Digital technology transformations have streamlined analog processes for decades, making complicated tasks easier, faster, more intuitive and even automatic. The modern car is the perfect expression of this idea. Cars produced in the last few decades are more than cars — they’re a bundle of digital processes with the ability to regulate fuel consumption, detect unsafe conditions, understand when the vehicle is coming close to a collision and ensure the driver doesn’t unknowingly drift out of their lane.

The array of sensors and actuators, cameras, radar, lidar and embedded computer subsystems in these vehicles can’t just be useful gadgets; they must flawlessly ensure the safety of the driver and passengers. These incredibly complex systems are often developed by different engineering teams or companies. Without the proper development processes, bugs can go unnoticed until after the model ships. For car manufacturers, ensuring that their systems are safe is a matter of life and death.

If a car manufacturer finds a flaw in the self-driving system only after the model has shipped, they face a clear crisis. There isn’t time to contact the dealers, to email drivers or to erect billboards warning of the flaw. The issue must be fixed immediately, or the car manufacturer could face irreparable damage. If the computer system was designed with a firm digital engineering foundation, the manufacturer could easily fix the issue by sending out a “cloud burst” to update every car on the network before the flaw becomes dangerous.

Digital product engineering enables complex, high-stakes development

The goal in digital engineering is to not only minimize flaws in every outgoing vehicle, but to establish a development environment to ensure that once a flaw is detected, it can be fixed quickly and safely. To achieve this, we recommend that companies embrace digital product engineering and digital thread technology. A digital thread is an engineering process whereby a product’s development can be digitally traced throughout its lifecycle, upstream or downstream.

Since the invention of digital technology, businesses have been using computers to automate shipping systems, supply systems and warehouse systems. As the power of that technology continues to grow, businesses are applying the same principles of automation to the development process as well.

Businesses can now create an easy-to-access digital repository for collaborators to work on or view. Updates to the product are made within that central source, ensuring everyone has access to the most up-to-date version of the product.

Digital product engineering is an evolving process, a future-state that organizations need to achieve to make the world a safer, more secure place. Digital engineering holds such promise that the US Government Department of Defense has stipulated in their digital engineering strategy that any subcontractors they work with must use digital engineering processes to ensure transparency, safety and accountability for their high-tech defense systems.

At the highest-level, digital engineering is a holistic, data-first approach to the end-to-end design of complex systems. Models and data can be used and shared throughout the development of the product, eschewing older documents-based methods. The goal is to formalize the development and integration of systems, provide a single authoritative source of truth, improve engineering through technological innovation, and establish supporting engineering infrastructure to ease development, collaboration and communication across teams and disciplines.

Digital thread can provide users with a logic path for tracking information throughout the systems’ lifecycle or ecosystem. By pulling on the digital thread, engineering teams can better understand the impact of design changes, as well as manage requirements, design, implementation and verification. This capability is vital for accurately managing regulatory and compliance requirements, reporting development status and responding quickly to product recalls and quality issues. In terms of digital engineering, a digital thread represents a significant role in connecting engineering data to related processes and people. But a digital thread is not plug and play; it’s a process that must be designed from the ground up.

The IBM digital engineering solution

To make it one step easier for your organization, IBM® Engineering Lifecycle Management (ELM) can establish the ideal base for your company to pursue digital engineering transformation. ELM is built from the ground up around the digital thread model. Each lifecycle application seamlessly shares engineering data with every other lifecycle application, such as downstream software, electronics and mechanical domain applications. ELM leverages the highly-proven W3C linked data approach using Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration (OSLC) adapters for both internal and external information exchange — the same approach used to seamlessly connect web applications across industries.

ELM leverages OSLC to connect data and processes along the engineering lifecycle. By enabling this standards-based integration architecture, engineering teams can avoid the complications inherent in developing and maintaining proprietary point-to-point integrations.

Lumen Freedom, a manufacturer of wireless charging units for electric vehicles, wants to provide an untethered world for electric vehicle owners. In pioneering this innovation, Lumen’s design management became increasingly complex and difficult to manage. To level up their product development goals, Lumen adopted digital engineering lifecycle management tools from ELM that allow them to capture, trace and analyze mechanical, hardware and software requirements throughout the entire product development process. “Given that DOORS® Next and ELM are essentially standards in the automotive industry, we chose IBM for our preferred toolchain,” says David Eliott, Systems Architect at Lumen Freedom.

ELM maintains a linked data foundation for digital engineering and provides data continuity and traceability within integrated processes. With global data configuration, engineering teams can define a consistent baseline and provide central analytics and reporting components. ELM fosters consistency across all data while providing an automated audit trail, ensuring ease of access to digital evidence for regulatory compliance.

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