Defense industry partners are making advancements in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing as the Defense Department increasingly looks to compete with China’s manufacturing economy, however, challenges still exist in these areas preventing their full potential. 

Joel Mozer, chief scientist of the Space Force, said China’s critical supply chain advancements over recent years emphasize the United States’ need to make advancements in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing to compete. 

“China is the world’s largest manufacturing economy, and they recently announced their ambition to create 10,000 ‘little giants’ enterprises that specialize in niche sector…This announcement underscores China’s strategic policy shift in the next five years with a focus on breakthroughs in specific and critical sectors of the supply chain,” Mozer said during a panel presentation at the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Sept. 21. “To compete in this area, the United States will need to continue to up our game in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing.” 

In the commercial sector, companies have been able to see improvement in cost reduction, shortened schedules, and capability flexibility using digital manufacturing, Wallis Laughrey, vice president of strategy and chief transformation officer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Raytheon Technologies [RTX], said during the panel. 

“We have been working to implement digital manufacturing with some of our space systems,” Laughrey said. “The interesting thing is we’ve largely been able to do that in the commercial market, more so than the governance side for some of the challenges that we’ve had…whether it’s mission assurance or there’s a lot of unknowns that we’ve got to work our way through. But we have seen unbelievable advances…relative to reducing cost, shortening schedules, and delivering capability that is much, much more flexible than anything we built before.” 

Laughrey compared digital engineering to DevSecOps for hardware. 

“I use the analogy that digital engineering DevSecOps for hardware,” Laughrey said. “DevSecOps really has helped us immensely in driving the toolchain, driving our processes driving consistency, driving a common architecture.” 

To be able to maintain an advantage on evolving technologies in this area, companies need to be able to rapidly adapt to change, Renee Pasman, director of integrated systems at Lockheed Martin [LMT], said during the panel. This ability comes from digital engineering and open architecture. 

“It’s really that ability to be responsive to change and to be able to incorporate those new technologies quickly, and part of that comes back to digital engineering, open architecture in the broad sense, not just for computers, but also the architecture of how we architect the data for how we build and how we sustain so that you really have that open environment with the right ability to also innovate,” Pasman said. “I think one of the key things in terms of being able to change and adapt quickly and maintain that leading edge is ensuring that there’s room for innovation. You can’t have your data flow be so regimented that there’s no opportunity to bring new capabilities.” 

At this point, most in the industry are aligned on the benefits of digital engineering and are now expecting it to be part of acquisition requirements, Eric Hein, vice president for defense advanced development and space programs at Spirit AeroSystems, said during the panel. 

“I definitely think that messaging is going very well, I mean, you walk around the show and everyone’s talking about digital engineering,” Hein said. “I think everyone’s aligned and sees the benefit that’s been involved with it for some time…the expectation that that’s part of the acquisition requirements is very clear.” 

Hein said there needs to be an appetite to take risks to make technological advancements with this technology. 

“​When you look at what the adversaries are doing, you feel like they’re really pushing forward with a lot of risks,” Hein said. “They’re taking a lot of risks to get a lot of iterations and drive development, and with a real, I would say, there’s somewhat of an allowance to fail now…So I think there’s somewhat of a willingness right now to take a little bit more risk…but I think we’re willing to adopt that too going forward and that’s something that will help drive technology forward when done in the right areas.” 

One of the big challenges that still exist in this area is the lack of common architectures. 

“I think the biggest challenge we have is that we’re all using different languages,” Laughrey said. “We all break things up in different ways. We have all these different frameworks that we’re working with.” 

While creating these common architectures, companies will also have to balance allowing for new technologies that do not fit into those architectures. 

“Most new technology is disruptive, almost by nature. Most processes don’t like to be disrupted and so how do you balance those two things,” Pasman said.