The Spark

Innovating Beyond Boundaries

Digital Engineering: A Strategic Shift with a Payoff

By Tara Rhodes, Systems Architect

Over the past seven decades, the Department of Defense (DoD) has evolved into a complex information technology organization with an array of systems that drive logistics, firepower, navigation, maintenance and so much more. These systems enable new ways to face continuously evolving threats by automating tasks and processes. But as the technology landscape changes ever more quickly, staying ahead of the curve requires a different level of speed, agility and resources.

To help address some of these challenges, the DoD approved the 2018 Digital Engineering Strategy (DES)—a major initiative to modernize how the military designs, develops and sustains complex systems, applying digital technologies to improve the performance, affordability and agility of the Department’s acquisition process. While the DES laid out focus areas and goals for adopting digital engineering techniques and tools, it did not set a timetable for the eventual implementation, which means that organizations face the daunting task of investing the time and resources in a true paradigm shift.

With the release of DoD Instruction for Digital Engineering (DoDI 5000.97) at the end of 2023, the timeline for implementing digital engineering practices in new programs is no longer optional; new programs starting after the instruction was issued must address digital engineering in the systems acquisition strategy, including the development, testing and sustainment phases. While existing programs are not required to implement these practices, this only defers the inevitable. Digital engineering is the path to the future of secure, interoperable and sustainable systems and programs.

Digital engineering covers a variety of techniques for constructing digital models that represent the characteristics of complex systems. These models, in turn, can accelerate solutions, reduce costs and risks associated with the development process, enhance interoperability and promote innovation. But it isn’t a magic wand, nor is it just a matter of adopting new tools and technologies. It’s a fundamental shift in the way systems are conceived. It requires a change in the processes and practices of the DoD and its partners, along with a significant investment of time and money to establish the necessary infrastructure, standards and workforce skills. It’s easy, looking at those obstacles, to put off the decision for another day. But there are four key benefits that military organizations stand ready to reap once they decide to take the leap.

1: Agility in a Dynamic Environment:

In a world of evolving threats, digital engineering allows for rapid iteration, quick adaptation to changing requirements and a level of responsiveness that traditional methods simply can’t match. This agility can be a strategic differentiator in the face of changing conditions.

2. Risk Mitigation for Mission Success:

The ability to identify and address potential problems and challenges early in the development phase is invaluable. Through virtual modeling and simulation, digital engineering enables proactive risk mitigation, ensuring mission success and reducing the likelihood of costly setbacks.

3. Better Collaboration, Accelerated Innovation:

Digital engineering fosters a collaborative development ecosystem. Teams can work seamlessly across disciplines, breaking down silos and accelerating innovation. The resulting synergy not only improves the quality of solutions but also enhances the speed of their delivery.

4. Strategic Savings Over Time:

The initial investment in digital engineering can seem intimidating, but applying these techniques lays the groundwork for long-term savings. Under traditional engineering models, costs can increase exponentially when changes are required later in the development cycle. Digital engineering streamlines development, reduces rework and enhances collaboration, resulting in significant cost savings over the lifecycle of defense systems.

Leading By Example

To illustrate how defense organizations can put these benefits to work for them, Noblis recently invested in a demonstration project to transition a defense IT system from a legacy, file-based framework to a digital engineering framework using model-based systems engineering (MBSE) methodologies. We envisioned a framework that could facilitate growth and change while allowing visibility of interoperability and sustainability impacts, eliminate user errors as designs are updated and mitigate potential delays in producing system accreditation and authorization artifacts – while also ensuring the long-term viability of the system in a rapidly changing supply chain. Our hope was to use this what-if exercise to inspire our customers and colleagues and show that the benefits outlined above were well within reach.

Through this project, we demonstrated that a bottom-up approach, using existing design data, can quickly establish a functional product-level system model and begin providing immediate results. Benefits include reducing errors and data/design discrepancies, improving system design quality and reducing the time to review and approve a system design. Reducing development time enables us to deliver a needed system or capability to the warfighter at the speed of relevance.

As an added benefit, the overall change can occur incrementally as documentation is migrated (and rationalized) into a single dataset, retiring the legacy documents and transitioning smoothly to digital engineering. With an existing system and its design data, a team can start virtually anywhere in the system design, identify the key problem and start modeling – building up and out.

We also knew that organizations must address the built-in challenges that come from both the top and bottom of the structure when faced with technological change. Leadership buy-in is essential to get the ball rolling, but personnel across the organization will also have to address the challenge of learning new tools, language and methodology. Current practices across organizations are designed around legacy document and artifact management. Our demonstration project, beyond illustrating the benefits of an MBSE approach, can help identify pain points around its overall adoption as well. Moreover, applying the incremental transition to digital engineering described above allows the teams to gain experience with modeling applications, techniques and language. It provides learning-by-doing opportunities and is one of the strongest ways to gain buy-in from the entire team.

Our results showed that we can transform legacy artifacts – including requirements spreadsheets, installation procedures, configuration settings, and more – from stand-alone “flat” files into a digital model that articulates and informs the impacts of design changes, supports business decisions and contracting strategies and minimizes discrepancies between requirements and technical implementation. It also showed that there is no substitute for starting your transition to digital engineering today.

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