Best in class will thrive in new defense spending environment

Robert Harwood and Dian Yang Recent statements about the U.S. defense budget have made frequent mention of cuts, fiscal constraints and reform, with subsequent lobbying and debate across the national media. Although this is the reality today, and possibly for…

Robert Harwood and Dian Yang

Recent statements about the U.S. defense budget have made frequent mention of cuts, fiscal constraints and reform, with subsequent lobbying and debate across the national media. Although this is the reality today, and possibly for several years to come, focusing on the headlines often masks some of the more subtle trends.

For example, in the U.S. Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request, published in February, one of the key themes is “re-balancing and enhancing military capabilities.” Basically, what we’re seeing is a shift in priorities to meet today’s threats and those perceived for tomorrow, both of which are very different from the Cold War-era threats that initiated a number of DOD programs.

In practice, this means an actual or proposed termination of some major hardware programs, such as the F-22, a variety of helicopters and the expeditionary fighting vehicle. But it also reveals a greater emphasis on enhancing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; unmanned aircraft systems; and cyber capabilities.

Modernization plans are driving the need for more complex systems with a range of embedded electronics—digitized cockpits for the Army’s helicopter fleet, a tactical communications network down to the soldier level, an optionally piloted new Air Force bomber and accelerated development of the Navy’s new generation of electronic jammers.

As defense spending shifts focus from traditional hardware to smart weapons, electronics plays a critical role as the “brain” of such systems. However, an increasing footprint of electronics within a system also means a higher chance of reliability risks, such as electromigration, electromagnetic interference, electrostatic discharge and thermally induced stress failures. These reliability concerns are magnified as the semiconductor process technologies that drive IC design complexity continue to advance, and as the ICs that control electronic subsystems are tested under the stringent and extreme conditions of defense applications.

So, while there is an emphasis on rapid development of novel, complex systems that rely heavily on embedded electronics, there is also a need for tighter controls on the quality, cost and timeliness of the proposed design.

Recent findings published by The Aberdeen Group Inc. provide some insight on strategies that could help the defense community succeed in this new environment. The company surveyed a wide range of organizations across multiple industry sectors and categorized them as best in class, average or laggard based on how well their products met quality, cost and timeliness targets.

Aberdeen then went on to investigate what the best-in-class organizations did differently from the rest. One standout difference was the systematic use of engineering simulation tools throughout the process, from early in the design stage, as opposed to intermittent usage late in the design phase or no usage at all.

Engineering simulation tools allow engineers and scientists to create virtual representations of the system or component to be developed, and analyze its behavior using computers (see simulation images throughout this article). Engineering simulation solutions should consider the interaction of all the components within a system and provide an environment that yields smooth hand-offs. For example, system simulation needs to consider the impact of IC-generated EMI noise on the overall system performance in order to accurately analyze the system behavior in a realistic environment.

By deploying engineering simulation tools in such a systematic way, when compared with the industry average, best-in-class companies were able to achieve 12 percent improvements in product quality, 10 percent improvements in achieving cost targets, and 17 percent improvements in on-time product launch.

Such strong alignment between the benefits to organizations that use engineering simulation tools systematically and the new defense industry drivers suggests that the best-in-class organizations will thrive in the new defense spending environment. The future is less bright for organizations that fail to adapt.

About the authors
Robert Harwood is aerospace and defense industry director at Ansys Inc. Dian Yang is senior vice president of product management at Apache Design Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Ansys.