Aircraft are one of the great marvels of human ingenuity. For thousands of years we have watched birds soar through the skies, even a few of our distant mammalian relatives, but for over ninety-nine percent of that time we have been relegated to the ground. The bravest could capture the sensation of weightlessness for a few seconds in a descent into water, though sustained flight wouldn’t emerge until far later in our story. Today we are rapidly changing how aircraft operate, be it through the propulsion systems, the controls and even developing new entrants in transportation modes. Juxtaposing this rapid innovation are the long lead times on any one project – getting a new plane from the cocktail napkin to the skies can take years if everything goes right.
The problem of extended lead times is only set to worsen for innovative designs if OEMs retain the document-based systems engineering pioneered at the end of the last century. A document approach does not easily address the growing computer code controlling aircraft nor the multi-domain development dominating the industry. A model-based systems engineering (MBSE) approach is needed to harness the new complexities of the industry. The number of systems being developed simultaneously will slow progress if not integrated, practicing recursive and manual checks between the mechanical, electrical, electronic and software domains with every change would drag out the already long development process.
Improving lead times
OEMs do not have unlimited time, not only is a delay costly – a year delay can burn through $1 billion in a major commercial aircraft program – but smaller more agile companies are entering the industry to capitalize on the changing landscape. Companies with a rich heritage in software and electronics are outpacing the innovation of the industry leaders. Playing the same game will not produce the same gains for incumbents, instead they should focus on their strengths and adopt new tools to augment where they lack experience. MBSE isn’t quite a one-stop-shop for accelerating innovation, but the flexibility of the methodology does enable process evolution for every company.
Though MBSE practices share some similarities to traditional PLM solutions, it is augmented by a comprehensive digital twin to remove silos from development domains. And to contend with the growing number of design requirements, processes are linked, and even partially automated, based on the system architecture defined at the beginning of a project. This integration and data integrity enable complete system simulation far earlier in development to capture the realistic and dynamic integration of systems within the aircraft.
Similar to how autonomous vehicle companies are collecting hundreds of thousands of data points on system interactions with the driving environment to understand vehicle dynamics, aerospace companies are learning how newly added electronics systems and lighter support structures are impacting flight dynamics. From the push towards electrified aircraft, engineers are reworking the internal systems – electric propulsion requires more wiring and electronics to control the aircraft and previously useable structures need to shed weight to account for the heavier load of batteries. The number of possible situations for commercial craft are not great enough to warrant such extend – they only have three flight patterns take-off, landing and cruising. But for defense, the application environments are numerous.
- If banking at multiple Gs, will the lightened wing braces retain rigidity not just in terms of safety but to retain flight procedures for pilots?
- If flying at higher altitudes with less air density, will cooling ducts adequately remove heat from electronics systems?
- Does the moisture of clouds impact the reliability of electronic components?
- How do energy systems need to be dispersed throughout the craft to enable proper flight dynamics for pilots?
- Will new, lighter materials create areas of resonance during flight?
There are so many questions that will need to be answered as aircraft move into the future, for both commercial and defense applications, and to do so with document-based workflows will extend the already lengthy lead times. Model-based systems engineering lets OEMs start integrated and stay integrated across every design domain and help the mechanical experts of the field fend-off the mounting competition from software and electronics experts. For more information on how MBSE and virtual aircraft integration with shape the industry of the future read the whitepaper on the topic.
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