Information Technology in the Spotlight: MSFC Engineering Digital Design Environment
Computer generated design of engine

Source: Article by Patrick McDuffee, Engineering Solutions Architect

During the past two decades, many in industry have shared a goal to implement a true art-to-part capability that creates a robust and seamless digital environment for design, analysis, and fabrication of products. Several of the major aerospace and defense companies are now beginning to realize that goal and have demonstrated success in developing design-to-manufacturing systems without having to rely on development of labor-intensive drawings or physical mockups. These companies have integrated their digital Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE), and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) environments to streamline their processes, while improving product quality and performance. Results from this transition consistently show a 50-percent or more reduction in design cycle time and the number of design changes.

Most projects across NASA still use a drawing-based design control environment that may utilize CAD modeling tools and CAE analysis capabilities but rely primarily on two-dimensional drawings and manual processes for design control. During the past few years, MSFC management has taken strategic steps to begin transitioning from this drawing-based environment toward a model-based design environment that centers on the three-dimensional CAD model as the primary design control object, which is fully annotated with all dimensions and notes historically found on drawings. Additionally, manual processes are being automated through new capabilities like Product Life-Cycle Management (PLM) information systems that are being implemented to digitally manage all aspects of a product from initial concept to its eventual retirement.

The current drawing-based design control environment requires many labor-intensive manual steps that will be eliminated in a model-based design environment. Today, design organizations create model concepts that evolve into detailed designs when iterated with subspecialty groups (stress, materials, manufacturing, quality) that many times require remodeling to support their CAE analytical tools. Once the design is mature, drawings are generated to establish design baselines for configuration control. However, use of a drawing requires downstream manufacturing to regenerate models that can electronically feed the manufacturing tools. As a result, numerous engineering orders (EOs) or design changes are generated due to design flaws, machining mishaps, and errors introduced from remodeling and translation activities. These EOs involve manual processes with forms hand delivered through the approval cycle and ultimately back to manufacturing after remodeling. All of these processes will be improved by implementing the model-based environment that allows manufacturing engineers to quickly evaluate designs early for producibility and operations support before the design is finalized and placed under configuration control. Once physical infrastructure is manufactured or deployed, flexibility begins to decrease rapidly and results in significant cost for future design changes.

During the last several years, MSFC has invested in the Design and Data Management System (DDMS) as our PLM system, and it forms the backbone for an engineering data management infrastructure. The MSFC DDMS infrastructure is built around the Windchill product suite to create a digital design environment for tighter control and collaboration that enables electronic delivery, automated approval routings, and capabilities for redline markup of designs. Today, MSFC’s DDMS environment has deployed informal and formal change management capabilities for documents and CAD models tied to a product structure while maintaining secure access and transmission of sensitive data. A closely related MSFC initiative, Digital Design to Manufacturing (DDTM), looks to extend the DDMS design environment to the manufacturing environment in efforts to provide support across the complete project life cycle.

The enhanced capabilities of DDTM will result in a significant cost savings over the life of programs by minimizing manufacturing set-up time, reducing engineering changes during development, limiting physical mockup time, and lowering product maintainability costs. Through the use of simulation technology, the physical hardware that would be manufactured would be several iterations ahead of what would have been deployed with physical mockups and allow for changes in the virtual environment before committing to physical infrastructure.

Hopefully, now when you hear about changes to your design environment you can begin to understand how it supports the broader Center and Agency strategic vision and the potential payoff for NASA.