Electronic and electrical (E/E) design demands of the 21st century will no doubt present a tremendous challenge throughout the aerospace and defense industry. Profitability in all phases of platform development will be challenged. Along with staying profitable, there is a need to innovate. But with innovation comes risk. How do you limit risk to stay profitable?

Today, addressing exposure arising from electrification must be part of the mix. For example, while E/E content infuses long-term value into platforms, it brings new uncertainty to the task of platform integration. Historical platform integration approaches, dominated by processes optimized for the mechanical discipline, must be updated or perhaps even replaced.

Further, aerospace design complexity is compounding dramatically year over year. Now more than ever, design requirements interact across multiple disciplines to impact the product hierarchy across the supply chain, demanding sophisticated implementations and increasing program risk. Other issues and challenges exacerbating program risk include:

  • Greater pressure on profit margins from new competitors

  • The need to continuously increase production rates

  • An increasing number of government/safety regulations

  • New and tighter cost controls

  • Greater emphasis on just-in-time, quality deliverables

  • The need to re-purpose and re-use across multiple platforms

  • More supply chain collaboration and automation

In order to address these mounting demands — and stay competitive — OEMs are moving toward the digitalization of electrical and electronic systems. Digitalization means using a comprehensive digital twin and digital thread to improve business operations, i.e. to improve and optimize the way work gets accomplished across domains and throughout the entire value chain.

Moving to an integrated digitalized approach, seamlessly exploiting what is known about the product and its production process at any given time, allows manufacturers to achieve a much better balance between innovation and risk. With it, design project teams stand a much better chance of staying within budget and on time. Already, intelligent digitalized solutions have been successfully deployed in various program domains to design and implement aircraft electrical/electronic systems. This trend will only intensify as electrification takes hold of the future.

Old Methods No Longer Apply

Figure 1. Moving from drawings to digitalization.

Because electronically enabled functions are being introduced into all aspects of the platform, semi-manual development methods of the past are no longer adequate and in many situations are counterproductive. On a single commercial aircraft today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of electronic devices/units, miles of electrical wiring, a multitude of configurations to implement, and numerous safety and certification requirements to take into consideration. Manual and disjointed hand-off of requirements, work-in-process design data, and final product descriptions are no longer an efficient business practice. Figure 1 highlights the advantages digitalization can bring.

Platforms Are Now More Electrical

Two major trends shape the aerospace industry today. First, increasing mission demands are escalating platform performance requirements. Whether it’s further extending the range of twin-engine commercial aircraft or enhancing fighter effectiveness using a swarm of remotely controlled drones, OEMs demand more mission capabilities.

The second trend is electrification. More than ever, platform developers implement the functionality required to deliver new mission capabilities using electrical solutions. These include electrically enabled capabilities such as autoland and in-flight entertainment (IFE). Furthermore, electrical approaches are increasingly replacing mechanical, pneumatic, and hydraulic implementations of existing functionality; for example, fly-by-wire systems, electronic flight instrument systems (EFIS), and combined vision systems (CVS) are now commonplace. In fact, electrical functionality is expected to become the dominant discipline in the future. Why? The benefits range from increased reliability, to increased payload (i.e. reduced function weight), to lower energy demand.

While the industry has made tremendous strides in introducing E/E systems into modern platforms with obvious benefits to both the OEM and customer, it has driven platform power demand to new levels. Statistics reveal there’s been a 10× increase in power consumption aboard modern aircraft over the past 50 years.

It wasn’t too long ago when major aircraft OEMs were reluctant to install passenger USB ports on commercial aircraft because device recharging had a direct, detrimental effect on the aircraft’s overall power availability. The introduction of increased power generation and integrated electrical solutions has made it possible for passengers to plug in and recharge their personal USB devices from the comfort of their own seat. This real-world example illustrates the ongoing electrical demands. Increased power consumption is a very real and growing concern.

The Rise of EWIS

Another implication of the increased use of electrical solutions is the increased size, weight, and complexity of the electrical wiring interconnect system (EWIS); for example, a business jet can include more than 120 independent electrical systems. Its EWIS could easily be composed of 350 harnesses, comprising as many as 30,000 wire segments. This could add up to more than 50 miles of wire and more than 100,000 parts.

Increasing platform electrical content has resulted in EWIS weight growing faster than other aircraft elements, now accounting for up to three percent of total platform weight. With the increased use of digital communications, EWIS content has moved from simple, point-to-point analog connections to more sophisticated digital buses to enable onboard network data communication. These can require expensive data cables, including high-bandwidth fiber, driving EWIS cost and manufacturing complexity.

Finally, EWIS complexity is compounded by a myriad of rules to minimize electrical interference, account for hazard zones, and of course, ensure certification.

With the increase in electrical system content and complexity, a single iteration during design, verification, or compliance can place the entire program in jeopardy. Given the rise in electrification and complexity, moving to an intelligent digitalized solution now may help aerospace OEMs avoid possible calamities in the future.

The Industry is Ready for Historic Disruption

The use of digital technologies promises to transform the aerospace industry in ways that are possible today and in ways not yet imagined many years from now. Digitalization gives rise to a comprehensive digital twin and digital thread that bring together multiple engineering domains to collaborate effectively up and down the supply chain. The digital twin allows for the creation of an interconnected and automated value chain, within and extending beyond the platform OEM. Stakeholders within the OEM ecosystem employ a digital thread, exploiting digital data continuity, to reference a single model of the platform’s electrical system — its digital twin — across the platform’s lifecycle.

Emergence of the Digital Twin and Digital Thread

A comprehensive digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical product or business process used to understand and predict outcomes of the physical counterpart. Performance characteristics can be tested on the digital twin before the actual implementation begins. A digital twin can be utilized throughout the product lifecycle to simulate, predict, and optimize the product and/or production system before committing to a major investment.

By incorporating multiphysics simulation, data analytics, and machine learning capabilities, digital twins are able to demonstrate the impact of design changes, production options, usage scenarios, environmental conditions, and other endless variables — reducing the need for physical prototypes, compressing development time, and improving quality of the final product or process.

Figure 2. The comprehensive digital twin of product, production, and performance is connected by the digital thread — the “lifeline” that brings data together from the design, production, and operating lifecycles.

Generally speaking, the digital twin can be used in the product, production, and performance (Figure 2) phases. The combination and integration of the three phases is accomplished by the digital thread. The term “thread” is used because it is woven into and brings together data from all stages of the design, production, and performance lifecycles. The digital thread is made possible by employing software tools and architectures that natively incorporate digital data continuity across the many representations of the product, its production processes, and its performance (or maintenance).

Benefits of Using a Comprehensive Digital Twin

A comprehensive digital twin provides a core model of the product lifecycle, allowing aerospace teams (and future engineers) to create, iterate, replicate, and improve valuable programs. The results are data coherency and stability, integration, and advanced automation. This significantly de-risks and streamlines platform electrical system design and integration processes. The digital twin also offers clear benefits to those who buy and service aerospace products, including lifecycle cost analysis and savings, faster maintenance turnaround times, and greater platform operational availability.

It’s also about feedback up and down and throughout the value chain. The digital thread reaches back to the early stages of product design and spreads rich data forward into platform production. In essence, designers, fabricators, assemblers, suppliers, maintainers, and operators create a full, closed-loop decision environment for continuous optimization throughout all aspects of the value chain.

For the aerospace industry, digitalization by way of the comprehensive digital twin and digital thread delivers the following advantages:

  • Reduces risk of cost and schedule overruns

  • Improves productivity

  • Improves technical performance

  • Automates electronic and electrical systems

  • Increases first-time quality and design efficiency

The digital enterprise for aerospace OEMs allows program leaders to keep commitments to their customers, helps users within teams to keep promises of quality, and enables engineering teams to explore and advance highly innovative products.

Conclusion

New innovation. Increased complexity. Pressure to deliver complex platforms on time and within budget. As we enter a new era in aerospace development, digital technologies will keep companies competitive, successful, and profitable. Digitalization gives teams a new way of looking at familiar challenges along with incorporating new methods to deal with a growing list of complexities to lower risk throughout the entire product lifecycle.

By grounding the electrical discipline in a more integrated and digitalized environment, aerospace manufacturers can increase engineering team and vendor engagement, improve response times, introduce new technology and innovation, and improve affordability up and down the supply chain through repurpose and re-use.

Most important, engineering teams will reduce the probability of being surprised by an unexpected issue during platform integration that could force a costly iteration, which in turn, could impact budget, schedules, and perhaps individual careers.

This article was written by Anthony Nicoli, Director of Aerospace & Defense for the Integrated Electrical Systems (IES) segment of Siemens Digital Industries Software, Plano, TX. For more information, visit here .


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This article first appeared in the August, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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