Digital engineering speeds development of 6th gen aircraft systems
In September 2020, the Air Force's acquisition lead made a surprise announcement. Will Roper, then U.S. Air Force assistant secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, announced that the Air Force's next-generation combat aircraft had already made its first flight. The aircraft, which has never been seen by the public, will replace the F-35 and F-22 as the service’s premier fighter jet.
It was designed and prototyped quickly, and in secret, using a concept called digital engineering.
Engineers at Raytheon Intelligence & Space are embracing the concepts of digital engineering to fast-track development of the innovations that will make up next-generation aircraft systems.
“We will use our digital capabilities in three ways – it's transforming our products, it's adapting how we work, and it's optimizing our operations,” said Roy Azevedo, RI&S president.
Digital engineering uses a single common reference data set to complete the entire product delivery process – design, fabrication and sustainment – reducing the amount of human hand-off as much as possible.
“Digital engineering methods meet the needs of our customers today and their evolving needs of the future,” said John Balaguer, vice president of Engineering at RI&S, a Raytheon Technologies business. “The ongoing digital transformation will improve our speed to market and agility, and is critical to the growth of our business.”
“Imagine we are playing a video game with the system we are designing,” said Mike Crist, digital engineering practitioner at the RI&S Hardware Center. “If we are building a radar, we can fly it on an airplane in a simulated world to make sure it detects what we want before implementing all the hardware choices. We have previously demonstrated planned performance data, and we can now apply it to visualize simulated performance. That allows us to show our customers we can build it, and our solution will perform as specified.”
Performance is not the only variable digital engineering adjusts. A digital thread of data connecting models, sometimes from different companies, gives engineers a better idea of how small design changes can affect cost and schedule many years into the future.
“It is very hard to develop a brand new system and accurately predict when it will be fielded,” said Hefty Conklin, chief engineer for Advanced Mission Systems at RI&S. “When we are starting from scratch, going from engineering development and design to fabrication, and ultimately to fielding, ending on a certain day and staying on cost is huge. You don’t have all the answers up front. However, digital engineering gives us a new understanding of factors like tradeoffs between cost and performance. It is significant from a standpoint of knowing how to execute what you propose in a plan to the customer.”
Raytheon Intelligence & Space engineers recently used digital engineering on a new RF subsystem. After designing the system based on government requirements, they found that waiting for a component under development was going to delay the project up to six months. A switch to an existing part met the operational requirements. The small change still met customer needs but greatly reduced the overall risk in the project.
“There are pilot projects happening all over Raytheon Intelligence & Space,” said Crist. “We are getting out of top-level thinking and getting down to brass tacks. Digital engineering blows the other approaches’ metrics out of the water.”
Engineers are finding the digital thread creates a new understanding that cuts out a lot of “busy work.”
“We spend a lot of time and effort upfront writing detailed requirements before a project can begin,” said Conklin. “With digital engineering, we try to start coding on Day One. We use the lessons of the coding to inform requirements. I think that Raytheon Intelligence & Space comprehends the breadth of what digital engineering is truly meant to be. It’s an end-to-end truth source, meaning it’s not just applied early in a program. It endures throughout a program and only ends when the system is decommissioned.”
Digital engineering is beginning to deliver on a lot of promise to speed innovation for Raytheon Intelligence & Space’s government customers, but there is a lot of work to be done to change the culture and implement it fully.
“There are a lot of benefits to our business and our customers that digital engineering can deliver,” said Crist. “The simple one is a reduction in the amount of manual labor in doing engineering in general. We can crisply show very well-defined touchpoints that are hidden costs in our system design that we can expose, automate and eliminate using digital engineering. That allows our engineers to focus on more creative work. That’s a really big payout.”