Simulation, AI, and their roles in manufacturing's future

April 10, 2024
Simulation leverages artificial intelligence to analyze data to predict what will be most effective moving forward, and AI also takes factory-floor data and helps your operation decide what you should simulate.

Many small and medium-size manufacturers (SMMs) are discovering the benefits of simulations, providing a low-cost, secure, and fast analysis tool for product design and verification. Simulation is being touted as a technological breakthrough that will revolutionize manufacturing performance.

This technology not only offers more potential for improving but also perfecting processes, speeding up design-to-manufacturing cycle time, and reducing product realization costs.

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Simulation leverages AI to analyze data to predict what will be most effective moving forward. AI takes data from your operation and helps you decide what to simulate or tells you what you should simulate. AI can gather data from the simulations and help refine what to do next, such as which inputs to change or to change multiple inputs. AI allows simulations to update in real time.

Some of the benefits of implementing simulation include identifying bottlenecks in the manufacturing process and then offering opportunities to increase throughput. It allows optimization of direct and indirect labor, which could mean lower costs to manufacturers. Simulation also can validate expected performance of new and existing production facilities.

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Smaller organizations need time to scale up simulation due to the amount of effort and level of expertise required to build and validate a simulation model. Larger manufacturers, such as those in the automotive industry, can more easily onboard and utilize simulation due to their financial resources, in-house expertise and ability to scale.

It’s already offering manufacturers of all sizes increased performance as well as the ability to rapidly introduce new products and technology as well as increase quality, all while reducing costs. This will allow them to continue to grow and stay competitive in the industry.

The benefits of simulation

Simulation can drive how a product is produced and help provide customers and the internal operations team with a virtual view of the facility floor and how everything is set up. Simulation reveals what resources will be needed and how the process will flow.

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If a need to course correct emerges, it's easy to run a new simulated version that better suits an organization’s needs. Simulation also can improve collaboration with all stakeholders in the supply chain, cutting costs and minimizing disruptions that come with trial and error when setting up a factory line.

Some of the reasons why simulation should be a part of your operations:

  • Improved system performance through training and decision support
  • Allows for in-depth “what-if” analyses
  • Manage and discover interdependent variables and dynamics
  • Greater understanding of a system

When it comes to analyzing aspects of an operation, simulation can help with inventory, routing, batch sizes, cycle times and control systems. It can also help to quickly identify system constraints as well as help incorporate new productions, fluctuations in demand, and production schedule changes. It can optimize your system performance, resource utilization, operator assignment and rules and policies when it comes to production, as well as rule and policy implementation.

Challenges to consider

Some potential barriers prevent SMMs from implementing simulation in their organizations. Timeliness is one of the largest barriers because the process of model development can be labor intensive and, for smaller organizations with limited resources, this poses a problem. It’s important to factor in some extra time for simulation during the planning process, saving both headaches and money along the way.

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Cost can be another potential barrier because simulation packages can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for a single license. They also require investment in high-end computer software. When planning for simulation, do a return-on-investment analysis to help decide whether the investments are going to be worthwhile for your organization.

Beyond the setup of the simulation project, it is important to plan for training in order to help make simulation a part of your company culture and get buy-in from everyone involved.

Problem-solving and troubleshooting will also need to be part of the process. Not only do you need to learn the methodologies and software required to set up the simulation process, but the model must be built, and results interpreted. Leadership must be able to troubleshoot problems both in the model and on the factory floor. These skills will take some time to hone.

A window into manufacturing processes

Simulation and AI are important tools in the advancement of manufacturing because they force organizations to pay attention to details and “see into the window” of their operations. This helps you learn more about your organization than you would be able to see without simulation by allowing you to see how one process impacts another. This is information you wouldn’t be able to get from a bunch of data on a spreadsheet.

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There are upfront costs involved, but the benefits are well worth the investment. Incorporating simulation into manufacturing operations will require education and buy-in from the entire team. If you are thinking about getting started with simulation, start with a small project and then you can graduate to those that are more complex. The long-term potential that simulation provides is capable of transforming manufacturing operations of all sizes.

About the Author

Travis Hill

Travis Hill is a senior engineering project manager at Mississippi State University’s CAVS Extension, the Mississippi MMA-MEP service provider.  His expertise includes simulation modeling and analysis and decision-support technologies.