Intelligent Aerospace Content Strategies
October 24, 2010
In 1985, the William H. Taft IV, the Deputy Secretary of Defense for the United Stated Department of Defense (DoD) signed a number of very interesting memoranda. These statements of direction sketched out a new vision for how complex equipment systems would be acquired and supported in the future. This became the origin of what came to be known as the Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support (CALS) initiative (initially called Computer Aided Logistics Support and then Computer-aided Acquisition and Logistics Support). The goal of this initiative was to dramatically reduce the lifecycle costs of equipment systems and to improve their supportability. Nowhere was the need greater than amongst advanced aerospace systems, where unbridled innovation was producing systems of unimaginable complexity. What made these policy declarations so interesting is that they put a spotlight on the fact that any such modernization initiative really depended on one crucial thing – the adoption of a fundamentally more intelligent approach to how technical information was acquired and managed. This technical content would needed to become more integrated and portable, or in other words more intelligent, if it was going to facilitate a type of interactions that were going to be called for between system designers, operators and maintainers.
This is an enterprise content strategy on the grandest of scales. It is probably the first, and still the most ambitious, intelligent content strategy ever articulated. So visionary was this strategy that realizing it has been an industry-wide work in progress for the last 25 years. Recalling that 1985 was the era of the Commodore 64, we should not be surprised to learn that implementing this strategy would drive the invention of the necessary standards and technologies. Fast forward to today and we can see that effectively all of the pieces that were missing in 1985 are now available. And when we look at the current state of the art in aerospace system design, manufacturing, operation and support, we see that the original DoD vision is being impressively realized.
In a survey of aerospace enterprises, we find exceedingly ambitious initiatives aimed at implementing what we might call “deep content integration”. Deep integration effectively means that for each and every element of content underlying a complex system a single authoritative source is established in a form that can be dynamically accessed and reused by countless consuming applications. While this may sound daunting, it is in fact even harder than it sounds. Establishing the pedigree of each content element turns out to be an investigation that, like a good detective novel, frequently offers up unexpected twists and turns. And when the primary content sources are established, the sheer volume of information and the overwhelming complexity of the interdependencies makes one thing very clear: only with the most precise and scalable automation will managing the matrix of content elements become even remotely possible. This automation, in turn, depends utterly upon the intelligence of the content sources being managed.
We can take a specific aerospace system as an example. As many would assume, we would look at the Product Data Management (PDM) systems as the source for the design information that how a system will be manufactured. However, a close analysis of the PDM systems quickly reveals that many of their content holdings are in fact reused from other sources. Some of these sources are associated with components and sub-systems that are shared with currently deployed equipment systems. Some of these sources are associated with controlled documents – standards and specifications that are tightly managed under the oversight of regulatory authorities. Retracing these various tributaries, these programs doggedly pursue the single source of truth for as much of the content as is practical. Once identified, these sources are enriched to become intelligent content resources that can be reused by the wide array of consuming applications that operate “downstream”.
We can wander along this stream of content reuse so as to get a sense of what is involved. During the design, testing, manufacturing and commissioning processes, layer upon layer of supplemental content is added to the original content, with each new layer being carefully inter-linked with its own content sources. Every discrepancy and deviation, together with its analysis and resolution documentation, is rolled forward into the as-designed, as-manufactured, as-delivered and as-maintained configurations. On the receiving end of this process stand the equipment operators and maintainers who access these intelligent content resources on a daily basis while they keep the systems working. On a routine day, these content consumers will call up the information they need as they need it. On less routine days, when unusual conditions in the equipment behavior are exhibited, the system itself emits notifications that kick off diagnostic procedures. From the plentitude of content resources the maintenance process marshals service instructions, just-in-time training modules, test equipment, replacement parts – whatever is needed to return the system to optimal operating performance.
In today’s equipment maintenance bay one can see maintainers performing a very interesting mix of activities as they work through problems. One minute they will be comparing system generated reports with expected results using an online portal provided by the original equipment manufacturer. Through the same portal, they might be using an online video link to discuss background engineering principles with some of the equipment designers. At another moment, one of the maintainers will be accessing an interactive wiring diagram through a tablet computer such as an iPad. If things start to point towards the removal of a major component, and perhaps one that promises to be a messy job, the maintainers will request key reference resources as a printed working copy that can stand up to the worst of environments. And all the while, the maintainers and operators are contributing new content into the mix.
A modern aerospace system depends completely upon the intelligence of the content resources that support the system lifecycle from design and manufacturing through to operation and maintenance. When pursued completely, an intelligent content strategy for the aerospace enterprise indeed realizes the original vision, as articulated by the US DoD in 1985, and delivers new capabilities that can be economically sustained for many years.
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