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Digital manufacturing helps manufacturers reduce risk

Digital manufacturing software helps manufacturers plan, simulate and optimize production processes before adding costly infrastructure and tooling.

Digital manufacturing starts with 3D computer-aided design (CAD) models that let engineers collaborate on product concepts without the time and expense of bending metal or cutting foam to create physical prototypes. Next, the same 3D model is used to explore how a proposed product design might hold up under simulated real-world conditions. Today, an increasing number of manufacturers are continuing the digital thread by virtually planning and testing production processes before they commit expensive resources or custom tooling.

Digital manufacturing has been around for a while, but it's gaining ground as adoption of virtual prototyping practices grows and companies look to reduce costs and gain efficiencies in plant floor operations. According to CIMdata's 2014 analysis of the product lifecycle management landscape, the digital manufacturing segment experienced 9.8% year-over-year growth, climbing to $592.7 million in revenue last year, compared to the overall PLM segment's slightly slower 8% growth rate.

As the intensity of global competition raises the stakes across all industries, the pressure is on manufacturers to think differently about business models while cultivating additional revenue streams and finding novel ways to outflank the competition. "The name of the game isn't so much about incremental change or cost of savings, it's about innovating at a much higher level than before," said Aaron Frankel, senior director of marketing for manufacturing engineering software products at Siemens PLM Software. "Digital manufacturing software lets companies take advantage of the digital definition of the product in more areas of the company and connect it to more stakeholders. That way, they can leverage it to make better decisions and drive profitability."

Digital manufacturing lessens risk and reduces waste

With digital manufacturing software, companies can plan and simulate production processes and factory floor layouts before building the actual physical facility and making a significant investment in equipment. The collection of tools helps streamline a wide variety of highly complex processes -- from planning the optimal factory floor layout, including proper ergonomics, to defining production resources, simulating factory flow and programming the industrial robots.

"Manufacturers make a huge investment in building facilities and outfitting them with different types of manufacturing technology -- this is all about risk reduction," said Stan Przybylinski, CIMdata's vice president of research. In fact, digital manufacturing technologies can deliver significant production improvements and help reduce resource waste, Przybylinski said. A CIMdata report on the topic found that organizations can expect to garner a 15% improvement in production throughput, a 13% decrease in overall production costs, and a 40% reduction in equipment costs, among other benefits.

With the pace of innovation accelerating tremendously, manufacturers can't afford a botched launch that makes them miss a delivery window.
Patrick MichelVP of DELMIA user experience and marketing, Dassault Systemes

Similar to how digital prototyping tools like CAD for mechanical systems can help companies ideate and iterate potential product designs in a virtual world using realistic 3D models, digital manufacturing software helps companies work out production and quality kinks early on when it's easier and far less costly to make changes. That ability reduces risk by allowing manufacturers to resolve issues early while enabling them to experiment with more innovative production practices that might otherwise have been ignored if they required costly infrastructure and tooling.

"The cost of making mistakes physically is 100% more than finding them upfront far more easily [with digital manufacturing software]," said Patrick Michel, vice president of DELMIA user experience and marketing at Dassault Systemes, which markets the DELMIA digital manufacturing software suite. "With the pace of innovation accelerating tremendously, manufacturers can't afford a botched launch that makes them miss a delivery window, a quality benchmark and ultimately, production performance."

The benefits of digital manufacturing have not escaped the attention of the Obama administration, which has earmarked the technology, along with others, as a potential game changer for the U.S. manufacturing sector. In October 2014, the administration announced the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation (DMDI) Institute, led by UI Labs and headquartered in Chicago, to encourage exploration and training in the practice. As part of its mission, the consortium is working on partnerships to enable interoperability across the supply chain while fostering new digital capabilities for designing and testing new products as well as for reducing costs throughout the manufacturing process.

To do so, DMDI is focused on three key areas:

  1. intelligent machining, using sensors and controls to enable equipment to automatically sense and calibrate the production environment;
  2. advanced analysis, or the process of collecting data over long periods of time to enable predictive systems diagnostics and intelligent networks; and
  3. advanced manufacturing enterprises, to connect and fill in the gaps between enterprise systems.

The goal is to support real-time, automated decision making, explained Jacob Goodwin, director of membership engagement and communications for the DMDI.

For the most part, Goodwin said the manufacturing process has been unconnected from the rest of the design lifecycle -- which creates inefficiencies and is the root cause of most manufacturing problems. By promoting digital manufacturing practices, the consortium aims to foster support for one 3D model that can serve as a digital thread throughout the product design and manufacturing lifecycle, he explained.

"The Institute is all about understanding where the gaps are between existing software systems that have to be closed or integrated so a smooth digital thread runs from the beginning to the end of the process with every phase fully capable of communicating with the other," Goodwin said. "The idea is to have one digital file, and each successive stage polishes it and improves on it, but doesn't recreate it from scratch."

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