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Advanced Manufacturing

May 2004

Digital Manufacturing - The digital revolution arrives

Digital manufacturing may have as many definitions as there are vendors to support the concept, but the one thing for sure is that its success rests with the ability to simulate, communicate and act upon digital data system wide. In its truest sense, digital manufacturing comprises technology and business practices that let users collaborate, author, review, design, program, document and share all aspects of a business digitally.

By Peter Fretty

Proficiency software is used by OEMs and suppliers to lower product development costs.

"The foundation of digital manufacturing is built upon an open data management platform that can support multiple disciplines, including product design and manufacturing, and share data with complementary applications upstream and downstream for all to participate in as needed," says Al Hufstetler, vice president of digital manufacturing, business strategy and marketing for Maryland Heights, MO-based UGS PLM Solutions.

One of the biggest obstacles still facing widespread implementation of digital manufacturing is the demand and hesitancy for firms to accept the required level of interoperability between many disparate systems and in many instances those of its partners as well. "Computer design functions and partners may use different systems, but collaboration is difficult because the two do not read one another's data," says Michael Jannery, vice president of marketing with Marlborough, MA-based Proficiency Inc. "Connecting disparate systems is where we fit in the picture."

A prime example of where interoperability breaks down is evident with today's CAD systems, which can exchange data, but usually at such a low level that rich data such as features, history and constraints cannot pass from one platform to the other. The information flow between design and manufacturing can also be frustrating. "The dumb solids that geometries provide do not take into consideration the capabilities of machining centers," says Jannery. "There is an opportunity to optimize the input that manufacturing can put into a model. One of the big goals in manufacturing is to bring analysis to a point in design where it can be proactive - yielding higher quality, lower warranty costs, etc."

What comes out of CAD systems is actually very useless to other enterprise systems (ERP, MES, etc.) without human transformation in between, explains Montreal, Que.-based Polyplan Technologies Inc. CEO Robert Beauchemin. For instance, CAD provides geometry and tolerance, but ERP just looks at this as documentation. Digital manufacturing fills the technology gap and allows the transformation of CAD output without human intervention. "Applications need to be very open for all of this to work properly and this requires design from the ground up," says Beauchemin.

This transfer of information does exist today, but its real-time use is limited because it is rarely in a digital format, explains Jeff Walter, president of Ann Arbor, MI-based Latitude Consulting Group. "Using information technology to facilitate the flow of information allows us to do this better, faster and cheaper. Combine that with the fact that you can capture information in practical means that allows import and exportation. Flexible and lean manufacturing create nodes of production that plug into multiple supply chains and streamline transactions."

This graphic from Polyplan Technologies illustrates the relationship between software packages.

Real-time collaboration is key
Interoperability tools like Polyplan's collaborative Manufacturing Process Management (cMPM) permit real-time collaboration across supply chain borders throughout the entire product life cycle. The benefit is that design and manufacturing engineers can constantly reconcile their different professional perspectives, which enable them to proactively validate the manufacturability of product designs and reduce errors between engineering and production.

As a by product of using digital manufacturing applications, digitizing allows others to share and collaborate with many applications designed to complement the manufacturing process, allows data re-use by users with similar requirements and provides quicker and less costly decision making and cost avoidance.

Re-use and save money
According to Beauchemin, one of the most noticeable benefits of digitizing over the long-term is the ability to level out departmental impact. For instance, in most organizations, 10 percent of the money goes to designing the product, but this impacts 80 percent of the profitability - all without the design department fully understanding its long-term role. "With digitization, not only is design feasibility improved, the design elements as well as the manufacturing knowledge are reusable. It eliminates the need to depend strictly on written work instructions and allows the use of knowledge to create new and better ways to design and manufacture components."

The process also provides management with many different scenarios. "By making processes available electronically, you can benchmark plants against one another," says Beauchemin. "Filling the gap benefits the time to market for most companies, eliminates internal errors and reduces the need for repair or rework, which can add up to huge savings very rapidly."

Hufstetler does, however, warn that digitizing all your non-digitized information before you start to receive value is a challenging task. "Many times the level of information for a particular operation or activity only has to be at a certain level of resolution to be effective," he says. "Too much information can be just a waste - overkill for aesthetic purposes only."

Building on a solid platform
Achieving the flexibility and benefits of digital manufacturing requires a heavy reliance on forced commonality between today's leading and emerging IT platforms. Having this common platform with common data sets that can be used for multiple applications and managed by proven technologies is needed to break down the walls between applications and the customers that use them, explains Hufstetler. "The method should provide a platform with data schemas that are accessible through published, open standards," says Hufstetler. "With today's technology, vendors have no excuses for not being able to solve a customer's needs to share and manage data for digital manufacturing and digital design initiatives."

The goal at Melbourne, Australia-based Giraffe Production Systems Pty Ltd, whose systems focus on facilitating the transfer of data from concept to end product, is to capitalize on Microsoft technologies, including ASP.NET, XML, UML, C# and SQL - OLAP. "This allows us to place emphasis on long term advantages that emerging platforms can play in the automation of and facilitation of processes from the concept to the final product," said Senior Technology Specialist Vince Levenda. "This is similar to the productivity benefits of the invention of the steam-engine preceding the Industrial Revolution."

Co-create's online tools at www.onespace.net allow for online project collaboration.

Fort Collins, CO-based Co-Create marketing manager Todd Black adds that the requirement for smooth handoffs is going to create the paradigm shift to XML data, which is a rich way of creating, saving and transmitting a wide array of data including 3D or annotations necessary for various levels of a supply chain. "The migration from proprietary to XML opens the doors to communication and digital transactions," he says. The biggest benefit is that software developers can now embrace and incorporate other well developed products without devoting the time and resources into creating their own internal systems, which ultimately promotes a focus on core competency.

According to Walter, the further infusion of wireless will also help remove the tethers. "Wireless is still not pervasive, but its tactical applications are definitely gaining ground and will have an impact on the future of digital manufacturing."

Reliance on 3d modeling
Modeling and simulation for manufacturing or virtual manufacturing offers remarkable advantages, explains John Vickers, Manager of NASA's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. "The ability to simulate a product or process in advance of production, substantially increases the probability of getting the product right the first time," he says. "This area is growing rapidly with almost unlimited possibilities and can produce very complex objects using numerous materials quickly and with extremely low comparative cost."

According to Jannery, 3D modeling can also drive manufacturing more efficiently. "It allows us to create workable tool path generations and feature-based models of this nature remove time and error from the process," he says.

Solid models also make it much quicker for partners to design and produce their associated parts. "3D models always provide dimensional and volume-based information to the people using the designs, which is a time saver," says Black. As a result, through the website www.onespace.net, Co-Create allows the sharing of information regardless of what systems are in place across the value chain to help reduce misunderstandings that occur with paper transactions that are usually necessary with proprietary and 2D format systems.

Avoiding physical mockups is a significant advantage to 3D modeling as well. "Businesses with multiple components need to be able to visualize assembly congruency, which in the past meant building physical mockups," says Zvi Feuer, vice president, mechanical division for Herzeliya, Israel-based Tecnomatix Technologies Ltd. "This was very expensive and very time consuming. In design you do not have the cost of buying and using the tooling, but you can still dimensionally view assemblies and understand how the process works."

Tecnomatix Technologies' software allows for digital plant layout.

Global advantages

According to Feuer, because of the globalization of production many firms now design and produce in different locations, and the only sure way to maintain consistency is to deploy a digital model of the lines available and test the effectiveness of designs before going to build. "You do not have direct control, so unless you fully understand and have a digital model of their operations, you cannot simulate to understand concerns such as production limitations, and logistic issues."

For his part, Black says that regardless of the reasons companies decide to outsource their manufacturing, engineering, product development and customer service functions, the result is a global value chain where different companies are contributing to a single product's life cycle, and they are doing so from different regions. "To avoid confusion, we need to have information flow from one partner to the next seamlessly so that the information remains valuable and rich with knowledge," he says.

According to Beauchemin, one additional concern with off-shoring is the need for very polished, visually rich work instructions that do not rely on wording. "The work required to maintain these work instruction can be phenomenal, but once you make work instruction available in a rich enough model it should not matter where the product is manufactured," he says.

If you have everything online, digitized and integrated, it becomes a lot easier to understand any type of product changes deemed necessary. "You can look at "what if" scenarios and get things right the first time," says Walter, from Latitude Consulting Group. "When it is better, faster and cheaper to do things in a virtual world, it makes sense to use simulation tools including making 3D models that can foresee potential problems not just with a product but with the processes that are necessary to create the product."

Security always a concern
Since manufacturing data, product data and the planning of the manufacturing process are often considered intellectual property (IP), all this talk of interoperability, open communications and highly accessible data that come with the concept of digital manufacturing understandably heighten security concerns.

Delmia's process planning and simulation tools help companies optimize production.

One reason is that intellectual property protection varies significantly across international borders. "This means that we need to assign the correct permissions and this aspect needs to be addressed upfront,'' says Black. "IP is stolen at a fiscal rate of $59 billion per year and the scariest aspect is that in many cases you do not know it is happening. Data needs to be SSL encrypted and there needs to be file-level controls. Part of this is putting control at the project team level rather than resting with the IT department."

According to Jannery, one commonly overlooked security concern is that the customer can in turn use the information to force lower costs. "We combat this by allowing the producer to protect intellectual property by hiding specific best practice-oriented aspects within the cross system communication," he says.

"Functionality in place needs to give the customer enough information to avoid problems, but also control enough information to protect the designer/manufacturer. This protects IP and still allows design processes to flow smoothly."

Simply digitizing data creates separate security concerns, explains Feuer. "When relying on digital there is always the plausibility of internal or external people willingly or unwillingly corrupting the data," he says. "This can set back the process by months."

Long-term outlook
While it is a change in the way many firms operate, the benefits far outweigh the pains, even for companies looking for quick returns.

According to Walter, the long-term advantage to creating a digital environment is that it is a tremendously productive operation capable of easily linking up with both suppliers and customers to build something in a very flexible manner is that the labour component of the overall product cost drops considerably.

Fortunately, a cultural change is imminent over the entire manufacturing enterprise toward digital manufacturing, says Vickers. "This transformation will provide the greatest increase in manufacturing productivity realized throughout history. The dramatic expansion of computing power and its application to an ever greater range of tasks in the business environment is without a doubt the single most powerful technological change affecting manufacturing today. Digital data is the minimum objective required to participate in the future manufacturing enterprise."

For additional information
• Co-Create Software Inc.
• Giraffe Production Systems Pty Ltd
• Latitude Consulting Group
• NASA's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing
• Proficiency Inc.
• Polyplan Technologies
• Tecnomatix Technologies Ltd.
• UGS PLM Solutions

Peter Fretty is a frequent contributor to Advanced Manufacturing. You can reach him by email at: peterfretty@msn.com.


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Published at 20:02

11 March 2011