Sep 24 2014

From Trinkets to Space Ships, 3D Printing has arrived in Manufacturing

Toys to_Rocket Engine_3Dprinting_ now in ManufacturingA few months ago, I wrote about how Lockheed Martin is investing in a 3D printing initiative as part of a fully digitized manufacturing process, something they call the Digital Tapestry, that will be used to produce critical components for air and spacecraft.

Everything in manufacturing needs to be digital, said the article, and I agree.

But even I’ve been surprised by how fast this technology is moving. Digital manufacturing isn’t just the future. It has already arrived as a serious force in manufacturing. Three recent news items have brought this fact home quite forcefully.

In August, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about how 3D printing has already made the leap from low-end novelty applications to serious industrial use. According to the article, last year alone “more than 9,800 commercial [3D printing] devices — some large enough to print V6 engine blocks — were sold at an average price of $90,370 and for as high as $5 million.” That’s serious manufacturing equipment.

Less than a week later, I came across this news story: NASA and its partners are accelerating testing on 3D-printed rocket engine components. NASA says it has tested the “most complex rocket engine part ever designed”—an injector that would have required “163 individual parts to be produced and then assembled” using traditional methods, but requires only two parts when produced on a 3D printer. The part has performed well in tests and NASA plans to use it in space launches in the near future.

Upon reading that, I thought it would be hard to imagine a more critical, high-risk application than a space launch!

But then came along the news this week that doctors in China have implanted the first-ever 3D-printed vertebra into a human being! Surgeons opted for the 3D printed part over the traditional titanium solution, not only for cost reasons but for precision and effectivity. “The team at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing created a perfect replica of a piece of the boy’s spine, which did not require surgical cement or screws upon implantation.” The boy is said to be recovering well.

It’s safe to say that if 3D printing is being used for everything from trinkets to space flights to a human spine, then it’s a technology to be reckoned with.

I wonder how many manufacturing enterprises are truly ready for this revolution. Has your company developed a strategy and roadmap for digital manufacturing? Have you started acting upon it? The winners in the era of digital production will not just be the early adopters of 3D printing on the manufacturing floor. It will be the companies that have developed the end-to-end infrastructure to support this new technology.

Think about it. If 3D printers can produce practically anything on demand in large quantities, then every other step in the process, from the first design to the plant floor, had better be digital as well. Otherwise, your 21st century production capability will be sitting idle, waiting for quality designs to be developed and delivered.

In the article from the Chicago Tribune that I mentioned above, William King, CTO of UI Labs, says, “Over the next decade, manufacturing will become completely digital. Factories will be run from tablet computers, and every machine tool in every factory will be connected to the Internet.”

A few years ago, that would have sounded optimistic. Today, it sounds like a warning.

If you haven’t yet thought seriously about how your design-through-manufacturing processes will need to change to keep up with this revolution, and how you’re going to get there, today would be a good day to start.

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Sep 18 2014

Tips for Improved Productivity and Output

Lean manufacturing starts with a clean shop floorManufacturers are constantly looking for ways to improve employee productivity and increase output. Here are some tips to incorporate into your production process in order to reach those goals.

Empty the Workplace

In the manufacturing workplace itself, more is not always better. The general thinking might be that the more tools that are readily available, the better a worker can do his job. But clutter is the enemy – and can lead to unsafe working conditions. You can have the best tools available, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t find them.

Start with a clean slate. Look at an empty workspace and work forward. Determine which tools and supplies are the most crucial and, for now, rule out all others. Place them where they make the most sense for accessing. Note that this assessment should include where computer terminals are placed – or tablets – as we all embrace the paperless manufacturing transformation now underway.

Going forward, any tools added to the workplace must not obstruct access to the essentials. Next, add the secondary tools. Finally, identify the tools and supplies that are rarely needed, or those that are used in an emergency. Keep these tools separate. Have workers clean as they go and keep track of every tool used. At the end of the day, tools from each of the three groups should be returned to their respective space. The result is a Lean workplace that makes more sense, and is more safe.


Based on the exercise above, you might notice some obvious inefficiency. Perhaps it doesn’t make the best sense to have the secondary tools located near a high-traffic loading dock; or maybe management offices near assembly lines are too much of a distraction. Or it could be as basic as a workflow that forces workers to take too many steps.

As daunting as workplace reorganization is, it’s worth the time and effort. Using the housecleaning method outlined above, take a high-level look at floor operations while the facility is at its most organized. From there, you can reorganize as needed without unnecessarily disrupting production with excessive housecleaning.

From a digital housecleaning perspective, consider how files are organized on shared or cloud-based servers. Is there an intuitive naming and folder structure? Could a new employee find traceability or genealogy product details quickly? If not, perhaps a change is in order.

Use the Right Wires and Cables

Not all efficiencies are surface-deep. To improve productivity and output, you must anticipate disruptions and prevent them at the source. Faulty wires and cables are a major cause for expensive halts in a production line. In many ways, it comes down to wires and cables. (See this related post).

A manufacturing environment typically is more abusive than any other work setting. Think harsh chemicals, fluctuating temperatures, heavy traffic and the general wear and tear that comes with running a rigorous production line. It helps to be aggressive on this front, rather than waiting for an outage to shut you down and force your hand. Use industrial-grade cables and wires designed specifically for harsh environments. For example, some cables are made with jacket materials specifically made to withstand abrasions. Others are resistant to water, oils and chemicals. And some are designed for constant flexing or tension that can sometimes happen in manufacturing.

When faced with the option of cheap vs. durable, consider the expenses of more frequent replacements and repairs. By investing in the right cables and wires early on, you can reduce the expense of frequent repairs and ultimately improve productivity and output.

Compare Against the Competition

Once you’ve implemented the strategies above, consider enlisting a third-party group to evaluate your entire operation and compare it against the competition. Production consultancy companies can take a look at building design, flow and general operations and pinpoint problem areas at a very scientific level and make additional recommendations based on what has worked for similar manufacturing facilities. Many will look at production itself — such as the materials and processes you’re using — to make better product recommendations. If long-term productivity and output is your goal, it’s a worthwhile investment.

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Sep 16 2014

Using MES to help Manage Energy? It may be Closer Than you Think.

MES_for_energy_managementEnterprises are paying a lot of attention these days to energy efficiency and sustainable operations. So too are manufacturers. Clearly, the factory floor is a major consumer of energy. Surprisingly, however, there is not much precedent for integrating a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) with energy management decision-making in any kind of dynamic way.

Is there the potential for important new applications in this area? Some recent discussions with customers and colleagues make me believe the answer is definitely “Yes.” And maybe closer to happening than people might think.

Consider what manufacturers are already doing. On the energy management side, there are many systems and applications for monitoring and reporting energy and water use, and companies use the reports generated by these systems to make decisions about energy and to initiate cost-saving practices. Some of these systems can even be dynamic—for example, turning off lights and HVAC systems when rooms are unoccupied, or adjusting settings based on time of day.

On the manufacturing side, energy use in a plant can be easily tracked and monitored, through sensors in the facility and also via the production equipment. For example, energy consumption by equipment is often monitored as part of an enterprise asset management program, as deviations in energy use can predict failing equipment.

So why not take these two silos of critical information—process control and energy consumption—and integrate them in real-time to give management a truly holistic view of manufacturing? It’s not a very big leap, and it’s easy to imagine that the results could be quite significant.

Here’s one example. Suppose a manufacturer pays more for energy after a certain level of consumption has been reached for the day—a variable pricing policy that is practiced in many areas of the world. This information could be linked dynamically to the MES to reduce energy costs. If it’s five minutes until midnight when the rate resets, and you can slow down the production line to avoid paying a big surcharge, why wouldn’t you? Other things being equal, this would be a “no brainer.”

You’d have to know the cost-savings would be worth the delay, taking into consideration other production runs, customer expectations, current scheduling flexibility, and so on. These would be complex decisions for a person to make in real-time, but they’re exactly the sorts of decisions that automated systems excel at making. The MES could monitor the energy usage in real-time, balance the considerations, and pace the production run accordingly.

Or here’s another example: production runs could be scheduled to take advantage of peak-hour and off-peak-hour energy charges, based on the energy requirements of the various runs involved and balanced against other scheduling issues. Again, this might be too complicated for mere humans, but it would be a snap for the ERP, MES and energy management systems working together. If you add Business Intelligence component on top of it – you may gain additional value of long lasting trends analysis over weeks or months.

Some companies are even talking about moving the energy cost to the Bill of Materials, so that energy costs are hardwired into the process control systems. This could get a manufacturer on the path to the “golden” production run where all factors are perfectly balance to achieve truly optimal manufacturing performance.

The two biggest investments to make this happen—flexible, dynamic process control systems and energy monitoring systems—have already been made by most large manufacturers, and are present in virtually all new plants. So it’s just a matter of leveraging existing resources to reduce operating costs and improve sustainability, something upper management will likely be happy to hear about.

What do you think? Is “MES as energy manager” around the corner in your company? Might your competitors already being doing it? I’m guessing the answers are “Yes,” and “Yes.”

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Sep 12 2014

The Digital Factory as a Path to Global Prosperity

digital_factoryIn my last post, I discussed the role of manufacturing innovation, and how it has changed each of our lives. The digital factory has an opportunity to have an equally significant impact on this century, as I’ll now explain.

The digitization of manufacturing processes is well underway. But the level of investment is low compared to the digitization of other corporate functions, such as finance or engineering. Today, manufacturing investment is gaining momentum, and it promises to bring the wealth more globally around the world.

This trend has important implications for national leaders and manufacturing executives. The Digital Factory is enabling a new approach to manufacturing, whereby:

  • Industrial processes can be easily connected, changed, and adapted dynamically across a network of industrial companies
  • Referred to as “Manufacturing-as-a-Service” or MaaS, this strategy gives companies the ability to react swiftly to fast-changing demand or market conditions
  • Manufacturers can now stay better connected with their products and customers, bringing value to the entire lifecycle of the product – extending manufacturing’s impact to beyond products but to also the services that support them

”The nations that succeed in this endeavor will be those that invest in education, technology and cultural change, to produce a new generation of manufacturing workers.”

 MaaS-enabled industrial companies can create high-value experiences for other MaaS firms or end-user customers that encompass the entire product lifecycle—delivery, support, repair, refurbishing, and disposal. Products and services which have a MasS approach are more easily customized and personalized: the industrial process can now be automatically parsed out and combined to offer significant opportunities to collaboratively expand value-add. Manufacturers can now offer more than just products, but meaningful experiences that their end-users will cherish and become deeply accustomed to.

The Digital Factory promises to yield significant job creation opportunities for “knowledge employees” freed from repetitive production tasks thank to the digitization afforded by IT systems, seamless Internet access and automation advances. This offers the advantage of a superior toolset to deliver better products and services. The nations that succeed in this endeavor will be those that invest in and incentivize the Digital Factory through education, technology and cultural change, to produce a new generation of manufacturing workers and consumers.

Next Steps to Achieving the Digital Factory

Beyond the need for stable, high speed Internet access, manufacturers must invest in other technology sector of the Digital Factory. The end result is job creation to master the build-up of knowledge and know-how, which can make the world more sustainable, due to more harmonious and frugal uses of resources across product life cycles.

Workers must be educated to these opportunities and their employments which have to evolve quickly. This new manufacturing world can produce a new economy that benefits our entire society.

As it is true with Lean and other continuous improvement initiatives, change takes time. With this mindset and commitment to invest, the emergence of a Digital Factory can offer unprecedented growth and wealth that our planet has never seen before.


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Sep 10 2014

Expanding Manufacturing’s Contribution to a Better Society

global_manufacturing_innovationThe rapid advances within manufacturing innovation have transformed our lives. Starting with the transition away from an agriculture-based economy, manufacturing has contributed to higher productivity and rising living standards amongst both developing and advanced economies. Manufacturing still makes up to16% of global GDP. Today, technology is once again disrupting the world of manufacturing – this time in the form of what can be considered a “digital” factory.

Think of the security, quality, and affordability of most goods we consume today, we take for granted products that a generation before would have seemed miraculous. The technology behind transportation, smart phones, medical devices and food sources represents a new pinnacle of manufacturing innovation.

This latest wave of industrial revolution has been described by many terms, such as “Industrie 4.0”, the “Industrial Internet of Things”, the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The underlying theme is the same – establish a constant connectivity between Internet connectivity and every resource involved in manufacturing and delivery of goods. On top of that connectivity, the Digital Factory creates a shared virtual world that accurately models reality making better decisions such as reduces the consumption of resources, time and energy.

The Challenge: Increase Focus on Global Wealth Creation

While the digital revolution has already created significant impact in the industry area, its benefits do not yet offer rewards for all the 7 billion people around the world. Can we hope that this new innovation wave will bring a better quality of life to our entire civilization? And, at the same time, can we reduce the impact of manufacturing on our environment? At Dassault Systèmes we think so – this is a project we are committed to addressing over the next several decades.

“For countries and companies, the key success factor will be adaptability to fast changing demand.”

Manufacturing enterprises are often viewed only as profit-making machines for their shareholder. But for citizens and employees — and their whole nations — they include a larger part of responsibility. Too much attention focused on beating the competition and cost reduction has harmed not only the social impact of manufacturing, but the organizations themselves. This jaded perspective needs to be replaced with a sustainable view that extends the product lifecycle to beyond the factory walls. Asia Agricultural Machinery of Korea, a Dassault Systèmes customer, is adopting digital as its universal language for design and collaboration. Their digital strategy to design and build a better product portfolio helps deliver agricultural equipment that is more customized, connected and sustainable than ever before – with a potential to create more food to feed our planet (read more here).

Emerging nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China have already recognized this value of manufacturing. They have been generated enormous economic gains from not only the production of these goods, but also the design. However, they face issues such as rising wages, increasing environmental impact and quality concerns.

If all nations and people are to thrive together, manufacturing wealth can serve the greater needs of all the world’s denizens. This means that the right goods must be produced at the right cost, quality and volume that markets require. Goods must be created with new sustainable processes, most qualified employments to support each regional economy. For countries and companies, the key success factor will be adaptability to fast changing demand: the winners will be the ones that can understand and produce faster than the rest.

In my next post I’ll examine how the Digital Factory can help to address these challenges. Implementing the Digital Factory concept puts people at the center of the factory system, to free their cognitive functions, which enable him to focus on the innovation.


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