Physical products can’t be produced digitally, of course, but digital resources can and do support manufacturing in a big way. Although manufacturing has made use of computers for decades, ever more powerful systems, sophisticated software, the Internet, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have expanded the digital world of manufacturing, delivering unimagined speed, efficiencies and new capabilities. And the best is yet to come.
Today, the term Digital Manufacturing refers the use of computers and computer programs to design products (CAD), direct the manufacturing process (CAM), plan, schedule and manage activities (ERP), and coordinate the supply chain. All of these things are happening today, but these systems are not always fully connected to each other, limiting the potential benefits that should be available.
In a fully intergrade Digital Manufacturing world, a product, the processes for making it, as well as its usage and characteristics can all be developed and simulated in the digital environment before the first piece of material is purchased. This saves considerable time and money in new product development, resulting in higher quality products and reduced costs. This aspect of digital manufacturing is well advanced and in use in many companies around the globe.
The next link in the digital chain brings those designs into the physical world of production. Software works from the digital design files to create machine instructions which can be passed directly to the production equipment and put into action. Other software simulates the production process to determine the optimum characteristics and arrangements of production resources and demonstrate what they can do, enabling the design of efficient production facilities and providing guidelines on how to schedule and manage them.
Once the part or product is released to production, ERP picks up the thread (and the data) to actually produce, distribute and sell the product. Supply chain systems coordinate distribution, transportation and warehousing. And it doesn’t end there. Most products are continually engineered, refined, improved, serviced, supplied with parts and consumables and sometimes brought back (reverse logistics) for repair, remanufacturing, disassembly and recycling or disposal. The data that evolved through the engineering process is an important part of all subsequent activities and those activities, in turn, generate data that can and should be fed back to engineering to support the listed ongoing lifecycle management process.
Having integrated systems – common data that is shared across the supply chain and the product lifecycle – speeds up the entire process from new product introduction to agile response to changing demand. Shorter lead times give a boost to lean manufacturing efforts and help reduce inventory and supply chain risk.
Evolving technologies are making digital manufacturing even more important and beneficial. The proliferation of sensors (Internet of Things) provides more real-time visibility throughout the plant, the organization and the supply chain while ever more sophisticated analytics and data visualization programs help managers reap intelligence from the so-called Big Data that is flooding the business world. Evolving additive manufacturing (3D printing) promises to make the link from design to completed parts even more digital and more responsive.
The world is becoming more digital every day and manufacturing is in the forefront of the digital transformation. Augmented Reality, one of today’s hottest new technologies, is based on a merging of the digital and physical worlds. Manufacturing has been taking advantage of digital-physical coordination for decades and continues to pursue the synergies available when these two worlds work together. And, yes, augmented reality is an important part of the future of Digital Manufacturing.