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Does Digital Manufacturing Matter Outside of Design?

Most discussions of digital manufacturing focus on product and manufacturing design. But what are the implications once the design phases are complete?

Networking at the 2015 Manufacturing in America event.
Networking at the 2015 Manufacturing in America event.

Product lifecycle management. 3D modeling. Simulation. CAD. These terms are often found together whenever digital manufacturing is mentioned. But when you explore the digital manufacturing concept, it certainly seems to apply beyond the design of products and the production processes associated with them. So why don't we hear more about digital manufacturing post design, in terms of its use in the manufacturing process?

This question was the topic of discussion at a recent Automotive Manufacturing Forum, which serves as an extension of the annual Manufacturing in America event held in Detroit and sponsored by Siemens and Electro-Matic. Automotive manufacturers, system integrators, and people from across the manufacturing industry gather at this event each year to share best practices and new technologies (see links to my coverage from the event at the end of this article). At the follow-up forum, the digital manufacturing discussion sought to answer the questions: What is digital manufacturing and how can manufacturers implement the technology to meet industry objectives?

Jeff Hall, Siemens’ global account manager for Ford, moderated the forum, and launched the discussion by defining digital manufacturing as follows: “Digital manufacturing means using new technologies like data analytics, the cloud and the Internet of Things to merge the virtual and real worlds. This enables manufacturers to increase productivity across their entire value chain, from design and engineering to sales, production and service. In concrete terms, this means faster time-to-market, greater flexibility and enhanced availability of systems on the plant floor.”

Since most of the forum’s attendees were more involved in manufacturing than product design, the discussion focused on Hall’s mention of “greater flexibility and enhanced availability of systems on the plant floor.”

Participants in the discussion cited real world scenarios in which digital manufacturing could have a direct impact beyond the design phase. Here are two scenarios they provided as being addressable by digital manufacturing:

· A technician from a system integrator sits on an overturned bucket next to an open controller cabinet with a laptop balanced on his knees. He’s been sitting there sweating for the last six hours trying to fix programming problems on an assembly line that his company built. He’ll be there again tomorrow and maybe the day after, continuing the job and costing his company valuable time and money.

· A plant manager has just finished a project to rearrange a production line in his plant to create more manufacturing flexibility. On paper the floor plan looked good, but it was all done from two-dimensional specifications. In the real-world application, some of the machinery doesn’t fit together very well.

As the participants compared experiences, a consensus emerged supporting Hall’s opening statement that digital manufacturing can be more broadly interpreted as a series of processes capable of encompassing the entire manufacturing lifecycle, from the earliest product design work using virtual modeling, prototyping and simulation, to automated manufacturing and assembly, and even into field service.

With this holistic view of digital manufacturing, all aspects of the manufacturing process are connected and taken into consideration at each stage. For example, those involved in service can have input into the product’s initial design to ensure that repairs in the field are not hampered by the configuration. Even controller programming can be built and simulated in a virtual environment.

To read more about using digital manufacturing technologies to write programs for PLCs and controllers, connect and interface with legacy equipment, and support closed-loop production systems, see the new white paper from Siemens: “Digital Manufacturing: A Holistic Approach to the Complete Product Lifecycle”.

Automation World coverage of the “Manufacturing in America” event:

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