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3 benefits of digital manufacturing

To save time and money while also streamlining production, companies are increasingly turning to digital manufacturing. Here's a look at three benefits.

Industry 4.0 -- the next wave of manufacturing -- is powered by connectivity. Digital manufacturing is key to that connectivity.

What is digital manufacturing?

Digital manufacturing uses computer systems to integrate data from various manufacturing processes. It relies on digital technologies such as 3D modeling, simulations and analytics to improve production, supply chains, and other areas associated with manufacturing with the goal of becoming more agile to save money and respond to market conditions. Digital manufacturing is especially applicable to designing products, creating smart factories and optimizing the value chain.

Instead of relying on physical processes, companies can turn to digital models. Here are three clear benefits of digital manufacturing.

Streamlines the product lifecycle

Engineers can use digital manufacturing software to create a digital twin -- essentially a virtual prototype or replica -- instead of using materials such as foam or metal to create a physical one. They can then study the digital twin to determine how real-world conditions would affect proposed design changes and, in turn, discover potential flaws.

For example, a digital representation of a car engine may show that certain components will wear out faster than others. Technicians can study their digital twins to find solutions to those issues.

Helps optimize the value chain

The value chain can be complicated to improve. Digital manufacturing can help with analysis all along the chain via its focus on data and integration. It also enables experimentation via digital means, so that there's less physical and financial risk.

One way this plays out is in optimizing factory design. Companies can use digital manufacturing software to create virtual representations of factory floor layouts and simulate production processes. Technicians can discover potential bottlenecks, as well as causes of waste or downtime, before the factory is even built. This ensures that the factory will run efficiently once it's operational. Technicians can also use digital representations to experiment with different production methods without spending money on infrastructure or retooling.

For example, a factory manager may hear that a different kind of machine is more efficient than what is currently in use. Technicians can create a digital representation of the factory and switch out the old machines for new ones. The technicians can then study the simulation to see how the new machine will affect production. They may discover that a new machine is too costly, too dangerous or too slow -- all without spending money, endangering workers or altering the production schedule.

Enables smart factories

Digital manufacturing provides the framework for smart factories, which are closely associated with Industry 4.0.  Although still in their infancy, smart factories use artificial intelligence, robotics, analytics, big data and IoT to work on a largely autonomous basis. They are capable of self-correcting and alerting human workers when a problem occurs. Because smart factories are designed to run with minimal human interaction, one potential benefit is that people are freed from tedious, repetitive tasks and are able to focus on more interesting and important work.

Fully realized smart factories will be linked to other facilities in a digital network that support supply chain management, monitor different facilities' activities and needs, and enable multiple facilities to communicate and collaborate. These facilities will also be integrated across all departments and even integrated with suppliers and customers, in turn reducing the risk of error or duplication and increasing the chance that the appropriate person will catch and correct any errors that do occur.

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