Digital Manufacturing: Entering the Age of Efficiency
Digital manufacturing technology is providing business owners with the opportunity to create innovative products, free from the usual time and cost restraints associated with decades old traditional manufacturing processes. At every stage of the manufacturing process, from concept to end user delivery, digital manufacturing technology is changing the face of innovation. As these technologies gain traction in the none too distant future, manufacturing processes will start to evolve even more quickly.
Most consumers don’t even consider the time, expense and work involved in bringing a new product to retail store shelves. According to Julie Bennett of Forbes, while estimates of the time and cost involved in progressing from prototype to production vary significantly from one product to another, most products undergo numerous revisions and setbacks before they are finally ready for their public debut. Overcoming these challenges means that delayed lead times and additional costs are an inevitable feature of the journey to market.
Digital manufacturing has the potential to change this, with possible applications being apparent from as early as the conception stage of the manufacturing process. For instance, Ford Motor Company has used virtual reality (VR) environments to successfully evaluate car components prior to production. Employees interact with the “car” via Oculus Rift headsets, while others watch the footage on a screen. These observations are used by Ford to fine tune product details ranging from engineering to aesthetic design.
Ford isn’t the only pioneer to implement VR systems in its manufacturing processes. According to CIO magazine, existing applications range from architecture to consumer electronics.
This ability to test, evaluate, and visualise a product before it ever reaches the factory stage is hugely advantageous for manufacturers. If businesses and professionals use VR to visualise a product or system before they build it, they don’t have to spend months and millions of pounds in additional costs re-modelling prototypes that don’t support their hypotheses.
Using VR alongside 3D printing has the potential to further reduce the time and cost of the overall manufacturing process.
Utilising 3D printing enables companies to test multiple models of a product at the same time instead of sequentially. The reduced cost of prototyping associated with this technology makes it easier for businesses to acquire demonstrators of their products and to compare different prototypes in real time. This means that businesses can develop multiple products at the same time, which vastly increases their profit potential.
The conception, prototyping, and testing phase of any product’s life cycle often consumes significant time and resource, however VR can help hasten a product’s progress towards the end user, which means more profitability for the business.
Other forms of digital manufacturing can not only speed up the process, but also reduce the potential for manufacturing and production errors and thereby the risk of unforeseen delay during the production stage. For instance, using computers to conceptualise and test products before they are released reduces the level of resource which must be devoted to a particular process and reduces the risk of errors, as highlighted by Alex Smith of CPI in this article on the numerous applications and benefits of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modelling and simulation.
VR and other digital processing tools provide product developers with freedom to let their creativity run free and try out advanced or unusual components and products which would ordinarily be too risky. This could be particularly beneficial when it comes to creating highly technical or complex products. For instance, companies and individuals might not want to invest the money required to fully prototype a product if the materials and labour prove cost prohibitive. VR technology (both existing and future) can create a relatively safe and inexpensive way to unleash innovative ideas.
Another benefit of 3D printing and other relatively new manufacturing tools and machinery is their ability to help developers create products in layers rather than all at once. This establishes a manufacturing landscape in which products can feature almost limitless complexity; a welcome development in the face of seemingly endless consumer demand for ever more sophisticated products.
Additionally, 3D printing offers the opportunity to work in minute detail, allowing manufacturers to fine tune their products down to the smallest of details. Such technology results in higher quality processes and products that satisfy consumers, helping businesses to build better brand loyalty.
Software Systems Create Automated Solutions for Manufacturing
In addition to prototyping technology like 3D printing and the conceptual benefits of VR, software systems have likewise created numerous solutions for digital manufacturing. Product lifecycle management (PLM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software systems work together to create a cohesive, seamless manufacturing process that reduces time, costs and errors from start to finish.
According to Arena Solutions, ERP and PLM software works best when companies use them in conjunction. PLM helps businesses manage the product lifecycle by documenting every step of the process and producing hard data. Meanwhile, ERP software controls the business, financial, and materials aspects of the manufacturing process. When these two systems communicate, companies have the ability to analyse data and spot opportunities to fine tune their process so that it is less cumbersome and more efficient.
Digital manufacturing is not a futuristic possibility, it is reality. However, as with all advancements in technology, businesses can be slow to adopt it because of perceived risk. Some of these technologies have existed for a decade or more, but are only now beginning to make headline news.
VR, for instance, has entered a golden age of development. More companies are adopting this technology, and more businesses are developing VR headsets and related peripherals both for the consumer market and for commercial applications. Over the next few years, more manufacturers will use VR and related technology to streamline production and to improve design and engineering.
According to Larry Schuette and Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, the 3D printing industry grows “at a clip of up to 35 percent annually.” This rate is expected to increase quickly as more manufacturers discover the benefits of digital manufacturing and related processes.
Expect to see expansive growth over the next 10 years as these technologies, and their applications continue to develop at a prodigious pace.
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