2021 CTMA Magazine: Maintenance and Sustainment Enterprise Transformed by Digital Technologies

By Jon Riley

With the evolution and growing adoption of digital technologies, the Department of Defense (DOD) is now embracing the possibilities and capabilities of digital engineering in the design, engineering, and manufacturing of new equipment and weapon systems. The DOD is starting to require model-based engineering on selected new programs with the anticipation these requirements will grow exponentially each year. The U.S. Air Force recently announced the use of the eSeries, an approach to developing aircraft, weapons, and satellites, to digitally engineer and virtually test before physical production. According to General Arnold W. Bunch1, Commander of Air Force Materiel Command, “the use of digital tools will drastically speed weapon development, acquisition, and fielding to deter and win a high-end fight against a peer adversary.”

The use of digital tools will not only revolutionize the production of new weapon systems, but also strengthen the supply chain and combat obsolescence. As part of the design phase, the DOD is incorporating data collection, business considerations such as financial and contractual requirements, and importantly, maintenance and sustainment (M&S) needs. But where does the digital collaboration begin?

The NCMS Digital Proving Ground

A Collaboration Space for all Stakeholders

While today’s weapon systems become more complex, legacy assets continue to be the backbone of our military’s superiority. As our technology advances, so does our need to maintain and sustain equipment that has surpassed its intended lifespan. Supply chain challenges for parts that may be difficult or impossible to obtain can cripple an aircraft, ground a vehicle, or ship, creating unsafe operational environments and jeopardize mission success. From efforts beginning with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to suppliers and maintainers, our warfighters must be provided with reliable weapon systems that support readiness and lead to mission success. Advances in cutting edge digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) are making it possible to solve obsolescence issues while also promoting rapid innovative manufacturing.

Advanced manufacturing technologies are changing the way engineering and manufacturing are performed. However, there doesn’t exist an accessible and neutral environment where government and industry partners can safely and securely collaborate in real-time, using the same digital language—until now.

As part of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) mission of improving the competitiveness and strength of the U.S. industrial base, NCMS brought together the Digital Proving Ground (DPG). The DPG is a unique cloud-based digital ecosystem that covers the full lifecycle of product development from concept design and development, to manufacture, maintenance, and sustainment. Supporting the DOD’s digital transformation effort, the DPG is an investment in Industry 4.0 that levels the playing field in a neutral environment for the entire ecosystem for collaborative problem solving.

The successful NCMS model is founded on three tenets: collaborate to demonstrate to adopt. The DPG provides NCMS the ability to facilitate those activities in a digital space. The DPG utilizes augmented digital developments, transforming innovation into manufacturing using data and the latest in demand-driven fabrication techniques such as additive manufacturing (AM), incorporating advanced materials, machine learning (ML), and other automated technologies. This open-architecture neutral environment promotes collaboration while removing barriers, so all partners have the accessibility to contribute knowledge, experience, and expertise collaboratively in a shared and secure environment.

Creating a Common Language

A secure, cloud-based environment protects proprietary information, intellectual property, and supports an agile, rapid, and flexible development cycle. From concept through design, this ecosystem allows multiple stakeholders to operate in synchronicity using a common language in a robust digital infrastructure. With an underlying goal of developing and strengthening supply chain reliability, this next-generation tool accelerates technology innovation, adaption, and adoption.

The interchange of data and expertise leads to solution generation to fight obsolescence challenges and deliver exceptional equipment to our warfighters. These answers, created in an open, software-agnostic digital environment, will transform the supply chain and broaden the art-of-the-possible using the latest in modeling and simulation, 3D visualization, and other advanced manufacturing tools.

Capabilities and Results

Collaborating in the DPG will greatly reduce development time, costs, and increase efficiency. As the supply chain evolves the DPG allows growth in transformative frontiers that will expand to fit the digital potential and ultimately re-integrate equipment and assets back into the warfighter’s hands.

The DPG has been created to be a responsive, adaptable and disruptive venue to solve today’s manufacturing challenges and be the stage for tomorrow’s innovations. The connectivity available through the DPG creates an immersive interactive experience where former bottlenecks are eradicated in real-time and pain points eliminated.

Working in concert in the DPG, the tempo of attaining solutions is shortened from years to possibly weeks. Digitization is transforming M&S capabilities with resources to answer immediate supply chain needs. As predictive protocols alter sustainment activities within the DOD, novel advanced manufacturing technologies will become standard requirements.

Whether at the component or systems level, the DPG is a ground-breaking neutral environment that is unmatched in its scalability, flexibility, and manufacturing significance. NCMS has invested in the DPG because our nation must maintain supply chain continuity. Supporting collaboration and providing an immersive setting where knowledge is shared reduces operational downtime and delivers assets our war fighters need to be ready when duty calls.