Many in the manufacturing sector see digital manufacturing as the key future revenue driver, but with no clear direction and fast changing platforms, companies are still reluctant to fully switch to Industry 4.0 at this early stage. At the same time, unlikely competitors are applying pressure, as they start to leverage IoT (Internet of Things). Data is becoming the new source of value and real time connectivity with their vendors allows digital manufacturers to build smarter supply chains and intelligent ecosystems.
Seen from a small to medium business perspective, digital manufacturing has reached a tipping point: mass customization has become reality. While traditional manufacturers focused on scale, the advanced manufacturing technologies necessary for high value manufacturing are being miniaturized and made much more affordable. This provides a big opportunity for small manufacturing startups.
There are so many new different technology platforms to choose from and to combine with new ideas that innovation in digital manufacturing will likely double every two years. On a larger scale, digital manufacturing systems allow manufacturing engineers to create their dream manufacturing process in a virtual environment, including:
2) Tooling and Resources
3) Assembly Lines
4) Work Centers
5) Facility Layout
A simulation of the production processes can be performed, with the intent to re-use existing knowledge and optimize processes before products are manufactured. Digital manufacturing allows a feedback loop from the actual production to be incorporated into the product design process. The simulation capabilities also help reduce commissioning costs by validating robotics and automation programs virtually.
So to what degree does digital manufacturing actually reduce cost ?
The most dramatic results appear in a measurement of new process implementation time from an aerospace equipment manufacturer. In this example, the company reports shrinking process learnout (the number of parts manufactured before the part reaches sufficient quality) from 125 flawed parts to 4 in a single test case. Other impressive improvements include an 85% reduction in required changes to robotic welding lines in an automotive firm, and a 75% reduction in overall time and cost for tool design in an aerospace firm.
What are the investments I have to make to reap those benefits?
Your investments (time and money) would need to go into digital manufacturing software, training and standing up IT Servers, plus a new development business process and training for it. Finally, it requires a cultural change and accepting that things are now done differently and more efficiently.
An aerospace company typically combines the use of 3D digital models and digital manufacturing tools to enable it to reduce total product development time by 40%, and its total cost of new product development by 70%.
So does this mean digital manufacturing is only applicable to large-scale manufacturing?
No, absolutely not. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, it also provides an opportunity for small and medium enterprises, as the customer base is demanding more and more customization. Although the initial investment may be higher than traditional business models, the benefits and differentiation to other businesses is key in order to grow your business and provide added value to your products.
Small businesses could also concentrate on producing for digital worlds, like it is already done in Second Life. Those same 3D models can also be taken to other worlds and be copied at no cost and produced at no cost. But originality and owning your content is crucial, illegal copies of existing products will be removed, like the poor rabbit, that in Second Life starved to death because it wasn’t allowed to be fed anymore. Simply put reproduction or distribution of copyrighted work is illegal.
Once you protect your products from being copied, you can make money in Second Life, like the 3D modeler in this video. Shops are open 24/7 as the digital world never sleeps.
I hear a lot about digital twins. How is a digital twin related to digital manufacturing?
A digital twin is a copy of an item in digital space, in most cases an IoT device, like a wind turbine, a drone, a robot etc. You could have a machine on the machine floor and an actual digital copy of it in your virtual space. You could reconfigure it and try out new ways of production. You could simulate failures, or analyze real failures remotely on screen, based on sensor information. This could help a mechanic or electrician bring the right replacement component with him, which reduces downtime and the cost of fixing the machine. Typically I see digital twins being used in large or distant production facilities, which are less expensive to operate, but where production downtime can cost millions of dollars.
Alternatively, if digital twins are movable objects, such as robots in a warehouse or flying drones, the digital twin can be used to simply locate the device, or even for an AI algorithm to find more efficient ways to organize them, such as a flight-path for drones.
So it looks like not only today’s businesses will go digital, but whole industries as well. Maybe we should call it Hello World 4.0!