Digital manufacturing is a technology-based approach to production that links different data silos and processes in the manufacturing lifecycle so that stakeholders can make better business decisions both comprehensively and at each step. An important goal of digital manufacturing is to improve efficiency and respond to changing customer demands in a more agile manner.
Traditionally, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has played an important role in the evolution of digital manufacturing technologies. When additional data is aggregated from disparate programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and viewed holistically in a user-friendly dashboard, however, it becomes even easier for factory engineers to make data-driven decisions in real time and manage challenges on the factory floor in the context of the manufacturer's supply chain.
Given the complex nature of manufacturing, and the challenges involved in aggregating data from so many sources, companies moving towards digital manufacturing are advised to break multi-step processes down into discrete parts and focus their attention on digitally optimizing individual steps. For example, instead of using foam or metal to create a physical prototype, an engineer might use 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) software to create a virtual prototype. Later on, that same virtual prototype could be used with legacy data to explore how a proposed design change would hold up under real-world conditions.
Today, many digital manufacturing software programs allow engineers to plan factory floor layouts virtually and simulate workflows. In the United States, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute was created to help manufacturers link data from disparate silos, including data from CAD systems and manufacturing-execution (MES) systems. The organization also sponsors research projects in digital manufacturing and design and provides educational resources to its members.