Air Force Awards $100 Million to Continue B-1 Digital Engineering Program

The fuselage of an Air Force B-1 bomber gets towed on the campus of Wichita State University. (Photo: Justin Salter, Berard)

The B-1 System Program Office (SPO) recently awarded a six-year, $100 million follow-on contract to Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) to continue the B-1’s Digital Engineering (DE) transformation. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) helped form the strategic partnership and created a flexible contract structure, which allows NIAR and the B-1 SPO to adapt requirements real time to meet critical warfighter needs.

According to Lt Col Joseph Lay, B-1 SPO Material Leader for Structures: “This project brings the B-1 into the same field as newly designed aircraft and allows digital modeling to predict future areas of concern. This will allow the SPO to proactively develop repairs, reduce the cost and schedule for parts procurement by eliminating the burden of interpreting legacy Air Force (AF) drawings, and increase the number of vendors who are capable of producing parts for the B-1 platform. DE will not only help reduce the time it takes to develop repairs but also to install them. We will be able to develop and test repairs well in advance virtually ensuring first time success and improving aircraft availability.”

While new AF systems are born digitally, the transition to DE for legacy systems is complicated by various factors to include return on investment over the platform’s lifecycle, vendor lock with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and understanding where to start on a task of this size and complexity. The B-1 is proving legacy aircraft can find a benefit and has become a trailblazer for other legacy platforms to follow.

Creating flexible requirements with a cost ceiling allows the B-1 to execute only those tasks which provide maximum benefit to the warfighter. Initially, B-1 chose to focus on structures, one of the main issues impacting fleet availability. With successes in Desert Fox, Allied Force, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve, the B-1 rapidly flew more hours than anticipated, accelerating the need to extend the original certified test life earlier than expected.

While the SPO has made significant progress in the arenas of structural life, maintenance and reliability, DE will breathe new life into the fleet, rejuvenating the B-1 to fly until the future bomber force is ready. Even in such short time, the SPO has already begun to benefit from DE activities. B-1 models have been delivered to aid in the design and manufacture of support fixtures for use at Depot Maintenance facilities and the first set of models are being supplied to third-party vendors to provide digital manufacturing data for complex components.

The B-1 SPO began their digital transformation in early 2020, creating a structural digital twin of a single wing. Since then the effort has expanded to include the structure of the entire airframe, the launch of an Integrated Digital Engineering Environment including a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) tool, model based systems engineering (MBSE) efforts to create system modeling language (SySML) representations of various mechanical systems, technical order digitalization, the integration of systems and weapons to enhance the structural digital twin, structural and aerodynamic predictive simulation tool development, and other DE efforts.