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Try Feature-Based PLE

Paul Clements
By Paul Clements Vice President of Customer Success, BigLever Software
Dr. Paul Clements

On April 20, the ISO/IEC 26580 on “Methods and tools for the feature-based approach to software and systems product line engineering” was released as a full global standard. What does this mean for aerospace and defense? It means a powerful engineering approach created to deliver unprecedented cost avoidance and increased quality can now be mandated in RFPs and contracts, and provided by contractors, citing an authoritative definition from the international engineering community.

Feature-based PLE (Product Line Engineering) refers to the engineering of a portfolio of related products using a shared set of engineering assets, a managed set of features, and an automated means of production.

Each product is described by giving a list of its features, which expresses product differences in all lifecycle phase artifacts. These shared assets are configured appropriately by an automated commercial tool called a configurator. Rather than adopt a different “language” and mechanism for each artifact, the automation configures the shared assets appropriately to produce the product asset instances for that product. Instead of clone-and-own and wasteful copy-based reuse, the shared assets are maintained to serve all the products in the product line.

Although the standard has been finalized, feature-based PLE has been around for over two decades and in service in the A&D sector for years, compiling tens of millions of dollars in cost avoidance each year in systems like AEGIS in the Navy and the Army’s Live Training Transformation family. The approach has earned its stripes by rising to the realities and hard challenges that are emblematic of the extremely challenging A&D sector.  For example:

  • Multi-contract funding: In A&D, sharing often needs to occur across programs, contracts and customers. Can that happen? Yes. Defense companies have worked out methods to pay for activities that benefit more than one program, using an approach compliant with acquisition regulations.
  • Export control compliance: A product line may have members destined for sale in countries where International Traffic in Arms Regulation or export control restrictions apply. A PLE-based audit method ensures that no product contains any content that is not allowed to be exported.
  • Working in security-intensive settings: Can PLE work in a case where some of the products’ content is classified, or classified at higher levels, than other parts? Yes.
  • Working with digital engineering, model-based, and agile approaches: PLE is not applied in isolation. As DoD follows industry trends mandating digital engineering and model-based approaches, feature-based PLE can play effectively in these arenas as well.
  • High cost of validation and certification: Few sectors come close to A&D in terms of the cost required to validate systems and, in some cases, subject them to third-party certification by a national authority. Feature-based PLE can help. For example, aerospace firms have reported up to eight-fold improvements in the time it takes to generate a certification package.

The list goes on. Systems of systems, governance and oversight, proposal-based business development, low-cost adoption that doesn’t put the setup burden on the first product out of the gate—these situations have been met and mastered by practitioners of feature-based PLE.

The release of ISO/IEC 26580 is good news for the systems engineering community. The better news is that feature-based PLE does not need a break-in period to learn the ropes for A&D.

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