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New KM tools buoy aircraft makers

Leaner than legacy

Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Northrop Grumman face mounting competitive pressure to complete projects in less time and at lower cost.

Slow and cumbersome legacy design, engineering and production systems are being replaced with leaner, more flexible solutions that enable projects to be set up in weeks, rather than months, and managed more efficiently.

"We can no longer do it with the monster legacy systems of the past," said Dave Torchia, manager of Product Data Management Systems for Northrop Grumman. "We're moving toward leaner tools that are simpler to use and more cost-effective to maintain."

When a project like the B-2 bomber began in the early 1980s, for example, responding to change requests from the Department of Defense took 60 to 90 days. By the middle of the 1990s, that was down to a day or less. As the decade progressed, the need for flexible and more nimble systems became increasingly clear. Northrop Grumman could no longer spend months setting up new design, engineering and manufacturing programs to compete for new contracts.

In search for a system to handle information, the aerospace company wanted to manage the engineering "package" in one place, Torchia said. That package consists of all engineering information such as bills of materials, drawings, stress analysis, tooling and quality assurance data. With its old system, Northrop managed the data sequentially. The engineer would complete a task, then route the package to manufacturing, which routed it to tool design, then on to stress analysis.

The new Metaphase product data management (PDM) system from SDRC enables Northrop to work concurrently on the engineering package in integrated product teams, and all information is available simultaneously. That integrated approach enabled Northrop Grumman to decrease cycle times by 50%.

According to Torchia, Northrop Grumman has put Metaphase PDM to the test on projects and contracts ranging from reusable space vehicles to advanced electrical buses for the Los Angeles mass transit system. Despite the disparate collection of projects, Torchia said, the system's flexibility helped improve the design to engineering to production life cycle for all of them.

Sometimes aerospace competitors decide to team up on projects. For example, Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace are members of a team led by Lockheed Martin that is competing for the new Joint Strike Fighter program contract, which is expected to be awarded next year. Metaphase is the common PDM system among the three companies, and Northrop Grumman is using it to design an advanced lightweight airframe structure.

Northrop Grumman also participated in a consortium to develop the next generation of unmanned satellite delivery vehicles, and used its PDM system to quickly assign 250 designers and engineers to the project.

"We can take a project from proposal to production to post-production all on the same system," Torchia explained. "This capability will become crucial in the years ahead."

According to Torchia, the greatest benefit of the new system is its change management capabilities.

"Instead of isolated change management systems, everything rolls up into the same integrated system," he said. "Project engineers are able to receive everything electronically and assess the impact of changes much faster. That eliminates the need to sometimes spend days sifting through electronic file systems and reconciling versions."

There were some unanticipated problems with converting to the new system.

"We didn't scope out the magnitude of the data conversion," Torchia said. "We had 20 years of legacy data. To solve that, we wrote some of our own conversion and load software. The data shift took one month of 24-hour days.

The cultural impact was also challenging. Some engineers did not want to give up the old, familiar system. To offset that reluctance, Northrop Grumman identified people in each workgroup who embraced the new PDM system and had them handle initial questions from their peers.


Boeing Commercial Airplanes recently faced a somewhat different type of KM quagmire. As the world's largest producer of commercial jetliners, Boeing hardly comes to mind as a publisher, but the aircraft manufacturer is constantly challenged by immense authoring and publishing requirements.

Boeing faces massive volumes of information (documents that can exceed 45,000 pages) and multiple output formats for the same content. It also must produce customized outputs for each customer. For example, the 717 aircraft maintenance manual produced for airline X is different from the 717 manual produced for airline Y. Because the aircraft each airline operates differs, different maintenance procedures are needed.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes decided to replace its old paper-based publishing system with 3B2 software from Advent. The new Electronic Maintenance and Operational Data system, called E-MOD, will use 3B2 to produce technical manuals and maintenance data for its commercial aircraft. In a test run, the new system produced a single document containing more than 50,000 pages and 13,000 images in less than six minutes.

The new approach solves many of Boeing's long-standing challenges while reliably and automatically producing new digital outputs, said Doug Alberg, senior manager of Advanced Authoring and Publishing System Development with Boeing's Commercial Airplanes Group.

Among the improvements listed by Alberg are the ability:• to merge disparate types of content into a final output,• to author a single set of information from which customized documents can be produced in many formats,• to rapidly publish content and support for remote authoring.

Content can be created once and reused in many different contexts, Alberg said, and tools are provided so content creators can determine the impact of changes they make. For example, a user can determine if any cross references are invalid across the entire document.

"The solution has worked very well for us and is being expanded to handle content for all major aircraft models," Alberg said.

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