Disruption caused by new technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence/machine learning, augmented/virtual reality, and unmanned/remotely piloted aircraft is usually cited as the reason that large, established companies are being upended by smaller upstarts brandishing new technology. Must the decades-old market leaders fall to garage-based or venture-funded startups powered by fresh new ideas and fresh new Ph.D.s? Systems engineering and systems thinking, along with an obscure but prescient insight known as Conway’s Law, may shed some light on the situation and what large defense firms are doing to overcome it.

A startup venture is a very flexible system with people playing multiple roles and everyone consistently communicating, but with the addition of each new person, communication becomes increasingly difficult, and the system starts to change. According to the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), an organization can be considered a self-organizing system – through time it increases its own complexity. It builds hierarchies to enable management, monitoring, and control. Similar workers, such as electrical engineers, band together and form departments to provide their skills to multiple projects efficiently. From a systems perspective, this efficiency comes at a cost – architectural and organizational hardening, a result of Conway’s Law.

Senior Airman Drake Anderson, an aircraft metals technology journeyman assigned to the 28th Maintenance Squadron, inputs instructions into a VF5 Super-Speed (VF-5SS) vertical machining center at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. The VF-5SS allows the shop to speed up the manufacturing process, run more efficiently, and test the tolerance of new aircraft parts. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Overcoming Conway’s Law

In the 1960s, computer programmer Melvin Conway observed that systems tend to have an architecture and communication structure that mirrors the organization that created them. In large defense integrator organizations, organizational and communication structures grow with organizational scale, with multiple layers of management and deeply entrenched loyalty networks. Ironically, the organization becomes a victim of its own success, with processes and systems that work, but only in established patterns consistent with the systems and products the organization has developed in the past.

Consider the difference between a small startup and a large defense integrator when it comes to the relationship between engineering and manufacturing. In the small startup, engineering and manufacturing are likely not separated, as the founders and their close-knit group consider both functions as they develop new products. Formulating an IIoT-based engineering design platform that seamlessly moves information into manufacturing and 3D-printing/additive manufacturing systems – getting closer to Tony Stark’s “commence automated assembly” sci-fi ideal – is a natural, intuitive process for the startup.

Not so for the large defense organization, which has built up separate engineering and manufacturing organizations, with perhaps thousands of employees and complex, interconnected systems in each, chosen by or developed by those organizations. Market-disrupting technology such as IIoT requires organizational disruption to bridge organization boundaries. Even if groups are friendly toward each other, the problem is akin to interconnecting differing national systems on a multi-national space mission, each of which includes thousands of decisions regarding everything from screw sizes to operating systems and network protocols. Enormous organizational momentum is something that a light-on-its-feet startup doesn’t experience. It’s easier to maneuver a Ferrari F1 sports car than an Abrams M1 battle tank.

Adding IIoT

Milissa Griesenbrock, Air Force Research Laboratory Fuels and Energy branch co-lead for High Impact Technology 1 - Fuel Science and research chemist, gives a tour of a fuel system simulator (FSS). The FSS simulates time and temperature heat loads along the flow pathway of jet fuel to investigate impacts of different fuel chemistries on real and simulated hardware. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/John Harrington)

IIoT projects, by their nature, cross organization and function. Information from a testing machine in a manufacturing line might be connected via IIoT to an engineering system assessing test results against engineering performance models. To realize the IIoT vision, users must cross existing organizational and functional lines and learn to work in cross-discipline teams. Engineering, information technology (IT), business development, and manufacturing must unite to bring IIoT into an existing organization.

Devoting top technical leadership to the new effort, along with mandates from top management, means an IIoT project team will be respected by peers within the organizations. Significant discretionary funding enables the team to internally fund additional efforts performed by the in-place organization, usually by part-time recruits who may contribute spare time or overtime hours to the new effort. Informal cross-organizational and cross-functional councils – made up of those keen to see the new technologies and methods win and who have significant organizational juice to support them in their groups – can coordinate development projects, even without a mandate. One large defense contractor calls such a group a coalition of the willing, emphasizing its voluntary, forward-looking orientation.

A set of 6-axis robots used for welding. (Photo credit: Phasmatisnox)

Making IIoT projects even more interesting is the sensitive nature of defense systems projects. Even leaving aside the issues of classified information, defense programs are often proprietary, keeping information private and assuming, sometimes without government requirement, that it must be so. In terms of managing risk, program information may be unavailable, even to related programs from the same governmental or military acquiring agency. It is often easier to negotiate appropriate information sharing as programs begin, rather than once they are underway. Acquiring organizations can help here by understanding the benefits of information sharing, system integration, and optimization of reuse through modularity. Defense integrators and their customers may need to challenge the tacit assumption of non-integration and work toward a more-connected approach, enforcing separation only when necessary.

IoT benefits

Classified environments can benefit from connecting with related projects via the concept of common classified environments – multi-tenancy programs and shared, collaborative approaches. Defense integrators can engineer something once and reuse it across multiple programs and services, generating cost and speed advantages.

The benefits of IIoT-driven integration can be brought into focus by considering adversarial defense organizations as the disrupters, which employ more agile, flexible, and openly interoperable approaches, while the large, Conway’s law-laden U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) organization continues traditional approaches. Because times have changed for the DOD and defense integrators, both must work to embrace the disruptive technologies and exploit them or risk being disrupted themselves.

Raytheon Co.

About the Author: Barclay R. Brown, Ph.D., ESEP, is engineering fellow for MBSE at the Raytheon Co., and a former INCOSE director for the Americas. He can be reached at barclay.r.brown@raytheon.com.