Digital Manufacturing -- Bridging Imagination and Manufacturing

June 25, 2008
Many manufacturers are turning to Digital Manufacturing as a companion to CAD, PDM as a way to accelerate and strengthen their lean initiatives.

The amount of information required to describe the production of a product vastly exceeds the information represented within the product design itself. Digital Manufacturing provides the tools to properly document and communicate these manufacturing complexities.

One of the most famous moments on the venerable, still-on-in-reruns television classic "I Love Lucy" features Lucy and her sidekick, Ethel, taking work on the assembly line at a chocolate factory. The ladies are tasked with simply wrapping each piece of chocolate as it comes down the line. When the shift begins, with their boss' threat to fire them "if one single piece of candy gets past you into the room," our two heroines are able to easily keep up with their duties. Then the assembly line speeds up and the volume of chocolates increases ridiculously. To keep up with the volume, both resort to hiding excess chocolates in their hats, in their uniforms, or, famously, in their mouths. When their boss acknowledges their "splendid job" and commands the shift supervisor to "speed it up!" we have comedy gold.

In real life, though, assembly-process design flaws aren't funny. Consider the following auto assembly-line scenario: a particular bolt connection was found to be hard to reach and consequently, it was difficult for the assembly worker to tighten the bolt. As the assembly line continues to move along relentlessly at an unchanging speed, the worker was having a hard time keeping up with the pace, making the uncomfortable position more painful after a while. The result of this could be the entire production line coming to a screeching halt -- an outcome no company could afford. In some situations, it might not even be possible to meet delivery times.

The solution: software that simulates the entire production process. Enter Digital Manufacturing, an important category within the fast-growing Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) market.

Digital Manufacturing: Simulate, Then Change

The emergence of PLM has been well-recorded: many studies point to PLM as the fastest-growing enterprise applications market segment. PLM is the strategic, enterprise-wide approach that integrates people, processes, and information to manage a product's lifetime, from concept to end of life. Historically, within PLM, the primary focus has been on product design.

Within PLM, Digital Manufacturing and Manufacturing Lifecycle Management (MLM) -- defined as the strategic approach to planning, designing, and implementing optimal manufacturing processes -- has emerged. Digital Manufacturing defines and facilitates a holistic view of product and process design as integral components of the overall product lifecycle, and enables product design to be sensitive to process constraints and capabilities. More and more manufacturers are turning to Digital Manufacturing as a companion to CAD, PDM and other PLM-related applications, and as a way to accelerate and strengthen their lean initiatives.

Digital Manufacturing tools connect the product that exists in a designer's imagination and the processes necessary to make that product a reality-everything involved in the actual manufacture of the product: the production line, labor, equipment, material flow, tooling, processes, and work instructions needed to manufacture that product.

The amount of collaboration necessary between the players that encompass these processes is staggering: the information required to describe the production of a product vastly exceeds the information represented within the product design itself. Consider the ramifications, then, of a very simple design change on a car -- the information representing something as benign as, say, a change in the shape of a turn-signal stalk can have a significant multiplier effect by the time it comes to manufacturing.

Many leading manufacturers are using a digital environment to produce virtual products in order to perfect manufacturing processes before making physical plant investments. These digital factories can solve obvious problems-is my plant large enough to host an assembly line to manufacture an airplane-to less obvious ones, such as the example involving ergonomics and bolts. By simulating production in a "Digital Factory," companies can evaluate multiple plant and process designs even before investing in a prototype. The result is a faster, more efficient, more error-free manufacturing process, and a higher level of information-sharing throughout the supply chain.

Consider the benefits of Digital Manufacturing:

  • Innovation Without Risk -- Engineers can evaluate several different scenarios without committing to the expense of physical equipment or mock-ups. Simulations do not result in costly retrofits or redesigns, making this an ideal environment for innovation and the incorporation of best practices.
  • Optimal Design -- Digital Manufacturing tools let manufacturers identify process-disruptive design errors so that they can be corrected in advance. Validating manufacturability and developing production processes earlier in the product design process, or "concurrent engineering," allows a company to leverage combined knowledge and produce a better product more profitably.
  • Up-Front Planning, Shorter Lead Times -- Digital Manufacturing provides early insight into the space, time, investment, product cost, and throughput so critical to analyzing the business case for a product. As a product design matures, detail from the design can be incorporated into the manufacturing processes. To ensure shorter lead time, engineers can alternate methodologies and approaches to select those that are best for producing the product.
  • Optimized Production Lines -- By applying Digital Manufacturing, manufacturing and process engineers can identify bottlenecks and spot inefficiencies in production lines to develop corrective action. And, Digital Manufacturing helps manufacturers simulate and analyze new production lines for optimum efficiency.
  • Streamlined Assembly -- The interplay between the parts being assembled, fixtures, tooling, robots, and operators is by nature a 3D situation. Simulation can play a large role in streamlining the work, by allowing the process engineer to "see" the process in action to identify potential problems.
  • Increased Collaboration -- Good communication between design engineers and operators is essential, even more so now that components are often manufactured remotely. 2D drawings and sketches are not enough to communicate effectively. 3D simulations show the full process in context, including parts, equipment, and operators.
  • Optimal Ergonomics -- When developing assembly processes, the interaction of the operator with the parts, work aids and other manufacturing resources, is also important. Digital Manufacturing allows companies to virtually evaluate ergonomic factors. In complex simulations, Digital Manufacturing utilizes life-like digital "manikins" to simulate the human operator to review movements, reachability, load factors viewpoints, and other impacts.

In solving the automotive ergonomic challenge mentioned earlier, workstations on an assembly line can be optimized through the use of human 3D CAD manikins. The software analyzes the assembly line and workstation areas for pre-defined criteria. Body postures and movements can be analyzed-even objects such as hardhats that move along with the manikin. Ergonomic experts can first simulate work environments to check suitability before implementing them in real life.

(The alternative, of course, would be to first change the work environment and then check whether the results actually reflect desired improvements. Beyond the risks to product quality and order fulfillment, there are obvious human risks at hand -- employees developing physical problems that lead to increased medical costs and time missed from work.)

The potential for manufacturing better quality products in a faster, more-cost effective manner through optimized work procedures provides a significant return-on-investment made in Digital Manufacturing technology.

Could Digital Manufacturing have saved Lucy and Ethel's jobs at the chocolate factory? Perhaps... although in watching the black-and-white footage, it appears to be pretty obvious that adding a third worker and slowing the conveyor belt would have made the process more manageable. Then again, it wouldn't be nearly as funny.

Bob Axtman is the Executive Director of World Wide Marketing for Dassault Systmes Delmia Corp.

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