Creating the Reality Test

Technology may be one of Alabama’s top industries, but that doesn’t just mean new gadgets and computer programming. In many cases, a technology product may not be the end result. Instead, the technology of modeling and simulation is  required to develop the product or create the end result. 

In recent years, many different industries have begun to rely on computerized models as a basis for simulations that can help make decisions about how to create the best product or process. 

“The scope of industries and users of M&S has expanded tremendously in the last few years, ” says Ralph Weber, executive director of the Alabama Modeling & Simulation Council and senior principal systems analyst at Dynetics. “In the last few weeks, I have encountered several new users of simulation. For instance, Homeland Security is using M&S to harden the nation’s electrical infrastructure against the next ‘Black Swan’ event, and a major automaker is using M&S to allow design teams to create the next cars virtually. This allows them to speed up the process and avoid designs that are not efficiently producible. M&S has moved to many uses that affect us all every day.”

Across Alabama, a number of companies and organizations have become experts in modeling and simulation, leading to major contracts from government and industry, as well as excellence in education, health care and other fields. Here’s how two Alabama companies and a major university are participating in the expansion of the M&S industry. 

Robert Wright, Dynetics program manager for Pathfinder, with tooling that is representative of what will be used on the Pathfinder model.

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M&S for Space Travel

A legacy Huntsville M&S company is building a test model of the huge rocket designed to return the U.S. to deep space.

In February, NASA awarded a contract to Huntsville-based Dynetics and Radiance Technologies to serve as technical lead on a project that involves fabricating, assembling and transporting a model of the Space Launch System Core Stage Pathfinder Vehicle (PV). Not a typical M&S contract, this model will be a form/fit representation of the real thing, stretching 213 feet long and weighing approximately 230, 000 pounds. 

“As a hardware simulation of the SLS Core Stage flight hardware or element, the PV has the same shape of the flight element, and the mass and the center of gravity will closely match the flight element before the Core Stage is filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, ” says Robert Wright, Dynetics program manager, Space Launch Systems. “The PV will be used to validate that the ground support equipment and transportation hardware that has been developed can be safely used to move, transport and lift the flight Core Stage; the PV simulates the Core Stage element.”

Dynetics is scheduled to deliver the completed PV to NASA at its Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in March 2017. To get to that point, the project will require a broad spectrum of skills, including engineers, technicians, welders, project managers, quality assurance, finance, contracts and procurement professionals, Wright says.

Dynetics has worked in the M&S arena for its entire history, since its founding in 1974. “One of the founders, Stephen Gilbert, learned the value of modeling and computer simulation at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the late ’60s, specifically in researching and designing ballistic missile defense systems that could only be properly tested as a complete system by simulating all of the components and the physics of threat missiles, nuclear tipped interceptor missiles, radars and the command and control system via physics-based modeling and simulation of the myriad interactions between all the parts, ” says Tom Baumbach, chief technical officer at Dynetics. 

When he founded Dynetics, Gilbert recruited a young staff from Bell with experience in building the mathematical models and familiar with the process of taking numerous measurements of the tests that components were subjected to in order to improve the fidelity of the mathematical models, Baumbach says. “As computers grew more powerful through the ’70s, ’80s and beyond, each model could be refined to near exquisite detail and could be run on computers with increased fidelity yet shorter run times, ” he says. “System performance predictions could be made under ever-larger scenarios and circumstances. Today, Dynetics uses modeling and simulation in nearly every facet of our business, including even the prediction of how profitable our business will be as we close out each year of operation.”

UAB Health System / UAB Health Schools

M&S for Training Healthcare Providers

“Simulation permits students and professionals to practice diagnostic and procedural skills on inanimate intelligent dummies without threatening the health of a human patient, ” says Marjorie Lee White, MD, director of the UAB Office of Inter-Professional Simulation for Innovative Clinical Practice. 

“There is no substitute for practice in gaining the knowledge and motor memory — the ability of the subconscious to guide muscle movement while conducting procedures — required for quality health care.  Simulation permits deliberate practice with less risk and promotes better outcomes overall. Simulation is supported by UAB leadership at the highest levels and viewed as integral to how we do business.”

Since the OIPS opened five years ago, it has become a vital component of health education at UAB. The office provides simulation tools and techniques in simulation facilities in Quarterback Tower and Volker Hall, as well as on location in the clinical and nonclinical environment, White says. 

For instance, OIPS provided simulation methodologies to prepare UAB practitioners to receive Ebola patients after the 2014 outbreak by simulating patient care techniques and, particularly, safety procedures for health care workers. 

“We also regularly simulate ‘Code Blue’ resuscitation scenarios to make sure the clinical personnel are prepared to act promptly and effectively when life threatening events occur, ” White says.

“Simulation puts patients first by ensuring that all who care for patients perfect their practice before caring for others, ” White says. “Simulation enables demonstration of competence before a person or a team is fielded in the hospital or clinic. We expect that health care professionals will in the future engage in simulation training as frequently as do airplane pilots in order to maintain and demonstrate continued proficiency in the skills required to render superior health care.”

The OIPS conducts simulation sessions for both individuals and teams, allowing groups of people to learn how to work together to achieve a desired result without wasting time by being disorganized. It also uses simulation to test systems before implementing new clinical processes or spaces.

In time, OIPS “hopes to build purpose-built simulation space in close proximity to patient care areas so that we can make continuous training a part of UAB education and health care services, ” White says. 

Also, UAB eventually plans to offer its simulation training to other health care groups around the state “to train representatives from the rest of our region and help other hospitals improve the care of patients in their local setting.”

AEgis Technologies

M&S for Training Soldiers

“Simulation can create environments for soldier training that would be unrealistic or too expensive to replicate, ” says John Anderson, vice president at AEgis Technologies. “Simulation provides an inexpensive way for soldier training.”

Anderson is program manager forAEgis’ new  $579 million contract with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) and the Army Forces Strategic Command (ARSTRAT). The contract, known as D3I, may last up to nine years and will require the work of engineers, software developers, test quality and configuration management personnel, technicians and military subject matter experts. AEgis will lead a team of more than 60 subcontractors to build models and simulations to better prepare soldiers for combat.

While the rise of technology has made modeling and simulation more popular across a variety of industries, AEgis has been involved in the work since its founding more than 26 years ago, Anderson says. Today, modeling and simulation either directly or indirectly accounts for more than 50 percent of the company’s work.

But over the years, AEgis has witnessed and participated in ongoing changes in the modeling and simulation field. “The increase in computing power has had a dramatic effect on modeling and simulation, providing the ability to create more realistic environments for training, testing and experimentation, ” Anderson says. “Integration of commercial technologies, such as gaming, is also dramatically improving modeling and simulation capabilities for the warfighter.”

Huntsville to Host AlaSim Conference 

On May 3-5, modeling and simulation professionals from Alabama and the world will meet at the Dynetics office in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park for the 2016 AlaSim International Conference and Exposition. 

The conference will consider simulation technology worldwide and showcase the breadth and depth of simulation activity in Alabama. Featured speakers will include Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and David Lucia, director of modeling and simulation at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency. The Alabama Modeling and Simulation Council organizes and sponsors AlaSim International. For more information about the conference, visit

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.


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