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MBSE Helps NASA Up Its Game

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The bane of any Project Manager’s existence is miscommunication. When various teams within a project are all using different terminology and different methods for recording and storing information, it creates fertile ground for confusion, delays and added costs. Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) is a powerful methodology designed to solve these problems and offers solutions that project managers and systems engineers in organizations like NASA are using to ensure smooth communication, reduce costs, and stay on schedule. Read on to learn how MBSE helps NASA up its game.

How MBSE Combats Inefficiency

The core benefit of using MBSE is eliminating ambiguity, confusion, and inefficiency within a project or system. When everyone has their own separate tools and processes for documentation and uses different depositories for information, it inhibits effective communication between teams and individuals working on different parts of a project. Even worse is when everyone is using separate terminology while working on the same project. This is a recipe for errors, delays, and uncomfortable conversations where you have to ask your client for more time or money.

MBSE is a methodology that ensures everyone is using the same tools and everyone on the same page communication-wise. As the name implies, MBSE uses models to clearly depict information, architecture, and relationships. It calls for unambiguous notation and terminology, and it creates a single repository for information, where changes that are made by one person are visible for everyone right away, rather than updates having to be passed along in a cumbersome and inefficient manner.

NASA Embraces MBSE

The more complex and high-stakes a project or system is, the more it can benefit from using MBSE, and it doesn’t get more complicated or high-stakes than the dozens of projects and operations that NASA is working on at any given time.

In 2006, NASA was faced with a challenge. Its various Space and Communication Networks (SCaN) had evolved separately over the years, and as one might expect, each had their own way of doing things. This led to a predictable level of inefficiency in communication between the three SCaN components: the Deep Space Network (DSN), Space Network (SN) and Near-Earth Network (NEN). When NASA’s administration mandated that the management of the three different SCaN components needed to be centralized, everyone could agree that it was a good idea— the question was how to do it. What method could NASA use to get these different networks to use the same tools, speak the same language, and work with each other (as well as with other networks) more efficiently?

NASA assembled an Integrated Network Architecture (INA) trade study team to tackle this problem. The team began rendering legacy network architectures and operations, but they needed a tool that would reflect changes on a system-wide level. The tools being used weren’t up to the task because they required changes to be made to each individual diagram, rather than a change to an element being displayed throughout the system.

MBSE offered a perfect solution. After deciding to give MBSE a try, the INA team began to compare different model-building tools, eventually settling on Magic Draw by No Magic, Inc. They also had to agree on what modeling language to use with this tool. After reviewing the options, the team decided on System Modelling Language (SysML).

Previously, each of the SCaN sub-networks employed document-based SE, with different tools and legacy systems, creating an informational mess. Specifications and design documents were text-based, while DOORS and Microsoft Excel were used to track cost analysis, requirements, asset data, workforce numbers, and so on…It seemed like everyone had their own preferred tool and way of doing their job, which may sound fine to some, but with all these different tools in use, it was very difficult for anyone to get a clear sense of the “big picture” across SCaN.

Of the biggest problems was how to depict the network architecture of SCaN effectively. In the past, models had been rendered using Microsoft PowerPoint. While easy to use, PowerPoint falls short in many ways for this task as it can’t create levels of architecture information, and element changes in diagrams do not display throughout the network. Each diagram was its own individual unit, with no connection or relationship to other diagrams. Making network-wide changes would be a time-consuming and laborious process.

To make matters worse, some PowerPoint diagrams would depict the same block in different ways, leading to confusion and ignorance about specific components of the network within that block, such as IT infrastructure. There was little uniformity in how blocks were displayed in the different networks, creating confusion for all parties involved.

MBSE to the Rescue

According to a report issued by NASA’s Glen Research Center, the benefits of applying MBSE using Magic Draw and SysML became apparent very quickly. Rendering network architecture though SysML with Magic Draw allowed for fast edits, and helped everyone rapidly get up to speed:

“Using MBSE allowed the INA team to consolidate what would have been dozens of documents and spreadsheets into one cohesive model which could be represented visually while linking all elements on each diagram” the report claimed. “If a modeler needed to change the name of a block for a future system, that change could be applied in one place, and the MBSE tool would resonate that change throughout the model.”

The Architecture Definition Document (ADD) baseline book team also benefited greatly by utilizing MBSE. In the past, the ADD team used a combination of Adobe Illustrator, Visio, and PowerPoint to make diagrams about of specific areas of system architecture. By switching to Magic Draw, as the agreed-upon MBSE methodology called for, they were able to create models that were much more complex and detailed, and quickly change them as needed.

Today, MBSE continues to be used in SCaN, as well as many other projects and programs within NASA, including Mars 2020, Orion, Europa Clipper and more.

Simplicity, Efficiency, and Clarity. That’s what MBSE has delivered for NASA, and for countless project managers and system engineers around the world. If you’re interested in staying on schedule, lowering costs and eliminating needless headaches on your next project, contact us today to see what MBSE can do for you. You can also check out our free introductory guide to MBSE below to see how you can benefit from embracing this amazing methodology.

Model-Based Systems Engineering


Topics: MBSE, NASA

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