WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- As information technology has advanced and improved over the years, modeling and simulation tools, sophisticated analytical capabilities and data analytics have increased in importance throughout a product’s life cycle.
For the Air Force, a concept born in the lab is set to change the way weapon systems are developed and maintained throughout the lifecycle, taking advantage of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, physics and probability to enable the ‘right decisions’ at the ‘right time.’
The Digital Thread concept, conceived in the lab in 2007 and increasingly permeating industry, is a technological framework that helps organize data across the life span of a product--from initial design to manufacturing, operation and maintenance -- interconnecting data, modeling and analysis to enable better decisions at all product life stages. It’s a new way of organizing the traditional “paper trail” of data typical of each phase of the acquisition process and is revolutionizing the way engineers think about design, manufacturing, supply chains and sustainment, moving to model-centric processes and beyond.
“We have been disorganized in the way data is captured through the life cycle of a system,” said Brench Boden, technical lead in the Air Force Manufacturing Technology Division, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory. “Digital Thread helps us organize decision metadata, analysis results and technical data into a centralized framework, enabling cradle-to-cradle transition of knowledge that leads to better, informed decisions that matter.”
Understanding Digital Thread first requires cultivating an awareness of how much information is really available for any particular decision. According to Boden, one of the biggest issues in current practices is that data is generated at all levels of the supply chain, but it’s rarely completely captured and integrated with the information produced at other points in the process.
“For example, during production you may discover a non-conforming subassembly, investigate the reason why it does not conform and either repair it or replace it with something else, but the ‘why’ is not always captured in a document. Was it a process problem? …an operator problem? …a supplier issue? …a poor design? Years down the road, a maintenance issue may arise on that subassembly, leading to questions as to why it was designed and produced that way in the first place,” said Boden. “Digital Thread suggests we can capture all data points, including the why, creating a virtual DNA of a system that can address technical challenges further down the road.”
Though Digital Thread appears to be a complex, abstract concept at the surface, the benefits to the Air Force at all stages --from initial product design to manufacturing, operation and sustainment of aircraft and weapons systems by the warfighter—are enormous. Streamlined resolutions of weapon system performance issues, identification of system maintenance needs and management of risk are just a few benefits to the field, says Boden.
As major proponents to broader implementation of Digital Thread across the Air Force and industrial manufacturing base, AFRL researchers are in the process of applying the concept to different activities across the Air Force lifecycle management chain. One of the most promising applications to date is in the area of aircraft maintenance actions in the field, augmented with mixed reality.
Using virtual reality augmented by a Microsoft HoloLens-generated hologram of an F-15 aircraft, Dr. John Wertz, a materials scientist in the structural materials branch of AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, has shown the benefit of real time data, checklists and feedback as provided through Digital Thread capabilities while maintenance is performed on an aircraft in theoretical ‘real time.’ Maintainers can gain on-the-spot access to an aircraft’s maintenance history, a list of additional actions that they can perform in conjunction with scheduled maintenance activity and access to technical support teams for issues that may cause them trouble during the process.
As a maintenance action is completed, the activity of the maintainer is recorded and added to the Digital Thread for the aircraft. Future maintainers are able to see the full stream of activity associated with an aircraft at any point in time, optimizing sustainment through the future.
“It’s really about getting better data to and from maintainers to make decisions that matter. Digital Thread can make this process better,” said Maj. Gen. T. Glenn Davis, the Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.
Likewise, as the Air Force focuses more on agile manufacturing processes—those production processes that rely on the ability to create new products or parts rapidly—Digital Thread technologies can enable “smarter” processing by providing the data required to ensure quality assurance, repeatability and high levels of process control. The concept is extremely valuable to the field of additive manufacturing, where the ability to design, build, test and deliver reliable and compliant system parts is still in the early exploratory stages for Air Force engineers. The integration of metrics and models, design systems and data through Digital Thread in a single ecosystem can help propel this technology to greater success.
“By exploring different projects that can benefit from Digital Thread, we’re building the case law necessary to drive culture change,” said Boden.
As the Air Force looks to ways of integrating Digital Thread throughout their internal processes, they are also keeping an eye on industry integration of the concept in weapon system development and production processes. Insights into successes and failures by industry leaders can help identify challenges and opportunities across the spectrum.
Nevertheless, for AFRL, Digital Thread represents successful leadership, a collaboration of multiple small business projects and huge potential impact on development and sustainment costs across the enterprise.
“We’re moving what was once a broad, strategic concept to reality,” said Boden. “Digital Thread is game-changing, and we’re leading the charge.”