Making the shift from a conventional factory to a digital plant involves a collection of technologies across several processes. In some cases, it's a matter of making traditional systems more efficient, as in automating an assembly line. In other cases, it means rethinking those processes, as in shifting from preventive maintenance to predictive condition monitoring. Plant managers often select first-step changes that deliver clear return on investment (ROI) while presenting little cultural change. Once they reap those benefits (and the resulting ROI), they move to more challenging, and sometimes expensive, technologies like robotics, IoT, and data analytics.
The shift to digital-based manufacturing re-imagines everything from design and production through the supply chain and customer service. (Image source: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
Even if the first steps are modest, moving to the digital plant means rethinking the traditional design and production processes. “The path to digital transformation includes product innovation and leveraging advanced tools, from design through development and production,” John Jaddou, co-founder of Addeation, told Design News. “It means re-imagining a new way of designing something and using digital tools.”
Competition Is Prompting the Transformation
Adopting digital tools isn’t simply a decision to improve efficiency—though it is that. It’s also an effort to become more competitive. “Manufacturing is competitive. There is pressure from abroad and from Wall Street to improve productivity and design differentiated products. You drive growth and bottom-line improvements through cost compression,” said Jaddou. “There’s also pressure from customers, who want speed, quality, and a high level of service. When we click on something, we expect the product to arrive on time, for it to not be damaged, and for it to work as expected.”
In order to stay competitive and improve operations, manufacturers are finding they have to change—and that change will likely involve digital tools. “Companies have been trying to meet their needs with analog processes. Now, they want to be agile; they want to compress the development cycle. So they’re moving from analog to digital,” said Jaddou. “They’re turning to new technology to automate their design and production. That might include using machine learning for predictive maintenance to keep the process from going out of control. That’s the low-hanging fruit.”
Digitizing the Entire Operation
Moving to greater efficiency usually requires improved communication, and that means greater connectivity. “One move to digital is to sync the shop floor with the back office. The digitization of the shop floor and the back end has been great. Just a few years ago, we were using paper documents and instructions,” said Jaddou. “Reports were once a week or once a month. We would make a prototype and ten weeks later, we got a response from engineering.”
Communication and connectivity through digital tools offer the opportunity to compress the design and production cycle. “Now, we have a connected machine and the company information is in the cloud. Design and manufacturing are no longer static. It’s real-time and rich with innovations,” said Jaddou. “We can quickly get performance or process information. We can see if we’re in full production. We can evaluate if the process is in control or not. Everything becomes faster and proactive.”
Digital communication is moving beyond design and production to include suppliers. “The supply chain is also moving to a digital platform, so there is increasing accountability,” said Jaddou. “You can see who has carried out which task, and you can see if there’s a hiccup. You can quickly see bottlenecks and address them.”
Efficiency without Sacrificing Quality
In the past, efficiency came with a tradeoff in quality. Jaddou notes that digital tools have changed that balance. “Quality is no longer sacrificed for efficiency. We can push the limits of process. We know when we’re out of control, and we know where we would be out of control, so we can push the process,” said Jaddou. “People are pushing this because there is explicit and implicit payback. You can visually see where something is in the supply chain. You can measure how long it takes for a process to move from task to task.”
Those implicit and explicit paybacks show up as compressed design and production cycles. “You can see how long it took in a traditional way and how long it takes in a digital way,” said Jaddou. “The result of moving to digital is that product development is shrinking from 18 months to three months.”
While the returns from the shift to digital processes are measurable, they do come with costs—both financial and cultural. “Some of the advanced manufacturing seems easy, but it’s actually complicated. Robotics, additive manufacturing, the IoT—we hear that they’re relatively easy to incorporate, but that’s far from the truth,” said Jaddou. “It sounds great, but there are not many people who are schooled in design for function or 3D printing.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
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