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What basics should companies know about digital manufacturing?

Digital manufacturing is a concept that is gaining traction in the industrial sector. Here's one take on just what it means and why it's important.

While there are a number of sometimes conflicting definitions and explanations of what digital manufacturing means, the general consensus is that the term digital manufacturing refers to the use of computers in support of manufacturing. We certainly don't need a new buzzword for that phenomenon, which dates back more than a half a century. A more meaningful definition would be: "the use of computers and computer programs to design products (CAD [computer-aided design]); direct the manufacturing process (CAM [computer-aided manufacturing]); plan, schedule and manage activities (ERP); and coordinate the supply chain."

Industrial automation supplier Siemens defines digital manufacturing as "the use of an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, three-dimensional (3D) visualization, analytics and various collaboration tools to create product and manufacturing process definitions simultaneously."

The broadly connective nature of digital manufacturing is key to achieving the full potential benefits. A given product, the processes for making it, as well as its usage and characteristics can all be developed and simulated in the digital environment before the first piece of material is purchased. This saves considerable time and money in new product development and results in higher quality products and reduced costs. In other words, a manufacturer can fully design a product and plan the entire manufacturing process digitally, including tooling and machine instructions. Production and assembly processes as well as plant layout can be simulated and refined. This is concurrent engineering and design for manufacturability on steroids -- manufacturing engineers can work with design engineers in the digital world in a streamlined development process that is much faster and better than physical prototyping and iterative physical development.

To quote Siemens once more: "Digital manufacturing is a key point of integration between PLM [product lifecycle management] and various shop floor applications and equipment, enabling the exchange of product-related information between design and manufacturing groups."

Given the expansive nature of digital manufacturing across the entire set of processes related to manufacturing, companies are unlikely to implement digital manufacturing all at once. It is an evolutionary development that is built on the deep pool of computer technology that already exists across departmental areas in most modern manufacturing organizations, primarily CAD/CAM and product lifecycle management in engineering, ERP and manufacturing execution systems in operations. Emerging simulation, advanced design and analytic capabilities elevate the contribution of these existing systems while providing the platform for tying the entire digital infrastructure together.

Digital manufacturing helps to improve their productivity development and manufacturing. It enables data sharing across the enterprise throughout the entire product lifecycle.

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