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Every manufacturing activity – from quoting to shipping – needs to be revamped in the digital transformation.

Rob Spiegel

November 2, 2022

6 Min Read
Image courtesy of Alamy

Manufacturers large and small are moving their processes into the digital world. The efficiency benefits are clear and well-documented across every industry. That prompts plenty of pressure on manufacturers to adopt digital tools. So, what is involved in digitalizing manufacturing processes? What does the transformation look like? And how do companies determine how to evaluate whether these measures are even working?

We caught up with Mike Kenison VP and general manager of the Americas the global manufacturing company, Protolabs, to get some of the answers.


Design News: What are the technologies involved in digital transformation?

Mike Kenison: Fundamentally, it’s about changing how manufacturers implement their entire process from quoting to shipping and everything in between. The aim is to further key customer goals, such as speed, quality, and reliability. Our answer to this was to develop a digital thread that ties the front and back ends of manufacturing together. Still, with all of this technology, the customer experience must be outstanding—that is the end goal.

DN: And what does that look like?

Mike Kenison: For example, quoting should offer customers a diverse, if not complete, set of options for their parts, in terms of materials, manufacturing processes, and finishing options, and the pricing should update in real-time with each change, just like any e-commerce platform. One of the difficulties companies face when they quote parts is that their CAD models don’t always translate into manufacturable parts. With several of our services, customers can use automated design for manufacturability (DFM) analysis. That means design issues that might normally delay an order can be managed before any actual production begins. The software can provide this sort of guidance via a digital twin—a virtual representation of how the part would be manufactured. Designers and engineers can iterate quickly to adjust initial manufacturability issues.

Related:How to Make Sure Your Digital Transformation Doesn’t Fail

DN: How does the digital twin work within the context of actual manufacturing?

Mike Kenison: Well, that’s the cool part. Once a CAD model is uploaded and the quote is approved, the model is converted into digital code for manufacturing. In the case of machining or mold design, the software automatically converts the model’s geometries to G-code instructions. That provides an entirely automated toolpathing experience that’s more precise and faster than you’re likely to get from a traditional manufacturer. It also lessens the possibility of human error.

Related:How to Get Your Digital Transformation Right

Once you have a manufacturable part and production is ready, quality control of the physical output comes into play. You have to consider how to replicate output from part to part, batch to batch, order to order. Because everything that happens in the manufacturing thread can be viewed as a stream of data points, we can track all of that valuable information and reuse it on future runs. Molded parts benefit from data collection during the initial setup using scientific molding techniques, which ensure the fill, pack, and hold times are ideal for process consistency. Scientific molding provides the correct setting, then data collection allows us to reuse the parameters, ensuring part-to-part consistency. In the end, digital manufacturers can take the guesswork out of set-up for additional runs by simply turning to the data and replicating, or adjusting, what they did the first time.

That data, in combination with assessments of actual parts taken on coordinate-measuring machines (CMM), allow us to evaluate the accuracy and tolerances of part geometries. A side benefit is that this streamlines quality control because all the data is available for things like first article inspection (FAI) reports, which can be more detailed. Beyond that, an advantage of digital manufacturing is that customers can declare certain geometries as critical-to-quality (CTQ). Letting the system know that certain features are crucial to a part’s function within an application provides an additional level of assuredness for customers. CTQ also speeds up production because it offers data to support future runs, as well as precise information that’s at the core of part validation.

DN: Do these technologies need to interact and work together? Do they need an overall controlling platform?

Mike Kenison: Every technology and process needs to function as one system to provide the speed and quality we promise our customers. This idea is all-encompassing in that our front-end ecommerce platform and financial systems to the manufacturing execution system on the production floor work together and incorporate all aspects of our business along the way. Protolabs’ built this proprietary system to offer a true digitally powered, ecommerce experience.

DN: Are these technologies emerging or are they mature?

Mike Kenison: Some elements are mature, but as with any technology, there’s always room for growth. Systems as complex as this always require tweaking and improvement based on performance. We are constantly tracking via a variety of data collection and analytics tools that allow us to monitor our operations in real time. This insight informs where we have the potential to improve.

DN: What are the critical metrics involved in determining progress in digital transformation?

Mike Kenison: The most obvious things that we aim for are to improve our speed, quality, and reliability. I say they are obvious because they are fundamental to any manufacturer but within digital manufacturing, they are sort of on steroids. So, in part, we want to see performance data that show how our facilities increase their throughput, and that we are reducing equipment downtime. Both of these address speed.

But there is the customer experience to consider, too. An advantage of digital manufacturing is at the core of the quoting experience. By offering options upfront, with resultant changes to the quote instantly apparent, quoting often is a point-and-click, menu-driven exercise, empowering designers and engineers to make instantaneous changes to address design, material selection, finishing, and turn time factors. Also, customers can easily have several people, like a procurement team, at their company review a quote and any DFM feedback that came with it. This yields transparent communication, both among members of the digital manufacturing team, and the various customer stakeholders. In the spirit of continuous improvement, which is critical in any digital manufacturing environment, it’s important to look at customer feedback and optimize systems to address that.

DN: What are the pain points that digital transformation overcomes?

Mike Kenison: One of the pain points this avoids is lengthy lead times. By digitalizing nearly everything, customers can quote the exact parts they want online, and manufacturers can process those quotes and provide feedback much faster. Our DFM is based, in part, on all of those valuable data points, and that yields more precise and detailed design feedback, so you know pretty quickly how you can optimize your design for a specific manufacturing process, whether molding, machining, 3D printing, or sheet metal fabrication.

DN: Does the emergence of digital manufacturing suggest that in the future, machines will handle all aspects of manufacturing?

Mike Kenison: I think that’s probably a long way off. Sometimes, the human touch is needed to complete a project or to work through a special feature. Automation doesn’t eliminate the human element but it may offer the opportunity to shift highly skilled staff from work on the floors to roles in which they help customers take better advantage of the digital thread, as with our injection molding consultative design service. We see this as the direction manufacturing should go in the future to reduce costs and speed production of quality parts.

About the Author(s)

Rob Spiegel

Rob Spiegel has served as senior editor at Electronic News and Ecommerce Business, covering the electronics industry and Internet technology. He has served as a contributing editor at Automation World and Supply Chain Management Review. Rob has contributed to Design News for 10 years.

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