Embracing the Digital Transformation in Aerospace & Defense

Industry segments show promise with major disruptions in air mobility, electric propulsion, supersonic flight, next-generation fighters, and commercial space exploration to name a few.

Image courtesy Aerion.

The aerospace & defense  (A&D) industry has always been known for great innovation and high expectations. Even during the difficult times with the impact of COVID-19, A&D teams are finding new ways to work with each other, and the amazing innovation and flexibility isn’t stopping in how people and companies respond to the pandemic. Many segments show promise with major disruptions in air mobility , electric propulsion, supersonicflight , next-generation fighters, and commercial space exploration to name a few.

If A&D is to take on these opportunities successfully, OEMs and their partners must digitally transform their operations to become more productive, innovative, and collaborative. It’s becoming clearer by the day – industry leaders are transitioning to a digital enterprise  to survive and thrive during these promising times.

In many respects, digitalization empowers companies to take on innovation and, at the same time, address the more perplexing trends facing the industry today. Some of these trends include:

  • Meeting program performance expectations. The industry is constantly challenged to bring new products to market faster while meeting technical, cost, and schedule objectives. Methods and processes used a short time ago are no longer applicable today.
  • Increased program complexity and integration. Aerospace programs are increasingly more complex, andproducts are highly integrated and dominated by software and software-hardware hybrids. Addressing the rise of electrification, new technology and new business modelsalso contributes to growing complexity.
  • Increased electrification of products. Electrification, either in response to decarbonization of the industry or to the need for higher performing and more reliable systems, has changed the tools needed to design and build aircraft along with the skillsets needed to hire. Mechanical, pneumatic, and hydraulic system challenges are quickly being replaced by electrical functionality.
  • Globalization. Global competition is more intense today with the entry of smaller, more nimble upstarts bidding on major new programs, and more companies rely on global supply chain and workforces. The need to collaborate and communicate effectively across the globalorganization is of the utmost importance.

Welcome to the digital enterprise

Digital threads enable multi-disciplinary processes and integrate data from the beginning of the product lifecycle to final sustainment enabling full traceability. A fully operable digital enterprise offers a richer understanding of products, production processes, reduced risk, and faster implementation. A few examples of how the digital enterprise enables design and manufacturing teams follows.

Simulating an air mobility platform

Urban air mobility (UAM) platforms represent unique challenges; they normally consist of multiple disciplines and functions that interact simultaneously (Figure 1). Design and engineering teams need answers to multi-domain solutions requiring complex platform trade-offs. An emphasis in the wrong area or overlooking a critical aspect could sacrifice performance or jeopardize compliance. How do teams address these types of challenges?

Figure 1: Numerous domains and design disciplines must be tested interactively and continuously to achieve a superior product.

The answer is multi-disciplinary simulation using the digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical product or process, used to understand and predict the physical counterpart’s performance characteristics. Digital twins are used throughout the product lifecycle to simulate, predict, and optimize the product and production system before investing in physical prototypes and assets. (Visit Siemens Digital Industries Software’s glossary for more info .)

A digital twin gives teams critical data on how product attributes and domains perform as one interconnected structure. The digital twin also accelerates the design process through simulation and takes a collection of simulation models to enable the matching of prescribed characterizations. With the availability of this data, engineers now focus on the interaction of specialized disciplines and, with the time saved, they focus on optimizing discrete functions.

Automating the design process

The Siemens digital twin manages more than a computer-aided design (CAD) profile, it also automates the entire design process. Figure 2 depicts the various design disciplines involved in the design of landing gear. A variety of schematics, CAD files, and diagrams are connected and integrated via the digital thread. Within each step, users have a continuous loop of generating design options, evaluating the options against key criteria, and validating that the design meets increasingly complex design requirements.

Figure 2: By automating the design process, all critical design tasks and requirements are integrated into one complete flow which can be viewed and updated as progress continues.

Flying a virtual “iron bird”

The digital twin provides teams the unique capability of building a virtual integrated aircraft. In doing so, teams “fly” the aircraft before it’s built. In addition to reducing risk during test programs by proving the design through virtual test, this approach enables teams to focus on the most critical flight conditions and to gain a deeper understanding of flight dynamics and performance.

The future of engineering and production – additive manufacturing

When discussing the future of production, one of the most significant changes will be additive manufacturing (AM). AM not only revolutionizes how teams build parts and assemblies, but dramatically changes how to design these parts. Recognizing this, Siemens has paved the way to the future of production by investing in design and manufacturing technologies that maximize the benefits of this discipline while automating the processes.

Challenges faced by companies today as they adopt AM include the need to change their processes with a new solution and address regulatory questions about the design and fabrication methods. Many of the simulation and analysis solutions within the Xcelerator portfolio help companies validate their designs and manufacturing processes – and, with the rich understanding provided by the digital twin, users confidently replicate the production world and evaluate promising new methods.

Collaborative tools using virtual and augmented reality

If aerospace teams are to thrive in this period of unprecedented innovation, global collaboration and new tools must be introduced. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will have a decisive role in creating these tools. When looking at AR/VR technologies, it’s about changing human behavior with a new set of tools and introducing completely new processes. A few examples follow.

Immersive design through VR

The immersive 3D environment with high-end rendering offers many possibilities to reduce the need for physical mockups, making it easy to explore design alternatives in a new way. Giving users a true sense of scale and proximity, VR is an important tool for deeper understanding of a design early in the product lifecycle. Through immersive VR, teams will design in context. This means “working inside” the component as the user designs it. In this way, teams start to locate features and components in a way that mimics how they might install or maintain the actual component. In essence, the designer is looking at the part in the same orientation as the technician when the part is finally installed.

A good VR tool has the potential to eliminate gated design reviews, such as the preliminary design review (PDR) and critical design review (CDR) used by many A&D companies. These reviews often turn into cumbersome processes that have the effect of stopping work for an extended period. VR combined with changes to company design review processes will replace discrete design reviews with a continuous review process that enables teams to stay on track and on schedule.

The future of manufacturing

The factories of the future will manufacture products for the aerospace industry. With simulation and digital twin tools, manufacturers test different factory layouts, automation capabilities, automated guided vehicles, and other environmental factors in a virtual world before they invest in construction or revamp a physical facility.

AR will also play a significant role in manufacturing; two examples the industry is adopting follow.

on the factory floor

VR and AR technologies strengthen the link between the virtual design world and the factory floor. With accurate cameras and features to help locate parts, design teams replace 2D drawings and work instructions with 3D augmented reality. Teams locate parts using the rich features already available in the 3D models – fully completing the end-to-end, model-based enterprise.

As the technician prepares to install the parts, one must verify the correct part has been selected. It is then automatically recorded by the system when the bar code is scanned.

The system then guides the user for accurate part location and proper orientation, and when installation is complete, it will automatically verify and record that the part has been installed – eliminating the paperwork and time needed to normally complete these types of tasks.

AR tailored to work instructions

Another enabler for the future of production is tailored work instruction with AR. Not only will AR be used in the factory, but it can be implemented in smart wearables to further free up the technician from managing paper and devices.

For example, the work instructions are tailored based on the complexity of the installation, how often the task is performed, or whether the installation has changed since the last time it was completed. With these tools, users will get the same automatic verification of the part installed and completion that the work was completed.


Digital transformation technologies provide the foundation for the future of engineering, production, and service. The future of engineering and manufacturing is about freeing teams to be innovative and creative – primarily accomplished through task automation enabled by the digital enterprise.

Siemens started this digital journey over 10 years ago, and today the A&D industry is experiencing real-world results and advantages. The Siemens comprehensive digital twin and thread provide a rich understanding of A&D products and processes – and will enable companies to thrive in this age of innovation.

Images courtesy Aerion and Siemens.

Dale Tutt is the Vice President of Aerospace and Defense Industry for Siemens Digital Industries Software . He is responsible for defining overall the overall Aerospace and Defense industry strategy for Siemens Digital Industries Software, driving specific industry requirements into solutions for Aerospace and Defense customers.

Dale has over 30 years of experience in engineering design, development, and program leadership within the Aerospace industry. Prior to joining Siemens, Dale worked at The Spaceship Company, a sister company to Virgin Galactic, as the VP of Engineering and VP of Program Management, where he led the development and flight test of vehicles for commercial space tourism, completing a successful flight test to space in December 2018.

Prior to working at The Spaceship Company, Dale spent 18 years at Cessna Aircraft / Textron Aviation in program and project management, systems engineering and integration, advanced design, autopilot integration, simulation development and other engineering roles. In one of his most recent roles at Cessna, he was the Chief Engineer and Program Director of the Scorpion Jet program, where he led a dynamic engineering, supply chain, and manufacturing team to design, build and fly the Scorpion Jet prototype from design concept to first flight in 23 months.