March 8, 2022
Digital transformation is the process of harnessing digital technologies to improve processes and experiences. At a product level, digital transformation enables faster cycle times, increased agility, and decreased costs. At a national security level, digital transformation enables defense organizations to respond faster to today’s evolving threats.
Northrop Grumman is leading the way by partnering with its customers on digital transformation. With expertise in digital engineering, development, security, and operations (DevSecOps), artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and advanced manufacturing, Northrop Grumman conceptualizes, designs, builds, and sustains capabilities faster to respond to current and emerging needs.
As vice president of systems engineering and digital transformation for Northrop Grumman’s Space Systems sector, Carol Erikson is no stranger to the benefits of digital transformation.
Erikson started her career at Northrop Grumman working on requirements definition, hardware, software integration, and testing of satellite systems. She realized what she enjoyed most was understanding the rest of the system, such as the attitude control, communications, and thermal systems. After several years, she made the transition to systems engineering and supported the launch and mission operations of satellite systems.
Around this time, she moved into leadership positions, starting with a small team and then into various roles of functional management, subcontract management, and large program management. “That's where my passions and capabilities really started to align with the needs of the company and the needs of our customers,” Erikson says. “And that's where my career path really started to take off.”
Digital technologies have played a huge role throughout Erikson’s 35-year career. Digital transformation has enabled Erikson and the Northrop Grumman team to deploy those new technologies faster and more effectively than ever. For example, flight software simulators evolved to the point where they enabled testing and visualization of complex interactions at every level of the system, not just the flight software, but all the units, subsystems, and systems as they built them.
Northrop Grumman has used digital engineering technology for decades. It started by implementing model-based design systems engineering capabilities early on in many of its projects, from aircraft or satellite systems to rocket development programs. Now, the company has expanded its use across product areas and the full program life cycle.
“They used to be used primarily in the design side and now we're finding applications of our digital tools across the full program life cycle — from the very beginning where we’re doing the concept definition all the way through the design, build, test, delivery, and sustainment of our systems,” Erikson says.
The biggest benefit of digital engineering Erikson has seen is speed.
“We’re able to optimize the way we work through digital modeling, model-based systems engineering, and data analytics simulations,” she says. “All of this is making our teams more effective while enhancing the communication and collaboration that we have with our customers and with our partners throughout the system life cycle.”
Digital transformation also enhances collaboration via integrated digital environments. With its modern digital tools, Northrop Grumman can collaborate more effectively, which enables them to have stronger relationships with their customers and partners. “It allows us to provide solutions at the speed of relevance and much faster than ever before,” she says. “We can quickly proceed from early concept definition through design, manufacturing, and testing.”
One thing Erikson believes digital transformation relies on are partnerships and a commitment to shared success. “Digital transformation isn’t something Northrop Grumman can do on its own,” she explains, “We need support and partnership from our partners and our vendors and our customers.”
Successful partnerships, not only with her coworkers, but also vendors, have enhanced Erikson’s work experience and sense of pride in Northrop Grumman.
“I'm really excited about the shared collaboration and success that we're starting to see across those boundaries because of digital transformation.”
Embracing digital transformation across the product development ecosystem takes months and sometimes even years off a typical development timeline at Northrop Grumman.
While she has been successful, Erikson still thinks engineering is a male-dominated field. “But I'm really happy to say that I've seen a lot of advances for females in engineering and especially in aerospace and defense over the course of my career," she says. “It's much more common today, especially at Northrop Grumman, to see a female in key leadership, technology, and engineering roles. We just recently announced a CTO for our space sector who's a woman.”
Her advice to other women in aspiring scientific roles is to speak up even when it’s hard and find a good support system. “Some women put pressures on themselves from a work-life balance perspective just because the demands that are being put on them at home, as mothers and caregivers,” she explains. Having a good support system at home and at work helps with those pressures.
A former boss described a good work-life balance as a seesaw, said Erikson. “Between work and life, you're always bouncing back and forth,” she says. “There's going to be some days when work is a priority and there's some days when life outside of work is a priority. And if you're able to bounce back and forth over time, the balance works out and you can be very happy with your career and home life.”
Erikson says Northrop Grumman is proud to employ and partner with innovators who think beyond what is available today. “We really are looking forward to the future; whatever capabilities look like, what our customers need, and how we will evolve toward it,” she says. Whether that be for national defense or advanced scientific missions, the company is focused on the importance of the mission and the need to deliver value at the speed of relevance.
In her current role as vice president of digital transformation, Erikson is excited about how Northrop Grumman is leveraging advanced technologies to achieve this vision. Embracing digital transformation has given them the ability to address the mission needs of today with insights like never before, with connectivity across their infrastructure through their data.
“We can integrate our digital technologies very rapidly and we're now able to conceptualize design builds and sustained value-driven solutions faster than ever before,” she says. “So, we're able to respond to our current and emerging needs and deliver these systems with the speed of relevance that our customers are demanding.”
Northrop Grumman makes some of the most complex systems in the world. Each system has a specific goal, whether that be advancing human discovery like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) or preserving national security and freedom.
“If you look at a program like James Webb Space Telescope and think about what it takes to make a system of that complexity a success, then I think you can imagine every engineering and leadership role at Northrop Grumman has brought me a tremendous sense of pride,” she says. “No matter what the role, you're contributing to the success of a program like that, and many of our programs have that type of scale, complexity, and challenge while every program that we do has a similar level of importance to the nation.”