At the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, finding innovative and modernized processes to design, manufacture, and maintain their critical assets and weapons systems is a top priority. In fact, the mantra, “Accelerate change, or lose,” has become an unofficial motto within the Department of the Air Force, harkening back to a phrase coined by U.S. Air Force’s Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown.
But in order to accelerate change and innovation within military supply chains, the U.S. Department of Defense must begin to turn its gaze towards new and emerging technologies coming out of the advanced manufacturing and digital engineering industries.
In a session during last month’s Air Force Association’s 2022 Warfare Symposium, panel experts from Boeing Global Services, Northrop Grumman, GATORWORKS, and the U.S. Space Force discussed and explored how digital twins and additive manufacturing are accelerating change within the design, manufacture, and maintenance phases of Air Force and Space Force assets and systems.
According to these experts, here are three key ways in which digital engineering and advanced manufacturing are delivering benefits to military supply chains:
Earlier asset issue detection
When an Air Force aircraft is manufactured, the asset’s complete lifecycle – from design to retirement – can come with an extremely high price tag, with the majority of costs being attributed to post-delivery maintenance.
Traditionally, once an asset has been manufactured, it must be introduced into a testing environment for rigorous review, assessment, and inspection. Historically, this is the phase where any manufacturing issues or performance errors are detected.
Based off the identified issues that come out of a testing round, the asset would then be brought back into the depot for corrections and modifications. Though issues are almost always caught and rectified during this phase, the amount of time it takes to test and modify newly manufactured assets can create unexpected budget costs and delays for asset deployment timelines – which overall hinders the Air Force’s ability to be ready and prepared.
According to Ryan Tinter, Vice President of Digital Transformation at Northrop Grumman, historically when issues were detected during asset testing, “We get so far down the cycle that we have to completely open up, redo, and scrap…That’s cost and that’s schedule – making it significantly longer to get an asset into the field.”
Through digital twin technology, military supply chain manufacturers can utilize digital scanning technology to gather asset data throughout the lifecycle of a military asset – resulting in up-to-date digital blueprints of the asset. By having this digital twin, manufacturers can run test scenarios and evaluate the asset before having it enter a physical testing environment. By running tests based off a digital twin model, errors and issues can be detected earlier on in the design and manufacturing process, saving an immense amount of time and budgets from unnecessary testing, modifications, re-manufacturing, and rebuilds.
Shorter lead times and cheaper sustainment costs
For the Air Force and Space Force, when critical assets and platforms partially or completely break, the cost to repair can be expensive and manufacturer lead times can be long, especially if it is a legacy system that needs to be fixed.
Through both digital twin and additive manufacturing technologies, the military is now able to more efficiently monitor, repair, and replace systems or parts at much cheaper and faster rates.
By having digital twin replicas of military assets that are continuously being updated with real-time performance tracking and monitoring data, the Air Force and Space Force can better detect and even predict when issues will occur and when assets need to be repaired, saving time and money on any surprise sustainment issues.
Traditionally, when parts do need to be replaced, military supply chain processes can prove to be time consuming and costly. Through additive manufacturing, the Air Force and Space Force no longer need to wait on expensive replacement parts to arrive from a manufacturer. Through digital twin technology, the military can now 3D print replacement parts on the spot, based on a digital blueprint of an asset’s part, bypassing the long lead times and high price tags from traditional supply chain manufacturers.
Digitally transforming space supply chains
If the United States wants to continue widening its footprint and establish dominance in the space domain, it will require the military to deploy modernized and innovative technologies that will be able to meet the unique logistic requirements of space supply chains.
Back on Earth, the processes and procedures of ordering, manufacturing, delivering, and installing replacement parts for an Air Force asset can definitely be long and arduous, but overall, it is a relatively painless process logistics-wise.
But if a U.S. asset in space breaks down and needs to be fixed, the repair and replacement process is exponentially longer and more expensive, due to the extremely complicated nature of reaching a space asset.
“Think about trying to do logistics and supply chain in space,” said Dr. Lisa Costa, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Space Force. “When something breaks, it’s really hard to get things there.”
According to Dr. Costa, “There are a lot of opportunities” with additive manufacturing in space. Through 3D printing and other additive manufacturing technologies, space asset replacement parts for can be printed and repaired in space, eliminating the time, money, and resources needed to coordinate a specific space-bound mission for a single repair.