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Manufacturers around the world are grappling with the challenge of continuous innovation in the face of increasing complexity. In aerospace and defense (A&D), complexity is nothing new, but digital transformation to become a more connected enterprise that allows programs to run independently while achieving enterprise-wide processes remains an elusive goal. Today, organizations around the world are rethinking their strategies and turning to more open and agile approaches to create a connected enterprise that can enable faster innovation.

Why the Connected Enterprise?

Aerospace and defense companies are actively pursuing opportunities just over the horizon based on new materials, additive manufacturing, systems-of-systems, more software and electronics, and numerous other technology advancements. As the science of engineering i.e., mechanical CAD, becomes more and more specialized, a major challenge has become making processes more cross-discipline oriented to support collaboration for the business of engineering; that is, system-level design that encompasses software, electrical and electronic design, and sharing of engineering data across the lifecycle. The end result: a connected enterprise to create new value and efficiency. The greatest obstacle to digital transformation is not the availability of capable manufacturing and engineering tools but rather, the silos created by those proprietary systems that have fragmented processes and isolated critical data.

Creating a connected enterprise that enables data to flow through the organization is essential for realizing tomorrow's strategic initiatives – from model-based systems engineering (MBSE) and Industry 4.0 to data lakes and artificial intelligence.

Data is the New Oil

Years ago, British mathematician Clive Humby coined the phrase “Data is the new oil” which is an implicit basis of the concept Industry 4.0, smart factories, and the Industrial Internet. For manufacturers of complex products, especially those in aerospace and defense, the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and growth of data throughout the value chain is a fact of life. However, to think of this data as a commodity would be a mistake. In the digital era, data is like DNA, particularly product data. To develop and build the intelligent systems of the future, organizations must harness their product data and put it to work in new ways across the connected enterprise. Digitization and digital transformation are the key modalities towards this objective.

Today, many organizations continue to rely on manual processes, spreadsheets, and email as work-arounds because they are unable to connect tools and systems to easily get at their data. Getting the right data to the right person at the right time is still a major challenge. Technical limitations often impede and complicate data access. A common series of hurdles stand in the way of interoperability including:

  • Proprietary data formats

  • Private data models legacy vendors

  • Restrictive or incomplete integration interfaces – called Application Programming Interfaces or APIs

Aerospace companies need to take bold steps towards digital transformation to connect the enterprise, enable rapid prototyping, and facilitate a new level of collaboration.

These challenges illustrate the growing pains of legacy vendor practices that are overhanging the new era of modern software and open standards. And the industry is calling for change.

The problems have become such an impediment to digital transformation for the industry that a number of prominent companies have banded together to confront the issue. Several years back Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, Gulfstream, Dassault Aviation and others formed the Aerospace & Defense PLM Action Group[1] to demand greater interoperability and open connectivity across engineering and manufacturing IT technologies.

The group is publishing direction statements and position papers[2] on important topics related to data access, information flow, and enterprise process enablement. Ultimately, data standards and openness are the necessary prerequisites for digital transformation.

At the same time as the push for greater data access occurs, companies are finding new ways to move faster. For example, rethinking enterprise IT technologies to move away from monolithic systems and using agile techniques to compress timelines.

Moving Faster Toward Tomorrow

In the past, big multi-year IT projects were the norm. Upgrading to new technology or taking advantage of technology advances often required tearing out old systems and assuming all the inherent risks, disruptions, and costs. This is no longer the case for many of the more modern software architectures. New application platforms, user interfaces, and analytics capabilities are providing ways to layer over legacy environments to avoid the rip-and-replace complications. Now, industry leaders are adopting these technologies along with alternative approaches like agile methodologies in order to move faster.

Technology analysts Gartner and CIMdata have coined the term “product innovation platform” to represent a solution that “assures the company's flow of new products because the tools, staff, and information are working in sync throughout the life-cycle.”[3] These product innovation platform capabilities in turn enable the connected enterprise by providing a process-oriented layer on top of existing tools and systems without the need for full replacement. Important considerations for this platform overlay approach include openness of the data model and APIs, as well as, scalability, flexibility, and upgradability.

Because tomorrow's digital processes do not exist yet, being able to adapt quickly and iteratively is important for digital transformation. Using agile techniques or “sprints” of only a few weeks each time speeds transformation initiatives. Keeping the scope to manageable phases that line up with each sprint's duration is also critical to achieving rapid results.

What Success Can Look Like

Aerospace companies need to take bold steps towards digital transformation to connect the enterprise, enable rapid prototyping, and a new level of collaboration. Airbus is one company focusing on considerable effort to devise innovative, new ways to streamline engineering, test, manufacturing, and quality to build planes faster and more effectively.

Typical VC screenshot in Aras Innovator

From an IT perspective, making the business faster meant undertaking a digital transformation so that teams across the enterprise could access and share product data more quickly and easily than ever before. Airbus relies on more than 1,000-point systems to keep engineering, test, manufacturing, and quality running smoothly. It's these applications that Airbus IT recognized needed to be modernized, upgraded, and integrated to streamline the business.

Rather than using a traditional “top down” method – forcing new systems on the business – the Airbus team inverted the traditional IT approach by inviting people from the business to modernize and enhance their applications in an IT-supported environment they called their “Greenhouse.” In it, users are invited to come to the Greenhouse, which is positioned as a means for doing real-time prototyping and rapid development for application modernization.

Typical workflow tracking screen in Aras Innovator

To ensure users from the business would benefit from the Greenhouse approach, Airbus IT needed a flexible technology platform that included functionality traditionally found in systems for product lifecycle management (PLM), product data management (PDM), content management systems (CMS), project management and other areas. After an evaluation of multiple PLM, PDM, and CMS products, Airbus selected Aras as the enabling technology for the Greenhouse.

Today, anyone from engineering, manufacturing, quality, and test can come to the Greenhouse with any idea to modernize or develop an application. The first system brought to the Greenhouse was an aging application for Test Information Management. It was a good initial project because of the sophistication and scope. In the end, Airbus IT proved that how they approached the problem was as important as what they use to solve it.

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