For signs of the manufacturing renaissance that is supposed to be taking shape in the U.S., we tend to spend our time pouring over industry and economic reports or else scouring manufacturing facilities for stories of innovation, improvement or advancements.
To some, however, the surest sign of real change, of real progress, can't be found in any of these places or anywhere else on Earth for that matter. To them, the best evidence of the renaissance is currently blasting away at rocks on the rim of a massive Martian crater -- the Curiosity Rover.
Such was the frame of an executive panel at last month's 2013 ARC Forum, where Siemens Industry, North America, CEO, Helmuth Ludwig joined retired Director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, Doug McCuistion, and executives from GE Intelligent Platforms, Rockwell Automation, Yokagawa Electric and ExxonMobil to discuss the technologies and innovations critical to "Achieving Breakthrough Performance."
7-Minutes of Terror
By now we are all familiar with Curiosity's landing -- the so-called seven-minutes of terror that dropped the mini-cooper sized lab on Mars last August from a speed of 70,000 miles per hour and temperatures over 3,000 degrees, slowed through the complicated arrangement of a supersonic parachute, propulsion thrusters and a unique sky crane deployment technique never attempted anywhere, on Earth or Mars.
However, now almost six months after the landing, descriptions of the challenges it faced, the intricate, impossible engineering puzzle surviving those seven minutes required, is still awe-inspiring enough to pull a hearty ovation from a crowd of seasoned manufacturing executives, as it did at ARC.
The reason for that, Siemens' Ludwig said, is because, "many though that the mission was impossible... there were too many variables, too much that could go wrong. It was too complicated the whole way round."
But of course it did work. And, by touching down a mere 250 meters from the target, it worked far better than anyone had expected.
That success -- that flawless, blind landing on a hostile alien world some 350 million miles away -- has been largely credited to one tool in the digital engineer's kit that is transforming our capabilities both in space and here on Earth: simulation.
Of Simulation and the Renaissance
For the landing, Ludwig noted, "NASA turned to a technique which a lot of companies turn to when physical prototypes are too impractical -- when they are too expensive or too time consuming. When the only option you have, the best one is to simulate, to design virtually."
Specifically, NASA turned to Siemens' PLM software, NX, to develop the mechanical portions of the rover and to digitally design, test, assemble and simulate the mission before they had even made the first physical prototype.
In other words, Ludwig said, they turned to the same technology that is commercially available to manufacturers today -- that is, in fact, readily available.
To Ludwig, this translates the Curiosity mission into something far beyond an engineering or scientific success, beyond even a victory for Siemens.
To him, it becomes a sign of the power and potential of manufacturing in this new, digital age of industry.
"When you look back at the last two decades, when you think of manufacturing, you really talked about reducing costs by outsourcing, by looking at the lowest cost labor," he said. "But looking forward, we believe that creating a manufacturing renaissance is all about using the most sophisticated software."
Furthermore, he noted, "We believe that manufacturing renaissance is actually a software revolution."
GE: High Tech Tools for a High Tech Industry
Jody Markopoulos, president and CEO of GE Intelligent Platforms, echoed this point at the event.
"The internet revolution has provided a new world of technology that can be brought to the manufacturing setting," she said.
The trick -- which presents a challenge that shouldn't be underestimated -- is to harness that technology and unload the "boatload of capabilities" it presents to drive manufacturing to its "next evolution," she explained.
"If you bring that together and unleash it in a plant -- in a power plant, in an offshore rig, in a hospital -- what that can do for our customers who are hard at work harnessing that technology themselves, is simply amazing," she said.
Doing so, Ludwig added, repositions manufacturers to the leading edge of today's digital movement. It provides "a new window of opportunity for leaders of industry in the United States," he said. "Companies that embrace these transformative technologies are in a better position to thrive in a climate of uncertainty and volatility -- or what we're calling 'the new normal.'"
Out of that new normal, he said, out of that inured sense of insecurity the industry has developed, there comes this hope of a brighter, more stable tomorrow -- that employing new technology and innovation, "U.S. manufacturers are driving a new manufacturing renaissance."
A Fresh Look at the 7-Minutes of Terror
For more information about the connection between NASA, Curiosity and manufacturing, see IndustryWeek's collected coverage here.