How digital engineering could produce new weapons faster

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“This enables process automation more broadly,” GDIT engineer says of new accelerator.

A new digital engineering accelerator could streamline how the Pentagon and its contractors develop new weapons, reducing the time it takes to get to a usable prototype by enabling faster, more accurate modeling and simulation.

Most defense engineering generally involves a wide variety of figures, pictures, statistics, qualifications, and more, drawn up and shared in a mix of document types, from PDFs to PowerPoints to text and technical diagrams. It’s the sort of thing a human brain can make sense of, but software will struggle with. 

GDIT’s new “Ember Digital Engineering Accelerator,” launched last week, is designed to remove much of that labor and pull together a wide variety of data from different sources to enable next-generation digital engineering. 

“This enables process automation more broadly. So when you have a lot of manual steps in the loop [of designing something], humans in the loop producing documents, exporting documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, PDFs, Word docs, things like that, anytime there's that kind of element in the loop, [Ember] tries to replace that…with a model-based alternative,” said Mike Nash, GDIT's director of engineering

That model-based alternative is meant to condense the time it takes to design something according to rigorous military specifications. 

“The previous way of doing that was relying on a human in the loop in on each of those systems to say: ‘All right, give me the latest. Now copy and paste that and let's put it over here in this database or this spreadsheet. OK give me this other system, copy and paste that, let's put it in this,’” Nash said.

With Ember, all the data from those requirement forms—along with  any other relevant information there may be—is pulled into the one model. That allows for the creation of better simulations to test and retest prototypes virtually, long before they have to be built in real life. 

“This modeled world that we create, and with this structure and data, gives us a huge opportunity to perform simulation ahead of production,” Nash said. “So simulation and being able to have different kinds of designs of experiments that allow us to change these small degrees of freedom…small parameters in your overall solution gives a huge opportunity to do testing.”

And the military services are already interested. 

“We're moving through successful deployments of this capability, this offering, in the Space Force, Air Force, and in the Army,” Nash said. Space Command is using a similar capability from GDIT, a cloud environment where defense contractors and Defense Department officials collaborate digitally on design. 

And the more services adopt the tool, the more data there is to inform new models and simulations, and to reveal how different systems or platforms might interact, he said. 

As of December, a new Defense Department mandate requires that managers incorporate digital engineering into new acquisition programs. So GDIT will likely face competition from other outfits with their own digital engineering solutions. 

But Nash said GDIT’s tools use open and easily findable standards, which allows the Defense Department to pursue other digital engineering tools without being locked in. “After a couple years, if they say ‘Hey, this was great. Transition this capability over to us. We want to go take it from here,’ then there is no left-behind proprietary code that we have to maintain and stay with them for the long term. And that's a big differentiator.”

The Defense Department is setting ambitious goals for itself to design prototypes much faster than it has historically. Take Replicator, the Defense Department’s billion-dollar program to create tens of thousands of small, cheap drones in a fraction of the time it takes to build new platforms. 

Increasingly, defense officials say that designs for such systems, in the face of a high-tech adversary like China or Russia, will need regular re-design as adversaries innovate their defenses.