‘Digital thread’ to improve product performance

Lifecycle data, more effectively analyzed and applied, can help solve many persistent manufacturing problems

By Jim Montague

bill king dmdii

“If we can design knowing more about what manufacturers know, then we can make different decisions and achieve greater value.” Bill King of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute is bullish on the potential for closer digital ties among design, development, manufacturing and end-user communities to improve all aspects of a product’s lifecycle.

Manufacturing generates more data than any other sector of the economy—nearly two petabytes annually—but only a little bit of it is used. “So there are huge opportunities to create value by using that information," began Bill King, CTO of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) at University of Illinois Labs (UILabs), in his keynote address to attendees of the Smart Industry 2015 conference in Chicago.

"This data is produced at every stage of the manufacturing lifecycle, including design, assembly, operations, shipping, maintenance and end of life. It's a powerful idea that these digital threads can connect, and that any part of the lifecycle can reach the other stages to do useful things. If we can design knowing more about what manufacturers know—and get data from users to flow back to the fabricators—then we can make different decisions in digital manufacturing, and achieve greater value, but it's still hard to get those stages to work together." 

DMDII is a federally-funded research and development organization of UI Labs along with about 100 member firms that encourages U.S. factories to deploy digital manufacturing and design technologies, so they can become more efficient and cost-competitive. DMDII is one of four regional, manufacturing innovation institutes launched in 2014 by the Obama Administration. There are six manufacturing institutes running, and plans for 45 in all. UILabs is a Chicago-based research and commercialization collaborative, bringing universities and industries together to define problems, design partnerships and deliver scalable solutions.

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Fortunately, many of the forces impacting digital manufacturing are the same that have been driving overall manufacturing for the past 100 years, according to King. "It's always been hard to get designers and builders to work together more closely, and that slows a lot of innovation," explained King. "There are also many barriers to sharing data across disciplines, such as security issues, and differing standards, designs, skills and incentives, as well as a lack of trust. Today, we also have growing skills gaps, and rising labor and material costs."

King added that more effectively analyzed and applied data can help solve many traditional manufacturing problems. "Digital data processing is transforming industry and business in many similar ways," said King. "It's not only changing how products are designed and built, but also the experience of customers with them. New models for products and services are coming up, and some succeed or fail just as old solutions succeeded or failed. This is still the early days of digital manufacturing, and so many small-run projects can start small, such as those on Etsy, and then scale up much faster later."

Reaching new fields

Beyond data gathering and analysis, King reported that digital information is accompanying and aiding other newly emerging technologies in manufacturing. "Caterpillar and many other manufacturers are enabling users to connect to their machines in the field," said King. "However, many advances in new digital technologies are gaining the same advantages, such as 3D printers, more collaborative robots and other cooperative factory tools. Then, more connected products and equipment in the field are sending data back, so what we need are new business models about what we can do with this information, as well as new infrastructure tools for carrying tem out."

Despite these potential gains, King added that many manufacturing leaders remain frustrated in their efforts to achieve these goals because so many of them are still running old PCs with old software, such as no-longer-supported Windows XP. "Many PCs are still connected to dot matrix printers, which print paperwork orders that go in bins along with associated parts," said King. "These scenarios represent huge opportunities for pulling together, and implementing more advanced systems. Likewise, there's so much software that's closed and can't network with other software, but today's users want to know why they can't pull up the software they need, and use it immediately?"   

Closer ties

To streamline software, digital manufacturing and innovation, King reported that DMDII first conducted research to determine what manufacturers needed and what its roadmap should be. "Most of the manufacturing leaders we surveyed wanted to know more about advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial IoT (IIoT)," said King. "They were less excited about the cloud and cloud-based computing and services because they knew less about them, but they're learning that all these tools can help the shorten the distances between design, development and production."

King added that leaders convinced of digital manufacturing's value believe it can:

  • Increase manufacturing revenues;
  • Bring products to market faster;
  • Enable them to develop greater varieties of products; and
  • Allow them to secure new types of revenues, such as services and subscriptions.

"All that manufacturers previously knew is still there," added King. "Digital tools—including social media networks—just make more opportunities available, and unlock new value for large and small manufacturers.

The DMDII is pursuing a range of digital manufacturing initiatives, including:

  • Advanced manufacturing for enterprise IT;
  • Intelligent machines and sensors;
  • Advanced analytics for closer to real-time operations and decision-making;
  • Shop-floor data analytics to help reduce labor and rework;
  • More intelligent plug-and-play systems; and,
  • New product design processes aimed at reducing development costs.

In addition, DMDII is developing an open-source software tool, the Digital Manufacturing Commons (DMC), which will be an open-architecture communication platform designed to enable plug-and-play functionality across entire manufacturing enterprises. All data generated in manufacturing, including product and process data, is intended to be stored and analyzed using the DMC. The platform will enable increased efficiency during the product development process, and will support distributed teams working on common system engineering projects. It will also support an online user community that can share data and models, and build software tools that can sit on top of the DMC core.

"DMC will allows local teams to collaborate in the same digital workspace and better streamline their workflow," added King. "It will also serve as a digital services marketplace, and give engineers answers in real time."

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