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How to build a successful digital manufacturing strategy

Digital manufacturing has the power to transform every step of the manufacturing process. Here's how to think about exploring it so that your company reaps the most benefits.

Start small, but think big seems to be the marching orders for companies looking to brave the murky waters of digital manufacturing, a discipline that encapsulates a slew of cutting-edge technologies that are transforming business processes from the supply chain to the plant floor.

Digital manufacturing, which has until very recently only been adopted by the largest manufacturers, is starting to gain traction in moderate-size enterprises as some of its more critical technologies -- 3D modeling tools, simulation, analytics and data management capabilities -- become more accessible. While the big-picture goal is to spin a digital thread connecting the virtual product design process with a compatible set of technologies for planning and testing production floor equipment, experts say manufacturers need to be vigilant about biting off more than they can chew.

Starting with targeted objectives -- say, optimizing throughput on a particular line or trying to solve a specific quality snafu -- is the best way to dive into digital manufacturing and see tangible results, many experts believe. Efforts shouldn't stop there, however. Companies should identify and pursue potential pilots as a way to advance a broader digital manufacturing vision. Indeed, digital manufacturing has the potential to compress time to market, promote product innovation, decrease operational expenses, and establish lean and flexible manufacturing processes, according to the Supply Chain Insights LLC 2014 digital manufacturing study. The study found that 33% of respondents believed digital manufacturing was critical to becoming more Agile, although only 15% of companies currently had a digital manufacturing strategy. The reasons for interest in digital manufacturing varied: Over half (55%) were looking to share product information digitally with suppliers to improve manufacturing processes, 50% wanted to develop and share images of products to be manufactured, 48% aimed to create digital images for packaging development and review and 43% saw a role for digital images in machining parts for plant maintenance.

Prepare for 'digital sprints'

Instead of thinking you need to -- "boil the ocean" or wait for IT departments to connect everything up before taking action -- analysts at global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney advocate a third approach to digitizing manufacturing operations. They recommend using the concept of "digital sprints" from Agile development to create tangible outcomes that don't require the enterprise to rewire its entire IT infrastructure, PS Subramaniam, a principal with the management consulting firm, said. In addition, Subramaniam suggested companies take a portfolio approach to digital manufacturing efforts -- identifying several areas that could deliver value, orchestrating pilots and making the business case for those with the most potential. "Rather than making a multimillion-dollar investment and figuring out what to do or doing nothing at all, we advocate chasing ideas around in the normal course of business and seeing what sticks," he said.

Inteva Products LLC, a global automotive supplier, kicked off its marquis digital manufacturing effort -- applying analytics from Sight Machine to tackle quality issues and optimize machine and plant performance -- at a single location as opposed to attempting an enterprise-wide deployment in its version of starting small, then scaling, Dennis Hodges, the company's CIO, said. "We wanted to get one plant online before looking at other opportunities," he said. "We still have basic blocking and tackling to address before we can roll out across the board."

Doing a proof of concept helps build a business case for the technology, and keeping costs down creates appeal for plant managers, he said. "With a subscription [software as a service] model, we can do a proof of concept for not a lot of money, show the benefits to the team and score a win that way."

Balance digital manufacturing analysis and action

Even before orchestrating a pilot comes the much-needed step of learning as much as possible about manufacturing processes and modeling them, Monica Schnitger, president of Schnitger Corp., a market research firm focused on engineering technology, said. Verification of the models -- for how materials flow or the steps along a line that a piece of machinery or equipment takes -- is critical to ensuring that what you are modeling reflects what's actually on the production floor, she said.

"Often people have an idealized view and it's a 25-year-old piece of equipment that's not operating the way they think," Schnitger said. "If you're not simulating what you actually have, you won’t ever reach your targets ... so your material grades or quality can be lower than it actually is."

At the same time, however, organizations have to be sure they don't overcomplicate the modeling and simulation work, which can rapidly lead to stalled-out projects. Developing the skills to simplify models without making assumptions that change the context is difficult, but essential, Schnitger said. "If you spend too much time building analytical models and it takes forever, management will say, forget it -- it's not worth it. It requires skill to learn how to simplify that process."

In the end, however, mastering such nuances are the linchpin for ensuring each step along the path to digital manufacturing works together to drive product and, ultimately, business success. "If you want to try to make something that stands out in a crowded marketplace, you have to innovate how you design it and how you're going to make it at the same time," Schnitger said.

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