Years ago I worked for almost a decade as a machinist in the Boston and New York City environs and northern California. I ran manual lathes and milling machines: turning precision parts in the Bronx, milling housings for minicomputers along Boston’s Route 128, and knurling dials for motion-picture cameras on Manhattan’s West Side. It wasn’t until the very end, when I high-speed-machined aluminum aerospace parts in Oakland, that I used a computer numerical control (CNC) machining center.
At the time, CNC had been around for years, and a number of companies were using it to make huge strides in productivity and quality. But the technology was slow to catch on. It wasn’t easy to learn about it—companies were too busy making payroll to investigate, and information was scarce.
That’s the benefit of a resource like the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), which in partnership with UI Labs and the U.S. Department of Defense is trying to accelerate the development and adoption of digital manufacturing. Part of Manufacturing USA—a public-private partnership with 14 institutes across the nation—DMDII brings together universities, industry, startups, and government to tackle technology advancement challenges in digital manufacturing too complex for any one organization to crack on its own.
DMDII’s shared R&D testbed lets companies access advanced manufacturing equipment, facilities, and technical expertise. Its future factory trains users in understanding and applying digital manufacturing technologies. The institute’s technology roadmaps focus on digital design, product development, systems engineering, cybersecurity in manufacturing, and supply chain. An education and workforce training component is delivered via online courses and “Digital Days” for students.
One DMDII project is developing a low-cost way for small and medium-sized manufacturers to access new technology in advanced modeling, simulation, and analysis. Other initiatives are trying to develop and deliver cloud services to optimize and monitor CNC machining; build cloud-based, service-oriented platforms for supply chains; and use advanced analytics and blockchain for predictive event and risk management. Another group is creating a cloud-based decision-support system to turn logistics and production data into visual dashboards of real-time information for factory floor personnel.
The testbed features experts in mechanical, electrical, systems integration, and manufacturing engineering, plus machinists and assembly specialists. DMDII reported that Rolls-Royce utilized the facility to test three new manufacturing tools and processes in less than a week, something that would have taken over three months internally. The innovations are being implemented at the company.
McKinsey & Company recently began collaborating with DMDII on a North American Digital Capability Center (DCC), a digital manufacturing learning space for hands-on experience and training. A mock line transforms in stages from a legacy, non-digitized production operation into a higher performing, digitally driven setup that includes advanced analytics, augmented reality, and digital assistance for operators; future plans include collaborative robots (cobots) and artificial intelligence. The DCC is connected to McKinsey DCCs in Singapore, Aachen (Germany), Beijing, and Venice, creating a worldwide showcase and training laboratory for digital manufacturing.