Guest blog: why digitalisation is vital for future prosperity

5 min read

In the first of a series of articles on the value of simulation, Ian Risk from the Centre for Modelling & Simulation, explores the impact of digitalisation on the drive to net zero and challenges the industry to transform how it creates better solutions for tomorrow through digital engineering.

Following the arrival of COVID-19, the necessity to be a digitally-enabled enterprise rapidly became the focus of attention for most business leaders. This course of action was essential for business resilience, as organisations struggled to come to terms with maintaining productivity while trying to manage a geographically dispersed workforce.

Although this may be seen by some to be a temporary situation, a fundamental change has happened and our ways of working may never be the same.

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Despite the importance of this change and the many challenges it poses, a survey conducted in the US by the Stevens Institute identified the primary barriers to the adoption of a digital way of working are not technological, they are human in nature and include: awareness, skills, management support and, most importantly, culture.

Such opposition can be difficult to break down but for any organisation, the choice of whether to go digital or not will have stark consequences given how fast technology is developing and public opinion is changing.

Going digital, goes way beyond Zoom meetings. In the future, to be digitally enabled will mean the endemic deployment of technology throughout the organisation, particularly in design, manufacturing and customer support. This is especially true for large infrastructure projects such as HS2 which are operating at a scale and level of complexity that embracing a fully digital way of working is the only economic option.

As well as the pandemic forcing greater adoption of digital methods in business, we are also seeing radical changes happening in product form and function, driven by the need for sustainable goods that provide more capability and less impact on the planet. Such change rarely occurs easily and for products linked to human mobility this is particularly true. For some years now advances in computational modelling and simulation have helped the engineering community make great strides to realising the Net Zero products society needs today but this is an on-going battle and further research and investment is needed.

The business case for simulation

The choice of whether to invest in digital technology and particularly simulation is generally influenced by the question of value to an organisation. Establishing a clear business case should always be the starting point and to illustrate the basis of such a proposition, one can simply look at the cost of new product development. Analysts estimate that the price to bring a new car to the market starts at around $1 billion and for aerospace products this can easily be an order of magnitude higher.

This might seem an expensive price tag but it is already ‘discounted’ by taking into account learnings from previous products, as companies recycle knowledge or components to reduce the final cost for the customer.  However, for radically new products which, for example, push the boundaries of sustainability with alternate means of propulsion or novel materials to enhance performance, the price goes up dramatically.

Engineering and prototyping can make up a large proportion of this, some estimate up to 40 % of the cost. The vast majority of this is time related: the longer the development cycle takes, the higher the price due to the intensive nature of engineering work, experimentation and test. With the most valuable commodity for most companies being engineering resources, the more that needs to be absorbed in physical testing at the end of development means the less capability is available to develop new products.

History tells us that getting things right the first time is the most productive and cost-effective approach. The more you know, the more likely you will be to make the right decisions. For this reason, visionary companies are seeing digitalisation and the opportunity to do more virtually as paramount, removing the need to absorb large amounts of human resource in producing and evaluating physical prototypes.

This is the rationale behind initiatives such as Jaguar Land Rover’s Road to Digital Programme which aims to ensure resources do not continually become ‘trapped’ in long drawn-out test programmes impeding the ability to innovate. Addressing this challenge is now seen by many as the primary means to enhance productivity and keep the cost of innovative products competitive.

Change demands more rigorous testing

The pace of technology development is now faster than ever and new functionality demanded by customers results in products becoming more and more complex. The requirement for the continual integration of new technology creates major problems for manufacturers and regulators.

Firstly, the challenge of understanding the emerging properties of any new system tests the experience and knowledge of the engineers to the limit and secondly, the uncertainty associated with this lack of understanding should cause the regulators to request more, rather than less testing.

This simply exacerbates the problem of trying to innovate whilst making the product cost effective. Demanding time pressures, a lack of system understanding and poor training are recognised contributory factors to some of the worst industrial accidents in history.

Identifying where failure will occur is becoming the biggest issue for those manufacturing complex, safety critical systems especially those with embedded software. Remote updates, especially those intended to provide improved services or performance, could adversely affect safety if not properly evaluated. This is not a situation where one can roll out a software ‘beta’ version and wait for feedback from the customer. It must be right, first time.

This means we must test and test again and go beyond our normal frame of reference. Humans under pressure do not always adhere to the rules in terms of what can and can’t be incorporated into a system, how it should be used and keep it safe. This simply leads to increased uncertainty in the way the system will perform – another demonstration of the need to continually test throughout the development life of a product. This is not a ‘fire and forget’ exercise.

The dichotomy of the need for innovation and the need for regulation is something that must be addressed if we are to really bring about major change. Physical trial and error experimentation has been the bedrock of every product validation programme in the modern era but it is essential that testing does not become a barrier to innovation [8,9] at a time when we need it most.

Regulation vs innovation

This is a challenge for large OEMs let alone the SME with many companies struggling to bring new solutions to the market as they do not have access to sufficient industrial data to prove out their propositions or meet the regulatory needs.

To illustrate this issue, for products such as fully autonomous vehicles, these would need to be driven for millions of miles without a dangerous event occurring and the loss of human life. For most, the cost of doing this physically is so prohibitive it makes it unviable, so digital simulation has to be the way forward. In doing so, regulators need to work more closely with industry and establish trust in this way of working or the products needed by society today, will simply be pushed back into the future.

This will be one of the major cultural shifts needed to enhance innovation but it can be done, as illustrated in the response to the pandemic. Driven by necessity, the medical regulators created a rolling review process that reduced certification times from years to months and an alternative approach will be needed to achieve NetZero products in a realistic timeframe.

To meet the challenges ahead, industry must transform how it creates better solutions for tomorrow and adopt the advantages of digital engineering. As many organisations have already discovered, digitalisation is no longer an option but is vital for future prosperity.