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In recent months Defence has outlined some significant national goals. Whether it’s sovereign guided weapons, assuring communications with sovereign satellites, or the procurement of nuclear submarines, the technical challenges of these national projects will be vast and the effects far reaching. We will need to be smarter on how we engineer these complex systems.

As demonstrated by NASA’s Apollo Program, one of the biggest challenges was not the development of technology to put a person on the Moon, but how different technologies, from different disciplines, should be integrated and engineered as a system. The Apollo Program was a pivotal moment at many levels. It demonstrated that an interdisciplinary approach that oversees both the technical and engineering management effort is required to realise a complex project of national importance. This is Systems Engineering.

Where is Australia on this journey? Lagging unfortunately. You only have to look at job seeker websites to see that there is a significant shortage of systems engineers. The demand on engineers, and specifically systems engineers, will only increase as key national projects come online. Without a systems engineering capability, project outcomes will be sub-optimal.

There is hope, through the application of digital technologies.

Systems engineering has been making the digital transformation by adopting technologies that are becoming more readily available. Where there aren’t any, systems engineers are developing their own. This drive towards digital technologies that enables digital engineering, is starting to make a real difference, and systems engineering has an emerging set of digital tools. This is a similar pathway that other engineering disciplines have previously travelled through with tools such as Computer Aided Design.

Digital engineering replaces the traditional document-centric approach to systems engineering. Rather than capturing information as unstructured information in documents, the digital approach uses a structured digital model. The creation and integration of analytical and description digital models provides a more efficient and effective approach to the design, development, manufacture, and operation of systems.

Digital engineering is the convergence of digital tools, such as model-based systems engineering and mathematical modelling and simulation, that aims to provide an ‘authoritative source of truth’. The digital integration to an authoritative source of truth provides more effective collaboration across all the required technical disciplines than can be achieved via documents, with the systems engineering information captured, accessed, configured and authorised using a digital backbone. This digital backbone, or ‘digital thread’, gives every engineer on a project access to the authorised information they need to fulfil their role. Mistakes are minimised, design decisions are more effective, and the long-term success of the project is increased.

With the enhanced engineering rigour of digital engineering, ‘digital twins’ are growing in prominence. Digital twins are the latest incarnation of the mathematical modelling and simulation that systems engineers have traditionally used to design and develop virtual representations of systems. The digital twin uses real-time data, visualisation, simulation of models and machine learning to help with more efficient decision-making.

The trend to adopt digital engineering seems to be growing. Systems engineers can work smarter not just harder. Forward leaning large engineering companies are seeing the benefits and the impact on their profits. We need to accelerate the adoption of digital engineering if we are to successfully face our looming national defence and security challenges.  

With the responsibility for national projects, Defence groups must play their role. They need to assist and encourage industry with the transition to digital engineering. They need to lead by example and adopt these digital engineering practises themselves.

We need the smarter approach that digital engineering provides. We need digital engineering to become the standard for tackling the complex and smart systems that Defence must deliver.

Author Kevin Robinson is the Chief Engineer at Shoal Group.

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