Like many of manufacturing's epochal transformations, the digital manufacturing revolution is being driven by the automobile industry and its evolving needs to become more collaborative, adaptive, flexible and responsive. And that's just the beginning of the IT-based revolution that's aimed at integrating the enterprise portfolio of software tools to turn information into a more accessible and usable means of accelerating the business process. Automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing, the experts say, are digital manufacturing's bellwethers for the rest of manufacturing, both large and small.
The rapid proliferation of digital manu-facturing says something special, not only about OEMs and their suppliers, but also about business challenges that are increasing throughout manufacturing. The challenging characteristics include rapidly growing product complexity, an increasing globalization of business operations and a greater need to collaborate with greater numbers of business partners.
By reorganizing and restructuring to achieve an optimized digital manufacturing model, important gains are made and the result transforms the enterprise. Typically business processes accelerate, departmental collaboration improves and time-to-market is dramatically shortened. Those performance improvements eventually set new operating standards for industry.
The main operating premise underlying a digital manufacturing transformation is its dependence on integrating IT (information technology) as the major driver of growth and success, says Robert Atkinson, president, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The transition toward digital manufacturing began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, notes Siemens PLM Software's Dave Shuey, director, Tecnomatix marketing for the Americas. At the time, manufacturing companies began integrating the point solutions that first characterized early functional silos of IT automation, adds PTC's Michael Campbell, vice president, product management. Innovative thinkers began to see the potential of improving information flow, especially between the corporate product design and manufacturing departments.
The identifying acronyms of digital manufacturing expanded from CIM (computer-integrated manufacturing) and CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/manufacturing) to a new, enterprise-encompassing concept of PLM (product lifecycle management). With PLM emerging as the driver of digital manufacturing, OEMs and their suppliers had the software tool for integrating all the product-associated activities of an enterprise. Today PLM is known for its origins in the integration of business systems to manage a product's lifecycle, adds Siemens PLM Software's Alain Iung, vice president, Tecnomatix marketing.
Coincidentally, Atkinson notes that the diffusion of IT and telecommunications hardware, software and services turns out to be a powerful driver of growth, having an impact on worker productivity three to five times that of non-IT capital equipment (e.g., buildings and machines.)
Today's PLM leaders such as Dassault, Siemens PLM Software and PTC typically evolved from 20th century roles as providers of CAD/CAM software. Exceptions reported by CIMdata include SAP and Oracle.
"Supported by a wide range of technologies, PLM is now regarded as a do-or-die competitive necessity," says Ed Miller, president, CIMdata. "In today's turbulent global economy companies leveraging these [digital manufacturing] solutions will likely be among the top performers in the coming years."
According to CIMdata, companies that have implemented PLM typically report ROIs that range from 100% to 300%. Miller explains that the impact of this broad PLM footprint is that many diverse, previously-isolated disciplines and pockets of automation are now being tightly integrated, with processes optimized for the entire enterprise and across the full product lifecycle.
Simulate to Control Complexity
The following example shows how broadly PLM's portfolio of solutions has been extended. The user, Symax Systemtechnik Sondermaschinebau GmbH, is a German producer of machinery and systems that automate production and assembly processes. Symax utilizes Siemens PLM tools for everything from concept planning to the development and manufacturing of customized solutions.
About 40% of Symax's projects involve robots. "As our processes are becoming more complex, we often face questions at the beginning of the planning phase about whether a robot will work under a given set of circumstances," explains Symax's Robert Lehner, managing director. "We needed a simple tool that we could use to virtually evaluate our production concepts over the entire lifecycle of the new product, including production ramp up." The company found its solution in the Tecnomatix Process Simulate software from Siemens PLM Software, which makes it possible to simulate production processes in a dynamic 3D environment.
The PLM software's user interface corresponds to MS Windows, incorporating familiar icons, tabs and established navigation practices. Data transfer to office solutions can be done seamlessly. At Symax, the software is connected to an Oracle database that manages all component data.
To set up a simulation, robot motion is programmed using complete kinematic sequences imported from related databases. Product data (in the form of 3D models) and floor plans are also imported. The robot tracks and assembly lines are virtually generated. The simulation allows engineers to determine whether the allotted space is sufficient for the prospective solution. They can also see, in real time, whether the production process can run safely according to the specified motion paths and workstation times, and can also determine whether there are any collisions. Typically the engineers run a variety of scenarios -- such as replacing three big robots with four smaller ones -- to easily evaluate alternative solutions.
Using PLM, Symax can understand, as early as the planning phase, the behavior of assembly processes, manual and tool operations, equipment and robots. They can also synchronize areas with more than one robot. This understanding allows them to optimize the equipment and have the assurance that complex processes will work perfectly even before the initial operation. With potential manufacturing problems recognized at an early stage, this information can be transmitted to product development, significantly reducing the cost of changes and improvements.
Presenting Options to Customers
Symax has found PLM software to be an important tool for communicating with potential clients. A scenario can be exported as a video in AVI format and shown in a presentation to prospective clients at their facilities. The video can be shown in real time or step-by-step in slow motion to show every procedure. A 360-degree rotation gives an overview of the whole facility while zoom tools allow observations from different points of view, such as from a wide angle to a detailed view.
An animated demonstration conveys the basic concepts of a production process in just a few minutes, without the need for extensive technical drawings. In a short video sequence of three or four minutes, for example, engineers at Symax can show the fully automated installation of rubber gaskets onto car bodies, or the handling of front axles during installation on a moving assembly line.
"By digitally showing that our solution works, we have a good possibility of winning the sale," says Christian Ruhland, project manager at Symax. "Typically we present complex robot solutions that neither our clients nor our competitors have considered."
To data, Symax engineers have used the software for new projects, many of which will soon be up and running. The company is also collaborating with a German university on student research projects.
Innovation in Action
Another Symax project where PLM has played an important role is in the development of a robot-assisted assembly process. This differs from the traditional arrangement where the robot operates within an enclosed cell. Here it acts in cooperation with a human worker. Although the regulations regarding this type of robot have just been defined in Germany, Symax already has the first order for this type of solution.
A simulation shows the detailed manufacturing process: A robot automatically fetches a roof module from the conveyor belt and takes it to the activity area of the worker who does the final installation step. The worker can control the movement of the robot using a joystick. To ensure the worker's safety, an absolutely reliable depiction of the direction and velocity of the robot movement was necessary.
Using PLM, Symax can show the robot movement at a slower speed within the hazard zone than outside of it. Moreover, the simulation of the manual steps shows the worker's field of view and posture and allows for analysis of ergonomic factors.
Symax looks at PLM as a competitive tool to help it gain momentum in the market. The technology, Lehner notes, is becoming indispensable in their daily routine. "It provides us with critical information about feasibility and safety during the planning phase. And at the same time, simulations are helpful in convincing our clients to place multi-million dollar orders."