The machines our world relies on were designed with whatever tools designers had – sketches, plans, slide rulers, and sometimes just good old-fashioned guesswork.

Often it wasn’t until something was actually built that designers could see if it actually worked as they had intended. 

Advances in technologies like modelling and Computer Aided Design helped creators get closer to reality with their designs, but an extensive testing and redesign phase was required for prototypes to pick up any issues before production began.

This could be a lengthy process, holding up advances in technology or technique for years until flaws were ironed out.

But the United States Air Force and the aircraft manufacturer Boeing have just changed the game completely – designing and testing a new jet trainer aircraft to operational level using just computer modeling and simulation.

Known as the Red Hawk jet trainer, the new plane will have the designation eT-7 to reflect its purely digital design and testing process, which the Air Force said allowed the plane to proceed “from computer screen to first flight” in three years.

The plane “flew” thousands of simulated hours to test its performance, while its parts were even laid out and assembled digitally before a single piece of metal was cut in real life to test its design.

Physical testing once the plane was built merely confirmed what the computer had already shown.

The heights beyond digital transformation

This is an enormous breakthrough in aerospace design, where it can take decades to design and test new planes. But it’s also a clarion call for the sheer power of the digital tools now available.

The all digital design and testing process for the eT-7 came after the US Air Force and Boeing instituted a decades-long digital transformation process.

In the wider business world there is great focus on the need to embrace digital transformation, how to successfully conduct such a process and the importance of pursuing it. But little coverage is given to the new horizons such a process opens up.

The power of digital transformation is more than simply bringing a business up to modern standards with technology and interfaces.

The power lies in what the process makes possible – empowering businesses to fundamentally change and improve everything they do, and scale heights of achievement and innovation hitherto unavailable to them in the analogue world.

But a major lesson from the development of the Red Hawk is that digital transformation didn’t just reset the playing field for aerospace design, it also empowered people at Boeing and within the US Air Force with tools to create something revolutionary.

This is the essence of what’s known as human centred design.

More than simply designing with people in mind, human centred design elevates the abilities of the people participating in its use. And digital transformation that includes humans in its calculations will always produce superior results.

Always start with the user

If a plane can be designed and tested in three years using digital tools, then there’s no end of possibilities for advanced technologies being used to speed development in other fields.

Crucially though, the eT-7 is a jet trainer – a machine that needs to be forgiving to the new human pilots who will get in its cockpit and allow ease of use and function.

The designers had to digitally recreate the physical conditions the pilots would experience, everything from how much leg room was available to the ergonomics of the controls.

This was done by empowering the designers with digital assets like Virtual Reality headsets and AI-driven testing processes, ensuring the team had everything at their disposal to create the new design and make sure it was usable to its ultimate operator – a human pilot.

Taking this theme wider in the realm of digital transformation, it’s vital that any improvements that are made to an existing business digitally start with the user in mind.

The efficiencies and cost-savings that can arise from switching a paper filing system to a digitised record are enormous, but if the processes that govern the new way of working aren’t considerate of how people like to work, then it’s likely doomed to fail.

The best kinds of successful digital transformations always design human-friendly work processes, consider how the technology will actually be used in the field, and make these points their starting positions.

As impressive as the Red Hawk’s digital design is, the fact that it’s all focussed on training a human is even more important.

Use technological complexity to simplify human processes

There is always fear that technological advancements will replace humans, and this is felt especially in aerospace as drones and other unmanned aircraft continue to develop.

But technological advancements have actually allowed human pilots to have finer control over flight performance, using the complexity of computers to minimise the effort it takes to fly the machine – something earlier pilots who relied on brute strength would appreciate.

New aerospace technology also allows greater insights in terms of spatial awareness, flight efficiency and in a military context battlefield awareness. This is all achieved by using technology to remove complexity from human users and free them up to think, observe and take informed action – the true value of a human operator.

With this in mind, Silverhorse Technologies developed its AssetHive intelligent data hub to empower human users, not just make the computer systems they use more efficient. After all, a tool is only as good as its user, and if the tool is unwieldy then no one can use it well.

The technology behind AssetHive is complex, but the interface it creates with human users is straightforward, empowering them to harness the power of data to create actionable solutions.

A great example of this is Silverhorse’s work to make corrosion inspection more efficient at Woodside’s immense Karratha Gas Plant.

Using AssetHive to collect and then harmonise all corrosion data, Silverhorse empowered Woodside’s on site inspection teams to drastically reduce the amount of workflow steps they had to follow to complete their rounds.

AssetHive crunched the data and helped redesign workflows for inspection and repair, removing  unnecessary layers while managing certain tasks by exception – engineering reviews are now required only if a complex defect of a certain severity is identified.

AssetHive’s ease of use was perfectly matched with the complexity of its internal architecture, creating a usable tool that allowed human operators to make beneficial changes.

This is the ultimate point of digital transformation that emphasises human centred design.

Just as the Red Hawk jet trainer is a complex machine that simplifies and then optimises flight for human pilots, AssetHive allows its users to improve whatever they are working on, putting them in the pilots seat.

Faster, stronger, better with human centred design

The digital transformations that led to the all-digital design and testing of the Red Hawk show how modern technology can combine advancements to remove complexity from a process, creating a new way of working that produces swift, efficient results.

But it also shows the importance of human centred design, where the end product needs to be amenable to its human operators, and where the working processes need to be matched to the people governing them.

Bridging things full circle, that’s the true power of digital transformation, seen in aerospace projects like the Red Hawk or on the ground with Silverhorse Technologies’ AssetHive.

For years, people have had to design work processes and machines using inaccurate methods, hoping for the best outcome, then tweaking as they went to find the best solution.

But embracing digital means we can create the best possible workflows and develop highly advanced machines and processes before we hit the start button. And if things are designed with the end user in mind instead of just the purpose, then the probability of success becomes higher and higher.

So while it’s important to look at the benefits digital transformation will bring, it’s also worth looking up and seeing the heights that can be achieved.

And who knows – you might see a digitally-designed plane up there too.