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Masterful Use of Data Is Manufacturing’s Future: Who's Ready?

July 19, 2023
Overlapping data from multiple sources can help manufacturers more dependably track fluctuations in cost, energy, shipping, processes, labor and more.

Recently I met with a German manufacturer who told me his company is facing $20 million in unbudgeted costs next year. The world is less certain than it used to be, and while unpredictable conditions demand dynamic responses, many manufacturers overlook a valuable tool to help them quickly make informed decisions: accessible data.

Open, accessible data—on-demand, centrally secured in the cloud, easily connectable and extensible—can help solve manufacturers’ biggest challenges. The more data in a system, the better it performs. And when artificial intelligence pulls from anonymized, aggregated data shared by multiple sources, it can make an entire ecosystem more effective.

Think of how driving in an unfamiliar city has changed thanks to navigation apps, which rely on anonymized data processed by AI. Traffic apps help everyone use known, existing infrastructure more effectively and avoid compounding bottlenecks. They do so, however, without disclosing private information like why someone is moving from one place to another, what they’re driving, or what they’re carrying. But each driver using the system is kept up-to-date on changes as they occur in real time – a potentially huge time-saver.

Similarly, a new generation of cloud-powered software allows manufacturers to create and store their design, simulation and manufacturing knowledge in a single place. Overlaying datasets from multiple sources can help more dependably track fluctuations in the costs of materials, energy, shipping, manufacturing methods, labor and more. These forecasts can guide decision-making about choosing renewable materials, for instance, or different suppliers—and whether a product can be manufactured more simply, or closer to where it’ll ultimately be used.

Cruising to Better Collaboration

An environmental technology company that’s seeing great value from its integration of accessible data is Vow ASA. The company works in both the maritime industry and verticals such as metallurgy to replace fossil-derived components with biological alternatives. Passionate about reducing pollution, Scanship, a subsidiary of Vow, designs and manufactures systems that purify wastewater, converting it into resources that increase sustainability in the cruise ship industry.  

Sustainability, a complex problem in any industry, is particularly complex in the cruise ship industry because of its multi-faceted supply chain. Scanship is one of several subsidiaries working together in the Vow ASA portfolio and sharing commodities, which compounded the challenge they faced: Recurring mistakes were all too common without a single source of truth providing accurate, up-to-date product design information, project data and critical documentation like bills of material (“BOMs”) in one place, accessible to the people who need it, when they need it. This challenge is not unique to Scanship; companies across industry face the very same problem.       

By collecting, centralizing, and analyzing data from its many systems and business processes, ranging from designs in CAD to ERP, CRM, risk assessment and quality management tools, Scanship reduced engineering time on project variants from 2-3 days to 1-2 hours, and saw a similar acceleration in new product time-to-market. A company-wide shift in culture also took place as people recognized their suggestions for improvements were captured in data that’s attached to the project, thus managed and resulting in product improvements.   

Data-powered improvements contributed to Vow group’s recently announced 72% increase in revenue this year, doubling of profits, and 65% market share for all new cruise ship builds. Developing a truly holistic view of its business processes and supply chain by consolidating disparate data in the cloud, then analyzing that connected data collaboratively across teams and subsidiaries, has been key to Scanship’s success. 

Enabling Distributed Workforces and Next-Generation Factories

Just as accessible cloud data helps commuters avoid traffic jams, it also helps create an efficient and effective manufacturing environment for a distributed workforce collaborating with colleagues and managing dynamic factories.  

These micro-factories reduce or eliminate the need for a complicated product distribution network, but their success relies on strong interdisciplinary collaboration and communication between designer and machinist, for example, as workflows emerge and converge. Cloud platforms enable that. Everyone collaborating on a single project in the cloud means machinists know they’re always working with the latest design, confident that any changes they make to increase manufacturability will get back “upstream” to the design engineer, who can then easily apply that feedback to improve the manufacturability of their other designs.

A World Where the Best Ideas Win

Our planet has finite supply of materials, energy, and skilled workers. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in supply chains, leading enterprise manufacturers to realign, reimagine and harden them against shocks. Supply chains are now more resilient, but also more complicated because they stretch across workstreams, languages, time zones and quality standards.

Accessible data in the cloud has the potential to help businesses wrangle all of this complexity, in the quest for highly resilient, digital, distributed supply chains that deliver competitive advantage.

In the past, the manufacturer with the best factory won. If it’s not happening already, soon manufacturers with the best ideas will win. And those ideas will be unlocked by modern tools that deliver timely, relevant, usable information, leading to better decision-making and business outcomes.

Andrew Anagnost is president and chief executive officer of Autodesk.

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