More data, more collaboration: A conversation about the future of digital engineering

The principles of digital engineering will advance systems engineering into a more data-centric field with data, models, and documentation, that are easily connected and referenced.

Dan Herber and Ann Batchelor, assistant professors in systems engineering, see the benefits of digital engineering as bigger than just better documents or processes for systems engineering. Transitioning to digital engineering will make people’s jobs easier and more streamlined.

We sat down with Dan and Ann to learn more about digital engineering and why they believe the future of systems engineering is intertwined with better digital engineering processes.

At a high level, what is digital engineering?

Ann Batchelor: Digital engineering has a lot to do with taking everything that we generate which creates a digital twin through the development lifecycle. Our desire is to really transform systems engineering into something that we can see in 3D, digitally model, and capture. What this will do is give us built-in flexibility since 1) we will have everything in one place, 2) can reuse models, and create automatic documentation, and 3) use models to design and test a system prior to completing system design and evaluation. We can run models easily which will allow us to produce products quicker. Digital engineering will change our speed.

Ann Batchelor
Ann Batchelor, assistant professor in systems engineering at Colorado State University.

We will have systems that are digitally documented rather than only on paper, which is what we’ve traditionally done. With digital engineering, we can reuse different parts of a model, and have all the data in the same place. Everybody will be able to see the model, testing, and data in one place, so it leads to more collaborative systems. Collaborative systems are the best approach to complex problems.

Dan Herber: Digital engineering is very data-centric, and a model is one form of data. With digital engineering, you can bring in new capabilities rapidly that could be hard to assess in more traditional approaches. With a digital engineering approach there’s more efficient and rigorous mechanisms for enforcing future capability development. For example, in Advanced Model-Based Systems Engineering (SYSE 667), I discuss the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) which has goals of developing reusable software architectures for avionics and aircraft. This reusability means you don’t have to redo the entire thing from scratch every time. Another part of it is standardizing processes and having components that get pulled in together. This is really only enabled if an organization has more fully embraced digital engineering.

How is this different from what engineers are already doing today?

DH: I think digital engineering can be little bit of a misnomer sometimes. For example, you can have a 1000-page report on your system, and yes, this is a digital report. I can search the report. It’s on my computer. So, this is better than what we were doing before, right? Yes, it is better than before when someone had to have a binder with the report and flip through it to find what they want. However, just having a digital version of a report doesn’t mean that we have enabled mechanisms where it’s easy to find information, easy to find those connections, or easy to capture.

Dan Herber
Dan Herber, assistant professor in systems engineering at Colorado State University.

So that’s how I frame it now, because at this point, the end-product often is a computer file in some form. I think the vision of digital engineering is not just to put it on a computer, but to put it on the computer in the right way to support connectivity and analysis.

What differences will implementing digital engineering bring to systems engineering?

AB: It would be a lot more data-centric; don’t you think Dan?

DH:  I think it’s definitely fair to say it’ll be very data centric. Often that will be in the form of some type of model. Having models that are representative of the things we are doing will allow for lots of different communication mechanisms, trade study mechanisms, advanced analysis, standardization, and reusing existing solutions. These principles already exist in the software side of things. When I talk in class about this, we often discuss how this came from software first, and then students will often bring up that these principles make sense in cyber, physical, or even hardware-focused systems.

Digital engineering is not just a turnkey solution. For most systems, it’s not an overnight switch of moving traditional documents to digital. It’s a more gradual transition and requires some investment. This is why I ask my students to think about how these techniques can improve their organizational practices and lead towards digital engineering efforts.

What are we doing as a department to prepare students for this transition to digital engineering?

AB: Most of our students are working professionals and that means that many students want to be trained in model-based systems engineering. We teach students MBSE and add the important element of cybersecurity. We’re trying to integrate digital engineering with technical domains.

I also think one of things that’s going to be really interesting in this field is using augmented and virtual reality for models. AR/VR will really bring a different level of understanding.

DH: Our courses are teaching these principles in numerous ways with different mechanisms and tools to cover the broad space of system engineering. For example, I don’t know many programs that are doing this work with virtual reality. I know many programs cover MBSE in their curriculum, but not many connect it to simulation or cybersecurity, for example, as I do in Advanced Model-Based Systems Engineering (SYSE 667). In that class, we look at how you integrate simulations into MBSE models. But digital engineering is bigger than MBSE, it’s about true digital integration.

What do you wish people knew about digital engineering?

AB: My main point, and what I try to make clear to people who have been in the workforce for a while, is that digital engineering is going to make your job easier. It won’t make your job more complex or difficult, it’s going to make your job easier.

DH:  That’s basically what I was going to say too, Ann. Sometimes when we talk with industry partners, there are those who start pushing for this shift to digital engineering because they see the value immediately, while others take a while to understand that this will make their jobs easier.

Also, it is helpful to know that the transition towards digital engineering doesn’t need to happen all at once. I feel like at first people are hesitant because they think that they need to change their organization immediately. Of course, there are going to be benefits that are only realized when everything is integrated, but there are still advantages of doing it in pieces and I think that it’s all part of figuring out the right strategy for your organization.