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Digitized Manufacturing Drives Competitive Advantages 


Rendering of the DMDII, which will be the nation’s flagship research institute for applying cutting-edge digital technologies to reduce the time and cost of manufacturing, strengthen the capabilities of the U.S. supply chain, and reduce acquisition costs.

By Mark Kleszczewski

Manufacturing transforms thanks to digitization.

Several key challenges are affecting most sectors of U.S. manufacturing today: labor and material costs, as well as constraints are rising; production overcapacity is diminishing profitability; outsourcing has led to the separation of designers and makers, slowing innovation; and some barriers for sharing data and information have intensified.

Yet American manufacturing is proving to be fertile ground for innovation. Thanks to rapid advances in technology, today’s evolving factory floor — already much cleaner, safer and more productive than in decades past — will be hardly recognizable in the not-too-distant future.

Additive 3-D printing technology, advanced robotics, self-diagnostic sensors, simulation software and “intelligent machining” are just some of what’s already in use. Binding all of these trends together is the “digital thread” which is taking the sharing and analysis of production data to a new level.

A Busy Decade Ahead

Manufacturing leaders expect that over the next five to 10 years, digitization is expected to sweep across just about every industry. According to a 2013 survey conducted by Manufacturing Executive, 94 percent of respondents said they expect some level of end-to-end digitization of their business processes in the next 10 years, with 63 percent saying they will be largely digitized in that time.

According to the survey, executives foresee big changes taking place in their design and production processes. Today, only 13 percent of companies have completely digitized their production system, but over the coming decade, that number is expected to exceed 50 percent. When asked that same question just a year earlier, only 38 percent of respondents expected to be fully digitized a decade out.

Digits Bring Benefits

For consumers, digitization is showing up in the form of new products that rely more and more on data and embedded software. But behind the scenes, producers are entering a whole new world that can seem daunting, but opens up many possibilities.

Technically speaking, digital manufacturing is the use of an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, three-dimensional (3-D) visualization, analytics and various collaboration tools to create product and manufacturing process definitions simultaneously. Design innovation is the ability to apply these technologies, tools and products to reimagine the entire manufacturing process from end to end.

“Data today is collected in large volumes at every stage, from design and prototyping to production,” says Jacob Goodwin, director, membership engagement and communications, Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII). “But often what should be a process that takes hours, can be slow, cumbersome and takes weeks. The inefficiencies that accumulate at each step cost time and money, making the overall product more expensive, slower to market and much less competitive.

To Dean Bartles, Ph.D., executive director of the DMDII, the implication is clear. “Imagine a designer who’s going to be making key decisions on a product development process, whether it is design features or materials. With every selection they make, we’ll be able to virtually represent the exact cost and time-to-market impact of that decision.”

“Digital manufacturing to us then, is the efficient and effective use of data at every stage of the production process,” Goodwin continues. “Our goal is to use data and share it efficiently so that you can speed up the process, send products to market quicker and cheaper, and compete with foreign manufacturers and bring jobs back to the U.S.”

To Dean Bartles, Ph.D., executive director of the DMDII, the implication is clear. “Imagine a designer who’s going to be making key decisions on a product development process, whether it is design features or materials,” he says. “With every selection they make, we’ll be able to virtually represent the exact cost and time-to-market impact of that decision.”

As noted in a report released recently by PwC, another significant benefit of “digital factories” is in machine-to-machine knowledge sharing which allows companies to switch production from one locale to another, or from production of one product to another without considerable investments in talent, training, set-up time and related costs.

Stakeholders Invest and Collaborate

One of the most positive aspects of the movement toward digital manufacturing in the United States is the combined and growing support from government, education and private sector leaders.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded $70 million for the creation of a digital lab and manufacturing hub, led by the University of Illinois and UI Labs. The investment joined by $250 million in funds from the private sector — is the foundation for the DMDII, which recently broke ground on its headquarters at Chicago’s Goose Island industrial area.

The partnership will work to enable interoperability across the supply chain, develop enhanced digital capabilities to design and test new products, and reduce costs in manufacturing processes across multiple industries.

As part of a competitively selected consortium consisting of universities, nonprofits, research labs and companies such as General Electric, Dow Chemical Co., Siemens, The Boeing Co., Deere & Co., Microsoft Corp., Illinois Tool Works Inc., and PARC among many others — the lab and institute aim to create billions of dollars in value for the industrial marketplace, ultimately hoping to spur long-term U.S. economic growth and job creation.

“Today’s manufacturing is much different than that of our parents. Manufacturers must now be ready to take on the jobs of the future — ones that blend traditional hands-on skills with advanced technology and robotics — leading to new innovations,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, during a public appearance in support of the institute.

“World-class partners from across the country — including Caterpillar here in Peoria will work to improve manufacturing efficiency to create new opportunities for businesses and workers. Illinois’ Digital Lab will make our small and midsize manufacturers more competitive globally by allowing them to integrate computing capabilities throughout design, testing, and production. But most importantly, the lab will be a great source of innovation, development, and economic growth in our state and position us as a leader in the field for years to come,” he said.

In one of its first moves, the DMDII announced the release of three project calls earlier this year for R&D efforts to establish the foundations of the institute’s three core technology thrusts: advanced manufacturing enterprise (AME), intelligent machines (IM) and advanced analysis (AA). The three solicitations request proposals from teams combining large and small manufacturers as well as academic research institutions.

Boosting Education and Training

Improvements in technology may be moving digital and advanced manufacturing forward, but they won’t result in sustainable benefits without qualified people who can integrate data with manufacturing processes to effectively operate the next generation of machines.

“What the U.S. does better than any country in the world is technology, especially in software and information,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president, strategic initiatives, The Manufacturing Institute. “Marrying those strengths to today’s incredible digital tools, then bringing them to bear in the manufacturing process will really give us an edge in competing with others around the world — especially those who may pay lower wages, but don’t have the level of technology capability we do.

“As companies continue to embrace automation and become more data-driven, their success will largely hinge on shaping and building a workforce that can better leverage technological advances,” Carrick continues. “To do that, manufacturers are feeling a growing need to pull from a wider and deeper pool of talent. Just putting sensors into your machines isn’t going to help you much. You’re going to need the talent to analyze the data, what it’s telling you and then figure out how to apply it. It’s an ongoing learning process that requires a full-scale commitment.”

A big component of that process will be gathering and providing access to cutting-edge know

“As companies continue to embrace automation and become more data-driven, their success will largely hinge on shaping and building a workforce that can better leverage technological advances.” – Gardner Carrick, vice president, strategic initiatives, The Manufacturing Institute

ledge and practical training that will prepare workers and students for next-generation manufacturing jobs.

Carrick says that The Manufacturing Institute will engage manufacturers and community and technical colleges related to the education and workforce development activities of DMDII. The institute will also identify schools interested in piloting digital manufacturing and design innovation principles in their manufacturing education programs, as well as represent the Skills Certifications System to support the development of standards and certifications in digital manufacturing. Through its programs, the Manufacturing Institute will also expose students and veterans to the importance and application of digital manufacturing through their Dream It Do It and Get Skills to Work initiatives.

As digital automation technologies continue to evolve and increase their presence in production facilities, distribution centers and throughout supply chains, both large and small producers have some big decisions to make, and some big opportunities to take advantage of.

“Companies should recognize that the time to change and adapt is now,” Goodwin suggests.

“It is possible for the United States to regain supremacy in global manufacturing by using its innovative capabilities to build things faster, cheaper and better than our competitors,” he says. “While culturally, some parts of the manufacturing business resist change, there are benefits for small and large companies to understand the advances that are already happening and will happen at an accelerating pace in the years ahead.”

“This is definitely not a fad,” Carrick says. “The ability to get more information through your manufacturing process and products is only going to help you whether it’s in the short or long run. There’s no magic answer, but the companies that are doing this blind are going to be eventually surpassed by those companies with good information and usage of the digital process.”

For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:

Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII)
The Manufacturing Institute

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About the author: Mark Kleszczewski

Mark Kleszczewski is president and CEO of GoBusiness Group LLC and a freelance writer on critical business topics. He can be reached at mark@gobusinessgroup.net.

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