/MCAD) database.”
Using centralized data management helps suppliers use so-called “digital twins” – digital representations of physical assets -- to develop products and move them into production, simulating designs and setting up production lines using digital models.
“The ECAD/MCAD database provides a historical record, from cradle to grave,” Carter adds. “We can vault documents so they’re always easy to find. It’s not like having a server that gets full, so files are transferred and you need to search for them. In the vault, they’re always safe and in one place.”
Carter and Orbital Systems Engineer Michael Lamoreaux both detailed their adoption programs during the recent Siemens PLM Connection conference in Phoenix. Orbital’s acquisition by Northrop Grumman was approved by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission days after the conference. Northrop Grumman officials plan to rename Orbital ATK as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.
Lamoreaux noted during the conference that product lifecycle management (PLM) tools make it easier for the many groups involved in equipment design and production to share data, detailing Orbital’s adoption of Siemens Teamcenter software.
“Now it’s more federated, we can simply exchange data instead of trying to make systems talk,” Lamoreaux said. “Teamcenter is like one large Swiss Army knife.”
Carter and Lamoreaux provided a number of tips for companies that are making the transition to some sort of PLM database management system. As with many large, corporate-wide programs, planning the base structures is an important step toward success.
“All things are foundational, based on the ECAD/MCAD database,” Carter said. “All the tools use the library as a foundation for their metrics. The stronger you build the ECAD/MCAD database foundation, the better off you are.”
Carter cited taxonomies as a factor that can be streamlined to make it simpler to manage data. GE Aviation went from 139 taxonomies for part description to around 20. Both speakers also stressed the need to inform relevant parties when there are changes to elements that impact their designs. When global teams share files, the data management system must ensure that all parties know how the project is advancing.
“The most important factor is putting in the requirements and making them easy to work with,” Lamoreaux said. “If you don’t do that, it’s a challenge to get the parameters you need. If engineers can pull the requirements out, they can synch their requirements parameters so if someone makes a change in one place, it will show up in other places related to that parameter.”
Carter noted that the system needs to block component use so an engineer doesn’t spend time working on something that’s being revised by a coworker. The system must also prevent problems when possible.
“The key to a global management system is that when you use a part, you need to check it out,” Carter said. “Nobody can change it or access it. You can work in a sandbox, if you make a change in the sandbox, the system will flag it if it’s not compatible with what’s out there.”
Noting that engineers are often reluctant to change their operating methodologies, Carter devised a strategy that helped allay concerns about transitioning to a PLM system. He found groups that had had problems with the tools used before the transition. They helped develop the transition plan, and their discussions about the prototype deployment helped create a positive view within groups that made the transition later. 
“To simplify the transition, find user groups with pain due to issues with the existing system,” Carter advised. “We had people who talked about how much better this worked. Soon other groups saw it, said it was cool, and they wanted to use it.”


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