Design has always been the glamorous part of product development. With market economics favoring compactness, lightness, new materials and daring shapes, design's star is likely to burn brightly for a long time. From aerospace to consumer electronics, industries are investing more heavily in cutting-edge design as customers gravitate toward the efficiency and aesthetic qualities of innovative design.
This fascination with design hearkens back to a Mark Twain quote that thunder makes all the noise but it's lightning that does the work. In product development, design engineering is the thunder that captures the popular imagination, but it's production engineering that ultimately delivers the “lightning” — high-quality finished products. An innovative design that cannot be cost-effectively manufactured and maintained after production is no better than a mediocre design. While every competent design engineer knows that, their ability to act on that knowledge is limited. No design engineer sets out to make things difficult for production engineering, but a divide that has developed between the two disciplines over the years contributes to quality and time-to-market problems and hampers design innovation. This divide is comprised of two factors, one cultural and one technological.
The cultural factor is the increasingly decentralized business models that have developed in most industries. Until about 20 years ago, design and production happened in the same facility. Today, design and production seldom happen in the same time zone. Both have no common ground to collaborate.
The technological factor is the disproportionate availability of CAD solutions versus production modeling solutions. CAD has progressed exponentially over the last 30 years, but comparable technology to model production has not. Engineers have been left with slow, expensive trial-and-error production design processes revolving around physical prototypes. This process guarantees higher ramp-front costs.
The development of economically practical digital manufacturing software and product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions cures both the cultural and technological issues that form the design-production engineering divide. As part of a comprehensive product lifecycle management solution, digital manufacturing gives production engineers capabilities that design engineers have taken for granted since the 1980s.
These solutions enable engineers to plan and model production lines down to every detail. Digital manufacturing gives production engineers the ability to see their work perform as a physical object long before it actually is a physical object. Automotive and aerospace companies using digital manufacturing see production efficiency improvements of anywhere from 5 to 20 percent over conventional production planning processes.
Companies that have seriously weighed digital manufacturing's value have been convinced enough to bet very high stakes on it. Foremost among them is Boeing, which designed its 787 “Dreamliner” in a fully digital product lifecycle management (PLM) environment. Among the company's goals for its PLM program was giving production engineers visibility into the design progress from its very beginning. That enabled the company to head off production problems before they reached the later stages of the design process, where they would be far more expensive to correct. Boeing completely “manufactured” the 787 digitally before a single tool was cut. This capability turns innovative designs into reality. With less risk of wasting time on a design that cannot be easily manufactured, design engineers can innovate aggressively with the knowledge that production engineers can warn them away from impractical designs early in the process.