Model courtesy of Bye Aerospace Inc.

We've made some impressive strides from both a societal and industry perspective in the face of this unrelenting pandemic. And while the Aerospace and Defense (A&D) industry has been hit exceptionally hard, it will emerge stronger, better, and faster.

The good news is we are seeing plenty of innovation these days. Electric propulsion, for example, is quickly emerging as a new energy alternative. Not only because it's safer and easier to maintain, but also because it's a green energy solution. Whether we're talking electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOLs), air taxis or the commercial aircraft, electric propulsion will soon be here. And have you noticed the resurgence in supersonic aircraft? What about all the great things SpaceX is doing for space travel? Space is now the new frontier for smaller, smarter, more nimble companies.

With all this innovation it's incumbent upon companies to find new ways to reduce program risk and cost while getting their product to market faster. When you think about the traditional waterfall approach used for decades, it's clear these 10- or 15-year product development life cycles no longer apply in our current environment. A new process is needed. One that harnesses today's technologies and promise. Today, everything must be done right the first time — in a fraction of the time.

Introducing “Agile” into Your Organization

How does our industry embrace innovation and complexity while staying fleet of foot? The answer is agile product development. While in the past, “agile” to many might have been a euphemism for chaos, this is no longer true. Today's agile product development represents a modern approach to product lifecycle management (PLM), providing an extremely well-planned and executed process and program with a host of design, test, and manufacturing advantages. Consider the following:

  • What if teams could build and test their product before the full design is complete and actually start to learn something about it?

  • What if integration was not just about managing interfaces around suppliers, but also about managing technical risks so that teams could manage schedules more efficiently?

  • What if silos that exist between teams and partners were dissolved so everyone could truly collaborate and accelerate innovation?

Legacy agile software development has been around for some time, but the industry needs to approach agile product development in a totally different manner. It's more than people, tools, and process. It's about having a digital backbone that ties everything together. True agile product development is based on a comprehensive digital twin for simulation models, 3D CAD and additive manufacturing to name just a few possibilities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Agile product development takes advantage of Siemens’ comprehensive digital twin and digital thread technologies adding virtualization, collaboration, and automation to every step of the product development process. (Photo: Model courtesy of Zipline International Inc.)

Agile is a continuous, iterative approach that builds testing, validation, and verification of the product and manufacturing into the entire product development process. With the help of the digital twin, users gain access to all types of software and capabilities in every phase of product development. Agile is about breaking a program down into sprints, and within each sprint, teams test, verify, and validate until the goals of each predetermined “sprint” are met.

Building and Incorporating Sprints

A sprint breaks a program down into manageable bits so teams can focus on completing one aspect of the program before moving to the next. The first sprint typically lays down the foundation for the program, as well as the next sprint. These sprints can take many forms depending on the product. For a new aircraft, there might be a wing sprint, then a tail sprint, and then a cockpit sprint. With a small, agile team, it is faster to break the project into manageable chunks and focus on each section to accelerate maturity. If you're an eVTOL startup, for example, one of the primary concerns of an early sprint is likely let's make sure the aircraft can fly!

Each consecutive sprint adds more functionality or capabilities and could also introduce a different level or new type of testing. The best thing about sprints is that teams can focus on short-term goals that meet the long-term goals of the program. Returning to the eVTOL example, in a mid-stage sprint they are probably looking at designing and perfecting structural integrity, aerodynamics, and propulsion. As they move through each sprint, they would do more simulation-driven design.

Next, how does the eVTOL company build what they have been flying in the wind tunnel? But wait, what if after all that testing, last-minute funding comes in asking the company to move from a two-seater to a five-seater aircraft? It's easy to make the necessary changes because they can draw upon previous sprints. Going a step further, there are the challenges behind certification. Companies today must contend with increased complexity when it's time to address product certification, but think of all the federal, state, and local regulations that must also be met.

A sprint with active feedback loops that includes both virtual product verification and manufacturing can serve as an invaluable tool at this phase. Moreover, being part of the digital thread means all kinds of data is available to the team responsible for certification, with full traceability to accelerate the process.

Finally, there's manufacturing. How does a company move from prototype to manufacturing? The power of digital transformation is fully realized here in how much faster teams can move when it's time to ramp up the production rate. If they're building airplanes, it's not just getting the first airplane out the door, it's building 10, 20, or 50 a month. Using virtual tools and the production digital twin, a sprint can give teams a strong understanding of their manufacturing processes. Often referred to as virtual commissioning, it's the capability of using simulation to validate that the factory is going to meet all necessary requirements.

Figure 2. By incorporating Siemens NX software into a sprint, teams can streamline and accelerate design, simulation, and manufacturing processes with the full support of digital twin. (Photo: Model courtesy of Bye Aerospace Inc.)

It is safe to say a sprint takes the risk out of the process and allows A&D companies to achieve their goals in a far more flexible manner (Figure 2).

Agile means you can incorporate multiple disciplines — electronics, mechanical, simulation, and software into the process. Eventually a sprint might bring in elements of generative design, which adds a new level of multi-domain optimization.

The model-based systems engineering (MBSE) thread plays a major role here. It's a big part of the composite design and manufacturing process. MBSE can also bring in integrated electrical and mechanical system design into the process. Electrical systems are integral to many A&D programs today. Bringing this integrated electrical and mechanical system together via the MBSE can help accelerate the entire design process and ensure a quicker hand-off of the electronic system to wire harness and software design.

Is Agile in Your Future?

One of the biggest takeaways with agile product development is companies can mature their product faster. They also reap more capabilities from the desired product. We've had customers report this already. They're using connected design tools for virtual simulation and testing that have saved significant time in their schedules. By bringing in tools for design, engineering, and manufacturing and tying them together in the comprehensive digital twin, they are accelerating and optimizing the overall design process, which often results in substantial cost savings as well.

With sprints, teams become more agile in their execution and decision-making. Additionally, more people are empowered to make better decisions based on better information because they share the digital thread, which provides trace-ability and connectivity.

At the end of the day, our customers are reducing their development time through agile product development. Some have already achieved that 50 percent reduction in development time and are improving quality in the process. In fact, some customers are getting close to 90 percent first-pass yield on their design and manufacturing process. They have less rework when they get to manufacturing. And so, with agile product design, you'll see benefits in the design world, but also, and more importantly, you'll gain noticeable advantages in the manufacturing world, too.

When it comes down to it, although agile product development helps teams through the entire product lifecycle go faster with less risk, the real value behind agile product development is when it's time to build — teams have the ability and flexibility to get things done.

This article is written by Dale Tutt, Vice President of Aerospace and Defense Industry at Siemens Digital Industries Software (Plano, TX). For more info visit here .