The launchpad for great ideas

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If you’ve ever had the feeling that the more you find out, the more you realize you don’t know, then spare a thought for those exploring space. For them, the only thing expanding as quickly as the universe itself are the data generated along the way.

The upside is that the complex engineering behind space exploration requires a lot less trial and error than at one time. By making use of modelling techniques, engineers can test their designs for craft, probes and vehicles pre-launch. ISOfocus looks at how one Norwegian company, Jotne IT, is contributing its expertise to building the vehicles that help us chart the unknown. We speak to Vice-President Kjell Bengtsson to find out what it’s like taking part in Europe’s most advanced space programme.

Growing up in an innovation incubator

Plunging view of the European Space Agency’s Hertz antenna test chamber in Noordwijk, Holland.

Preparatory testing for Ireland’s first space mission, EIRSAT-1, is underway at ESA’s Hertz antenna test chamber in Noordwijk, Holland.

From his earliest days, Kjell was surrounded by engineering. His childhood was spent in the Swedish manufacturing and port city of Gothenburg, home to Volvo cars. As a young man, there was little doubt in his mind that technology was his future. “Already at that time, I started to play around with programmable calculators, created my first Basic programs on teletype telex machines and, of course, had one of those Sinclair computers,” Kjell recalls.

Sure enough, Kjell began his career at Volvo. He proved himself in chassis development, a department that, in his words, “was the best place for an engineer to find themselves”. He was deep into the problems of vehicle dynamics when the road took an unexpected turn.

It was the early eighties and Volvo made a bold move to pilot computer-aided design, or CAD. These systems were in their infancy at the time and Kjell was chosen to help them through their teething troubles. He threw himself into this new area and computer-aided modelling and design became central to his work, propelling him towards a life at the cutting edge of tech. He may have changed country and company a few times since then, but he’s stayed at the cutting edge: “I continued working with these systems, at General Electric, which is what brought me to Norway. A few years later, I began working for a company called Jotne.”

What don’t they do?

Jotne is a highly diversified, and innovative, company headquartered in Norway. Their main activities are spread across rail, IT, steel fabrications such as stairways and gratings, and real estate development and management. Whilst they may have a large constellation of businesses, they’re mostly in down-to-earth sectors. So how did the company end up contributing to both space exploration and standardization? And how did one of the top managers of a Norwegian IT company become both a user and a developer of standards?

Kjell starts out with a surprise: “It actually begins with standards!” Homing in on the role of computing and the related tech that piqued his interest early on, Kjell points out that “a big part of my career has been about engineering data exchange – sharing and archiving processes”. His expertise in these areas drew him into the R&D activities of the US department of defence and, in a roundabout way, to contributing to some of ISO’s most widely used industrial standards.

ISO standards combine clarity of purpose with flexibility of approach.

Work in innovative sectors relies on a foundation of standards.

What do the right to privacy and Google Street View have in common?

Well, more than you might think: the shared ancestor is DARPA, the agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies. Founded at the beginning of the space race, with the goal of accelerating US technology, DARPA has undertaken programs that, ultimately, have been responsible for the first weather satellites, portable GPS, and the origins of the Internet itself.

Among these innovations were the data projects that progressed to form part of the work of ISO’s technical committee on automation systems and integration (more specifically, the group dedicated to industrial data, ISO/TC 184/SC 4). One of the cornerstones of its work is the ISO 10303 group of standards. While the first of these was published back in 1994, Kjell points out that they’re more relevant than ever. “Today, more than 80 % of all CAD and product life-cycle management data exchanges use ISO standards. That’s a major achievement.”

For many, working on the research that led to these standards would have been enough, but not for the future VP. “At the same time, around 1991, we started PRODEX, an EU-funded scientific project that offers institutions and industry the chance to work on European Space Agency experiments. Some time later, we were able to turn that into a viable company: Jotne IT.”

Bringing it all together

Where some of the companies and experts who contribute to ISO’s work see standards as an “extra”, for Jotne IT they’re foundational. Kjell highlights the wide applicability of the ISO standards for product data representation and exchange (that’s the previously mentioned ISO 10303, which is commonly known as “STEP”), as well as Open BIM (Building Information Modelling) standards.

Pointing to a surprisingly wide variety of industries whose work is built on STEP (“aeronautics, space, defence and built environments are some of the most prominent sectors”), Kjell explains that “Jotne supports large organizations like Airbus, Leonardo, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, but also software vendors like Autodesk, PTC, Aveva, Graphisoft and many more.” 

From multinationals to independents to government departments, work in innovative sectors relies on a foundation of standards. There’s a straightforward explanation as to why. In providing a clear way of doing things, standards set a level playing field that enables wide participation. As Kjell says, “participation is widened when standards are used, since collaboration runs on common processes rather than the ideas or processes of a single company”, pointing out that Jotne IT offers product life-cycle management and BIM end-user tools, as well as advanced cloud-based interoperability platforms, tailored to a wide variety of industries.

About STEP

ISO 10303 (STEP, STandard for the Exchange of Product Model Data) is a standard for the electronic exchange of product life-cycle data. It enables the representation of product model data in a computer-sensible way, allowing the exchange of data between different computer systems without human intervention.

The innovation space

The European Space Agency's Proba-V minisatellite suspended in space.

ESA’s Proba-V minisatellite uses semiconductor technology to chart Earth’s vegetation, routinely returning mission imagery to the ground.

For Jotne, the name of the game is collaboration. For projects that rely on combining the contributions of individuals and specialized companies, shared systems for working together are the only way. The role of standards here is to ensure that, when all the various inputs come together, they match up, thus underpinning projects that are literally “out of this world” – such as Jotne’s contributions to European Space Agency (ESA) programmes.

The ESA runs many of its projects from the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Holland. Given the enormous costs attached to putting anything into space, it’s clear that much of the work done involves highly complex simulations long before launch. Carried out in purpose-built test chambers, everything from a spacecraft’s ability to handle extremes of temperature to its structural integrity is tested and modelled.

Kjell indicates the scale of the challenge: “In the process, vast quantities of data are generated, shared, modified and analysed.” With teams focused on specific areas of expertise, these data come from multiple sources and often use different file formats. So, while “this approach makes the best use of resources, it has to be carefully managed”, he tells me, adding that “beyond achieving immediate development goals, the information generated can also play a part in mission control and has the potential to contribute to future projects”. The importance of thorough documentation and coherent archival processes is key here, and it’s in these areas of simulation and modelling that Jotne’s expertise really shines through.

Close-up of rocket components at the European Space Agency.

The name of the game is collaboration.

The definition of teamwork

The DEFINE project, which focuses on “multidisciplinary 3D digital models for AIT (assembly, integration, testing) environments” is one of Jotne and ESA’s biggest collaborations to date. Kjell tells me that their partnership “will bring benefits to all parts of ESA’s extra-planetary exploration from design and construction of spacecraft to integration and test procedures”. At the centre of his work, once again, is the ISO 10303 standardized format. Adapted to digital models and simulation data for spacecraft development, Jotne is making full use of what is known as AP 209: Application protocol: Multidisciplinary analysis and design. The life cycle of a product from conception to use (and, beyond this, replacement and recycling) is usually broken into distinct phases to facilitate conceptualization and management. Application protocols describe the procedures that are carried out during each of these phases.

The use of ISO standards, and application protocols like AP 242/209, put traceability and accountability at the heart of the approach. Kjell has already highlighted the primary advantages: information that can be reliably accessed and shared; a clear record of what has been done, and by whom; and the ability to apply the information to other projects. But in addition to this, he tells me, “there are regulatory requirements to maintain test data, especially when it comes to highly regulated sectors like civil aviation or space launches”. Providing a solid platform on which companies like Jotne and organizations like the ESA can work together, ISO standards combine clarity of purpose with flexibility of approach. Such versatility is something to be cherished. After all, partnerships like ESA and Jotne’s are answering some of the biggest questions about both the origins, and the future, of life on our planet. Answers that give rise to further questions...

Whilst it’s likely that none of us will ever see the whole picture, it’s reassuring to know that standards provide a frame around a workable canvas, bringing order to impossibly large projects, and transforming them into blocks that can be shared and built upon. That’s good news for people like Kjell, and companies like Jotne, who just can’t keep themselves from innovating.

ISOfocus Septiembre/Octubre 2020

Innovation generation

All industries have to continually innovate, whether its technology or retail. But how? Look no further than this edition of ISOfocus for more.

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus