Nadhim Zahawi, the UK’s minister for business and industry, formally launched the Defence Digital Skills Framework (DDSF) on Monday during the FIA Connect online event. An initiative of the Skills Group of the government/industry Defence Growth Partnership, DDSF is a portal that provides access to digital skills resources to enhance the capabilities and productivity of defense industry personnel and also to permit the wider dissemination of new advances in digital technology.
Currently DDSF has 13 companies enrolled and hopes to attract many more to enhance and expand a common digital skills base within the UK defense industry. The portal is now in the proof-of-concept stage and will develop over the coming months, drawing on feedback from users.
Digital technology is at the heart of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the UK stands as an acknowledged leader in harnessing the potential that technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics can bring to industry, not only in terms of design and development, but also in manufacturing processes as well as in through-life support and sustainment. However, as Zahawi pointed out, “We can’t stand still. To develop the products for tomorrow we need the right digital tools today.”
Digital technology can significantly reduce development times and costs and serves as a key enabler in assisting the UK to achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also allows UK industry to maintain intellectual property rights and operational sovereignty, Zahawi noted.
Julia Sutcliffe, BAE Systems’ director for air labs and chief technologist, spelled out some of the areas where digital technology can increase productivity, reduce development times, and slash costs by around a half. The use of cloud-based data-sharing infrastructure allows “collaboration with a much wider ecosystem of partners,” while enabling innovative technologies and solutions to be pulled through into the design process, she explained.
An example of reduced development time is wind tunnel testing. Using traditional processes, wind tunnel testing is time-consuming and costly, requiring designers to make numerous models and iteratively test them until they find the optimum configuration. Using advanced digital technology, engineers can perform much of that work using artificial intelligence and predictive analytics. Large datasets can be generated rapidly, after which algorithms can be “trained” to analyze this data to extract the optimal solutions for real-world testing.
Moreover, many more innovation-based subject-matter experts and academic institutions can get involved in the design process thanks to the cloud, so their innovations can be evaluated and incorporated at a much earlier stage of the design process than would normally be possible.
The requirement for digital expertise is growing: Microsoft’s Hugh Milward reported that research conducted by the company had shown that the military would need around 8,000 digital technology posts over the next few years, while in industry that figure stands at around 40,000. With an aging workforce in the UK defense industry, that would require significant additional training of current personnel as well as an increased flow of young people entering the sector.
"Re-skilling" and "up-skilling" the workforce is essential to gaining maximum benefit from digital technologies, but there will inevitably be some inertia. During the panel session that followed the opening addresses, QinetiQ’s Vicky Weise pointed out many of the younger generations are already “digital natives” and embrace the kind of advantages that technology can bring in terms of sharing data and communicating. Implementing digital processes could benefit in many areas from a form of a role-reversal, in which the more junior members of the workforce could serve prominently in educating the older members.