Sewing a Digital Thread Through Your Software Development Process

  September 06, 2017

For some industries, quality management is different. If you are not able to establish sufficient internal governance around your product development process, you are out of the market. If you are a supplier, your customers will move to another Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) that doesn’t carry as much risk. In industries like med device, aerospace & defense, or automotive; suppliers don’t just sell products, they sell products with quality assurance built-in.

These highly-regulated industries demand a lot from their suppliers, and as a result, the suppliers have become the leaders in development process planning and execution. As industry standards continue to rise, it is these process gurus who respond in kind year after year, cross-pollinating victories in compliance consolidation from other sectors to shape and motivate their strategies around streamlining quality management.

Safety Standards from the Road to the Runway

One major drag on the product development process is complying with multiple layers of requirements, some of which can be contradictory. In 1996, the Society of Automotive Engineers pioneered the development of an industry standard, ARD 9000, so that they could reduce risk across the supply chain. Following this example, the American Aerospace Quality Group convened the next year to develop a standard of their own, AS9000. By defining unique standards, the aerospace & defense industry was able to supplement ISO 9001, which was unable to adequately address quality management concerns regarding the safety and reliability of products. Ultimately, aerospace companies still answer to the FAA and other civil aviation authorities, but ARD 9000 and AS9000 were turning points. They helped establish quality management as a tangible inter-industry discipline.

This discipline grew over the following years with attempts to globalize and harmonize these newly-founded standards, outlining areas like quality planning, process controls, and testing equipment. An example of one of these international efforts was the 2012 release of DO-178C, the Software Considerations in Airborne System and Equipment Certification. This safety standard was created as part of a joint effort between the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment (EUROCAE) and the US-based Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) to replace the outdated DO-178B. We also recently wrote about similar updates to automotive standards. Both compliance changes focus largely on the need for quality management to go digital.

Digital Twins and Digital Threads

If the F135 propulsion system in a F-35 Lightning II is malfunctioning, troubleshooting is a major manual effort. It requires someone looking at the physical mechanics. Recently, the concept of digital twins is growing in prevalence. A digital twin is a virtual copy of that F-35. It offers a comprehensive view of all repairs, parts and their suppliers, and any other relevant information needed to manage the physical asset. Creating a digital twin can amplify your ability to troubleshoot problems and predict issues before they even arise.

Some experts are motioning for an open exchange of data between OEMs and aerospace companies so that there can be increasing granularity and continuity across the supply chain and throughout the quality management lifecycle. This communication framework is called the digital thread.

A digital thread allows for better management of engineering specifications, documentation of design changes, and faster new product introductions. The best way to start building a digital thread is by adopting a code and document peer review tool. Our best of breed peer review tool, Collaborator, enables companies to create customized workflows to capture all changes, conversations, and validations across the product development lifecycle.

Airborne Software Quality Management

The concept of a continuous communications framework applies to the software behind airborne systems as well as the physical product design. Software-based commercial aerospace systems need to undergo robust safety assessments and reviews before being approved by certification authorities like the FAA, EASA, or Transport Canada. To see how companies are working towards Airborne Software Certification, read our free white paper on DO-178C.

As the discipline of quality management continues to evolve, companies in highly-regulated industries should anticipate a quality management process that pairs digital models with collaborative software tools to create, document, and evaluate complete sets of data for each product.

More reading

How Collaborator supports quality management in the aerospace and defense industry.

Automotive Article: Racing Towards Software Development & the Internet of Cars.