Digital Thread • July 27, 2017

Lockheed Martin’s Digital Thread Vision for the Aerospace Manufacturing Industry

Tom Hennessey Tom Hennessey

Our recent visit to Frost & Sullivan’s 14th annual Manufacturing Leadership Summit was memorable on a number of counts, but two, in particular, stand out: one, Cirrus Aircraft won a 2017 Manufacturing Leadership Award for enterprise technology leadership, and iBase-t was recognized as their partner/solution provider. Two, we were privileged to attend a presentation by Marc O’Brien, virtual prototyping manager at Lockheed Martin’s Palmdale, California-based Skunk Works. He talked about their vision of the digital thread in manufacturing. We were pleased to find it aligned nicely with our own. Let’s explore Lockheed Martin’s digital thread vision.

Factors Necessitating the Digital Thread in the Defense Industry

Marc O’Brien calls Lockheed Martin’s next-generation digital vision the “Product Digiverse,” a viewpoint that the rapidly changing aerospace and defense industry is driving forward. He cited eight points of change that impact the broad-scale defense industry:

  1. The demand for the development of more complex, more sophisticated, and integrated products
  2. No longer having huge budgets to work with
  3. More compressed schedules
  4. Less tolerance of risk, uncertainty, and mistakes
  5. Reductions in workforce
  6. Lack of qualified and experienced personnel (issues with knowledge transfer)
  7. Increased regulation and oversight
  8. The need to understand and evaluate large quantities of data

Urgent Need for the Digital Thread in the Aircraft Sector

O’Brien listed specific challenges for the aircraft sector, in particular, the need for product on demand for lower cost attritable aircraft. Urgent need demands urgent response. What in the past took years to design, build, and get into the field now must happen in months. There is increased product variability in the same manufacturing environment, and material requirements are changing. Performance-driven materials are now the rule, and increasingly simple, single-purpose designer products are produced on demand.

To achieve the objectives of attritable forces requires the adoption of new paradigms by defense manufacturers:

  • Flexible, agile, and reconfigurable factories
  • Removing “fixed monuments”
  • Advanced automation capabilities
  • Removing downstream labor and adding manufacturing and engineering personnel in the upfront design processes
  • New processes (e.g., design for automation, robotics)
  • Adopting advanced simulation techniques
  • A next-generation digital environment

The Need for New Digital Thinking at Lockheed Martin

O’Brien contrasted the current digital thought process with where he contends it needs to go: the Product Digiverse. First, O’Brien defines the current digital thread as “the communication that connects elements of the engineering and manufacturing process that have traditionally been separated.” The current process at Lockheed Martin has this digital thread, but it is limited as a single strand, bi-directional, but a linear thread. It allows data sharing between engineering and manufacturing, but still, relies on 2-D drawings and “a limited thought process.”

Lockheed Martin has evolved this into a “digital tapestry” that has moved beyond the original digital thread but is still limited. The digital tapestry has multiple strands and many interdependencies but is still reliant on 2-D information. It has software that shares information between multiple applications and machines but does not address the notion of a digital twin or multiple digital twins. It only addresses the digital aspect, but not the convergence of digital and physical. “More digital evolution is needed,” notes O’Brien.

This evolution—the Product Digiverse—is a framework integrating people, processes, tools, materials, environments, and data. It links both the physical and digital domains across the entire product lifecycle and all disciplines. “The Digiverse mirrors the physical world and provides the complete digital twin of everything,” explains O’Brien. It features a digital backbone, ecosystem hubs, and enabling networks, all carrying digital DNA of every product.

Lockheed Martin’s Vision for Digital Ecosystem Hubs

O’Brien elaborated the envisioned ecosystem hubs:

  • Engineering Hub
  • Manufacturing Hub
  • Test and Check-Out Hub
  • Sustainment Hub

Each hub contains strategy, product design, operations analysis, supply chain data, quality data, software, financials, cyber information, logistics, and sustainment. Each ecosystem is a digital twin that connects the digital and physical worlds, and connects to other ecosystem hubs with the right information through a common data language. Their open system architecture approach allows plug-and-play with the physical world and enables a symbiotic relationship with the “Digiverse.” It is all about the convergence of the digital and physical worlds.

Digital DNA at Lockheed Martin

The Digital DNA contains the product “digital twin,” leverages 3-D models, and is a complex and evolving entity that grows through the product lifecycle. A blueprint of the DNA contains all key components that comprise the digital twin: design, manufacturing, software, sustainment and service information, and more.

“This has to happen because the attritable challenge goals dictate a manufacturing environment that is flexible, scalable, and responsive,” says O’Brien. Meeting that challenge requires:

  • Advanced automation
  • Simulation of everything
  • Data management and enterprise control
  • The next-generation digital environment: the Product Digiverse

“The Digiverse enables the digital twin of everything,” he concludes. “It enables process automation for process control, and converges the digital and physical domains so that the physical and virtual are mirrored.”

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