Just what is ‘smart thinking’? Although for many ‘Smart’ has just become a fashionable term for marketing tech, for us it’s long been a part of our design DNA.
The first Gripen fighter took to the skies in the early eighties. Smart had not yet become synonymous with the latest must-have mobile phone. Could you use it to describe the thinking at Saab at the time? Absolutely. One could argue that the Gripen system could not have been achieved without it.
The first Gripen was born of a specific need for a new type of fighter system. Not only did it have to out-perform other fighters on numerous levels but it also had to answer budget constrictions set by the Swedish ministry of defense. Gripen was not only to be a highly technologically ‘smart’- fully computerized for example, at a time when neither the computers nor the systems existed. But additionally, Gripen was born of a smart design mentality rooted in evolutionary thinking. Put simply by Lars Sjöberg, head of Research and Design at Saab’s BA Aeronautics, “the smart process is to make the complex simple”.
Systems thinking and breaking the cost curve
The thinking was not only to create a fighter aircraft. It was to create a system that would evolve. A system that could, as a result of using split avionics, be updated without the updates affecting essential flight systems. Designers and strategists alike knew that a total redesign of the fighter aircraft each decade, as was the traditional method, was going to be extremely costly. Within the industry the development costs for new fighters were increasing at an unsustainable rate. Something had to be done to break the cost curve. Aside from costs the Gripen team were uniquely aware, that the old ways would not allow them enough time to adapt to future threat horizons fast enough. The Gripen system would have three-year cycle updates. Lifecycle costs were to be driven down, maintenance costs were made minimal. Efficiency became the watchword. As a result a perfectly balanced fighter system was created. Good in every operational level, yet affordable to acquire and affordable to fly.
At Saab we define efficiency as a lean, model-based development process. Used when developing Gripen, 3D modeling techniques greatly helped to reduce risk. The method also helps each engineer to visualize and access the overall project. As Sjöberg explains, “it should be possible for a newly recruited engineer to enter my department to be productive as fast as possible”. The same computer models can be used throughout the entire lifecycle of each plane and for and the three-year cycle updates. There are no more blue prints or the 50,000 technical drawings that would usually be associated with such a project.
Ultimately it is Saab’s smart systems and smart thinking that have delivered such positive benefits – from the bottom line to overall efficiency and development.