Digital Strategy

What is Digital Manufacturing?

April 20, 2021

Digital manufacturing is the future of the factory floor.

Production lines and factory floors have been completely changed in recent years due to digital transformation. Manufacturing technology has advanced to increase automation and simplify the production process – from supply chain to design to delivery. Digital tools can improve each step of the manufacturing value chain.

This level of innovation has a particular effect on an organization’s manufacturing process. Smart technology sends out real-time data for more informed decision-making. The internet of things offers connectivity and visibility for previously disparate machinery. Advanced computer systems enable engineers to easily make complex design changes. The entire product lifecycle improves when companies embrace digital manufacturing. 

This guide will give you everything you need to know so you can start thinking of ways digital manufacturing can help your organization. 

What is Digital Manufacturing?

Digital manufacturing happens when organizations apply computer systems to their manufacturing operations. This integrated approach enables manufacturers to connect all their systems and processes with a digital thread running through each one, creating a simple and efficient way to take an idea and turn it into a product.

To simplify the concept, we can use this basic formula as an illustration:

Normal Manufacturing Operations + Computer software that simplifies production, records datasets, and connects separate systems = Digital Manufacturing.

The manufacturing industry as a whole has begun to embrace this level of innovation. As organizations look for ways to adapt to the rapidly changing world of technology, digital manufacturing provides them with an easy way to embrace the future.

Advantages of Digital Manufacturing

As with most technological innovations, digital manufacturing brings a variety of advantages to the manufacturing industry while also reducing other challenges organizations would otherwise encounter. 

Increased Efficiency. Digital manufacturing tools have the ability to perform the same task in the same exact way over and over again. Because of the advancements in machine learning, these tools can respond to and collect big data points, and leaders can use this information to perform data analytics to program the machinery for only the most efficient and effective processes. This not only creates a better manufacturing process; it eliminates the errors that normally occur in a less advanced process.

Cost savings. The initial investment can seem steep, but ultimately, digital manufacturing can greatly reduce overall spending by reducing errors and creating faster turnaround times in production. Many of the machines in a digital factory also provide updates on repairs and predictive maintenance needs, which can help technicians stay up to date on necessary checks. 

Real-time Visibility Across Manufacturing Systems. The shop floor is full of separate pieces of equipment with different functions. It can be easy to lose sight of how each one fits together. Having a centralized computer system monitoring, tracking, and collecting data from every piece increases visibility across the entire manufacturing system, making it easier to keep tabs on the whole process.

Prototyping and Testing. Digital tools like Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software can help manufacturers more easily create digital prototypes and make design changes that replicate the physical product. This enables designers to quickly test a product, design, or process without the large financial and time investment required when done physically.  

Inventory and Supply Chain Management. The data collected from these digital manufacturing tools can help organizational leaders better predict inventory needs and manage their existing stock. Numbers from previous years or recent patterns are easily accessible in the computer software and will provide insight for key decision-makers.

Examples of Digital Manufacturing Technology

There are a variety of digital manufacturing tools on the market that help streamline and simplify production processes. Here are some of the most common ways organizations are using digital manufacturing in their factories.

Additive Manufacturing. This advanced manufacturing technique, also called 3D Printing, is the process of fabricating a 3D object by adding a single layer at a time with the help of CAD software. 

Laser Cutting. Laser cutting is pretty much the opposite of additive manufacturing. Instead of adding in layer after layer, this method utilizes lasers to remove material. Because of this, it is considered a subtractive fabrication technique as opposed to an additive. It is usually used for engraving or cutting.  

Computer Numerical Control (CNC). One of the most sophisticated examples of digital manufacturing technology out there, a CNC method allows for complete automation after engineers create the initial design and fine-tune the programming in the software language “G-Code.” Once those elements are set, the computer will produce the same product every time with more accuracy and precision than manual processes. 

Digital Twins in Digital Manufacturing

One of the fastest-growing examples of digital manufacturing is digital twins. 

Digital twins are perfect digital replication of physical objects that engineers can analyze and alter without causing any damage to a physical object. This enables organizations to improve designs, troubleshoot repairs, and prepare to respond to potential maintenance needs without ever spending the resources necessary to create another physical object.

The method has made a big splash in the oil and gas industry with Chevron predicting that they will save millions of dollars a year by 2024 just because of the predictive maintenance capabilities offered by digital twins.

Digital Manufacturing Use Cases

Use cases of digital manufacturing exist across industry lines, but some of the most common adapters have come in industrialization, aerospace and defense, healthcare, and fashion and retail. 

Industrialization. Siemens, a global leader in automation and digital manufacturing, has long led the industry in innovation. In 2010, the company started incorporating high levels of digitization in their factory based in Amberg, Germany. At that time, 25% of their work was automated. By 2020, that number had soared to 75%, and the plant saw their productivity increase by 1,400%.  

They did this by doing a full overhaul of their factory’s entire ecosystem. They replaced standard factory machines that did individual jobs with smart robotics that could perform multiple. Machine learning and algorithms helped make it so the technology could work with little manual supervision. 

Aerospace and defense. Digital manufacturing has helped simplify the complex supply chain found in the aerospace and defense industry. Multiple little pieces make up the large end-products needed. Take for instance a turbine engine. That one item requires an array of smaller manufactured pieces. Sometimes those pieces get built in-house; other times they’re outsourced. Either way, digital tools can help make the process easier. 

Cloud computing helps bring connectivity to disparate parts of the supply network, helping various teams communicate and collaborate with one another. The increased visibility and data sharing also reduces the number of people needed to coordinate changes and makes the process much less confusing overall. 

Healthcare. The healthcare industry has seen a large uptick in innovation over the last few years. Medical devices, wearable technology, the use of robotics in surgery – these are just a few of the major advancements that have occurred recently, but as these new technologies come into the fray, the industry has looked for new, efficient ways to manufacture these products. Digitization, additive manufacturing especially, has been paramount for these products to get to the market quickly. 

In 2017, California-based medical device company, NuVasive, used additive manufacturing to manufacture a minimally invasive spinal implant. According to the website, the 3D printed, titanium implant is “designed through a proprietary optimization algorithm that balances strength and radiolucency.” Using additive manufacturing allowed the company to go from design to market in just a little over a year. 

Fashion and Retail. The apparel retailer ZARA has led the way in utilizing digital manufacturing to streamline packaging and delivery services. This has allowed the company, and others like it, to get products to their stores more quickly than ever before. 

A big part of this change comes from attaching radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to all of their products. A few store employees can quickly and easily manage inventory by scanning the RFID tag. The count gets recorded in a management platform and the process is complete after just a few hours. The simplified process has both reduced ZARA’s spending on excessive labor and limited the mistakes that naturally come with more manual processes.

The Future of Digital Manufacturing

Digitization has transformed the manufacturing industry, and it shows no sign of stopping. Some experts even say we’re in the fourth industrial revolution – “Industry 4.0.” The odds of this being a trend that fades away are about as realistic as thinking we’d got back to days before the printing press. 

There is good news for organizations looking to adapt, though. Early adopters and trailblazers have paved the way to success. They have worked out many of the kinks that come with such a drastic change in an industry. Today, digital tools have become more affordable; integration has become simpler, and resources have become more abundant. 

Digital manufacturing is quickly becoming the norm. The future factory has arrived, and manufacturers can embrace the more efficient, simplified processes it has brought with it. 

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Kathryn Kosmides


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