Manufacturers competing in the global reset economy are struggling with multiple challenges, including this triple-whammy: strategically differentiated products are more complex. At the same time, customers are demanding greater customization and faster speed to market...at ever-lower costs. One area in which manufacturers are finding ways to meet this challenge is the often-overlooked area of product design. As many manufacturers are learning, innovation in complex-product design techniques can deliver significant benefits in cost, speed, product quality, and customer satisfaction.

For example, HTC Sweden, a global flooring systems company whose diamond grinding machines turn ordinary concrete floors into luminous work surfaces, has used "digital prototyping" to cut product development costs by approximately 97%. The previous method -- building physical models of new products -- cost HTC up to $500,000 per prototype, with some products requiring five such models. With digital prototyping, HTC created a computer-based workflow where conceptual design, engineering, manufacturing, and procurement teams are connected by a single digital model. This digital model simulates the complete product, and gives HTC engineers the ability to design, visualize, and simulate their products digitally.

Parker Hannifin, a motion and control technologies company, uses similar digital prototyping software not only to speed product design and production and save on building physical prototypes, but also to bring its customers into the process by allowing them to collaborate with Parker in a virtual design studio at every stage of development.

The value of digital prototyping is perhaps most apparent in its application to the fast-growing roster of mechatronic products that meld mechanics, electronics, computing, and control engineering. Mechatronics are vital to the work of such manufacturing industries as consumer products, defense systems and aerospace, automotive, health care, and materials processing.

In automotive, for example, industry research suggests that mechatronics helps manufacturers offer consumers alluring, fast-to-market new features -- blind spot detection, onboard GPS systems -- while improving reliability and driving down costs both in manufacturing and in after-market warranty service and recalls. Mechatronics is a major driver of differentiating innovation -- 30% to 40% of automotive product innovation is coming from increased mechatronic content, according to the research firm AMR.

While mechatronic products are popular and can drive strategic advantage, they're also challengingly complex. For example, the growth of electronics and mechatronic features in vehicles expanded the onboard computer code required to drive them from about one million lines in the 1990s to more than 100 million today, according to GM's former Chief Technology Officer Tony Scott.

The spot where mechatronics product complexity meets customers' need for customization and speed can be a sore one, or it can be a source of previously underappreciated value derived from the design process. While the actual cost of design in manufacturing is small -- approximately 5% on average -- the results of the design process dictate 50%, or more, of total manufacturing costs, according to David Ullman, professor emeritus of mechanical design at Oregon State University. Clearly, it's worth it for manufacturers to pay more attention not only to the "what" of design, but also to the "how."

Using a Digital Prototyping workflow enables mechatronics design in swift parallel across all technical specialties involved. This is a vast improvement on the time-consuming, mistake-prone, and costly traditional approach of handing cascading and interdependent developments serially from one specialist department to another as a product is designed. A digitally prototyped mechatronics design keeps all specialists apprised of what's happening in every other specialty as the product or part moves through the design process and toward production. To cite one of numerous examples, product-management sub-programs allow for on-the-fly updating of a bill of materials. So when a product's aluminum surface is shrunk or bent, the amount of on-order aluminum sheet metal changes instantly. The result of this open, collaborative feedback loop is not only more speed, but a better-designed product and a happier customer.

Best-in-class manufacturers that use digital prototyping out-perform competing manufacturers that do not by getting products to market on average 58 days faster, according to the Aberdeen Group market research firm.

Speed is good, and so is pure savings on physical prototypes. For example BigToys, an Olympia, Wash. company that manufactures Earth-friendly custom playgrounds for schools and communities, previously crafted expensive physical prototypes that, when built, sometimes cover entire city blocks. By moving to digital prototyping, BigToys reduced time to market from months to weeks; cut development, labor and material costs; boosted customer satisfaction by allowing customers to collaborate on design; and nearly eliminated waste because design changes were made before steel was cut or plastic shaped. Since implementing the new design process, BigToys revenue has nearly tripled. A large part of that growth has been in the international market. By using virtual digital models instead of physical, BigToys can "ship" models to customers in real time.

The increasing adoption of Digital Prototyping workflows in design is being driven by more than just hard business metrics, I believe. The value of these new design tools is being recognized and embraced by a new generation of engineers and designers accustomed to living -- whether at work or play -- in a world that integrates virtual and physical realities into a single, unified reality. This generation of "virtual natives," with its drive to meld the physical and virtual worlds into one, is transforming existing industries and promising to create new ones.

In manufacturing, virtual design tools and digital prototyping workflows tear down previous barriers -- time, money, distance, language to creating a team-like ecosystem in which designers, engineers, marketers, and end customers collaborate continuously from concept to production. The result is a better-designed product that costs less to make, gets to market faster, increases margins, frees internal resources for innovation, and pleases the customer.

Robert "Buzz" Kross is senior vice president, Manufacturing Industry Group at Autodesk. Autodesk provices 2D and 3D design software for manufacturing, building, construction engineering, and entertainment. www.autodesk.com


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