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Reduce Risk with Digital Systems in Aerospace Manufacturing


Risk reduction is important to all manufacturers, but nowhere is it more vital than in aerospace and defense manufacturing. Here the scope and complexity of projects can test the limits of the most well-managed organizations. To mitigate the many challenges involved with the production process—such as supply chain volatility, geopolitical instability, or cybersecurity threats—aerospace manufacturers are choosing to reduce risk with digital systems.

A recent article was published about the B-21 Raider, a new Air Force bomber now being developed by Northrop Grumman. They describe the aircraft as a “marvel of digital development.” Through the B-21 Raider program, Northrop Grumman is leading the digital transformation of defense capabilities. Their method is called “Model-Based Everything,” as a variant of the Model-based Enterprise strategy now embraced by many leading manufacturers. This strategy can be highly effective to reduce risk with digital systems.

The article gives a great description of the method: “Northrop Grumman’s digital transformation processes accelerate operations by creating integrated digital models of capabilities and platforms so that improvements can be made in real-time, visually reflected in the models. These high-fidelity digital models are shared across technical disciplines and program partners in the areas of design, structural, thermal, electrical, flight control, and signature analyses.”

Why adopt these new approaches? There are many benefits to Northrop Grumman’s new digital transformation, but two are at the top of the list: risk reduction, due in part to faster product development cycles. 

The Digital Thread

Many companies now use a Digital Thread to establish digital continuity to create virtual models of complex aerospace products, which are then used through their entire lifecycle. The Digital Thread links and unifies all data about each product to then create a Digital Twin. This virtual representation lets every project participant work with greater efficiency, from design through production and sustainment. That’s what makes it such a valuable tool—it lets you model the downstream impact of your decisions, thereby reducing risk.

Supplier Collaboration

The Aerospace, Defense, and Space industries involve some of the most complex supply chains in manufacturing. This poses many challenges when it comes to collaboration. The supply chain can involve dozens or hundreds of companies spread out in different countries. Each supplier is working on complex designs, which must be transferred to equally complex hardware and software systems to perform crucial operations in air and space. The stakes are high. Any communication gaps carry risk and possible project delays. Emails and phone calls can’t keep up with the accelerating pace of manufacturing. In this environment, a digital systems infrastructure with the necessary integration, and possibly cloud accessibility, is necessary to optimize collaboration by everyone involved. 

Operational Agility

The ability to change course quickly and effectively has compressed the development lifecycle – a critical factor in reducing risk. But changing direction on a large project is challenging. It can only really be done effectively in a digital environment, where deploying changes to the shop floor can take place in a matter of hours. Paper-based approaches will always lag the agility of a digital environment, even in a single factory. Across multiple sites, suppliers, and partners, digital transformation is the only path to true agility.

Steve Sullivan, Vice President, and General Manager of Northrop Grumman’s Strike Division explained this concept well in the B-21 Raider article. “Our approach is a combination of taking off-the-shelf digital tools and finding new, innovative applications that support design, production, and sustainment, as well as leaning forward in agile software development and restricted, cloud-based software collaboration. “What is most encouraging about the results we continue to see with our approach is the speed at which we’re able to execute efficiently, and the significant cost and risk reduction we’re seeing from design into manufacturing (source).”

Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider project has set an example for the future. Risk reduction technologies are leading the way, keeping operations smooth even within a complex web of myriad suppliers and volatile markets. It’s exciting to see the changes that digital transformation is bringing to aerospace, defense, and space flight technology – and how they are now having a real impact on product design, time to market, and the overall effectiveness of the entire manufacturing process. Risk will never go away, especially in such complex industries. But with the help of digital technologies, manufacturers can keep those risks under control.

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