Made-to-order footwear, clothing, and jewelry. Patient-specific replacement joints and medication tailored to their age and weight. Bespoke bicycles, and office chairs that fit like the proverbial glove. These are just a few examples of the customized or personalized products that consumers have come to demand in recent years. How are manufacturers able to fulfill these expectations? In addition, how can they keep the final price from being driven upward by the immense complexity and supply chain disruption that product customization should cause?
I used the word “should” just now because product customization is nowhere near as difficult or costly as it once was. Thanks to the digital technologies that are powering Industry 4.0, manufacturing has become more flexible and adaptable than ever before, making small batches of “mass customization” just a normal day on the factory floor.
Twinning is Winning
When it comes to manufacturing, virtual twins are one of the most important tech innovations to hit the manufacturing sector. As its name implies, a virtual twin is a digital replica of a physical object or real-world system. They can be as straightforward as a dimensionally accurate static 3D model of a manufactured component or assembly, but they can offer the most value as a dynamic representation of complex systems or processes that responds to new data in real time.
This comprehensive digital copy of a process, product, or service, contains everything — or at least everything relevant to its owner — about the twin’s real-life counterpart. This includes geometric and dimensional values, but there’s also design, engineering, and procurement information, manufacturing or process-related data, performance statistics, product behavior in the field, and much more. These digital records are (or can be) constantly updated throughout the physical object’s lifecycle, giving the manufacturer unprecedented potential for design optimization, preventive maintenance, and continuous improvement, not to mention unfettered views into product usage and customer satisfaction.
As suggested, a virtual twin might be nothing more than a digital copy of a machined or 3D-printed part, but it can also be used to replicate a tractor or machine tool, a factory floor, or even an entire city. However, you define it and no matter which parts of it interest you, the virtual twin brings immense value to everyone in the supply chain, starting with the product designer and ending with the consumer.
The virtual twin can provide a solution for customization demands in two ways — the product itself, and how the product is manufactured. The virtual twin of the product allows designers to rapidly create new iterations and experiment with different configurations, all without building expensive prototypes. A virtual twin of a manufacturing shop floor can then allow the team to retool and reorder the assembly line to bring these new product iterations to life, all in a virtual setting to reduce downtime to a minimum. Since today’s manufacturing environment is defined by increased product complexity and demands for customization, the widespread adoption of virtual twins couldn’t have come at a better time.
Anything but Black
How does the virtual twin application for products and process look when applied to an industry? Henry Ford reportedly told customers they could have any color Model T they wanted, as long as it was black. He said this because every additional color meant modifying the assembly process, reducing efficiency and raising costs. Automakers have long since adapted to market demand and we now have all the colors of the rainbow, not to mention any number of engines, drivetrains, interior trim levels, and much more from which to choose. Choice is a good thing, but each variant further complicates an already complex environment. Designs must be evaluated, production lines modified, supply chains made a bit lengthier.
According to a recent Newsweek story, automakers are busy adding fuel to this fire. Fiat Chrysler (FCA) customers can now ask for snorkels, lift kits, and other customizations on their Jeep Wrangler. Ford Bronco buyers can “make it their own” with all manner of aftermarket accessories, while Volkswagen GTI enthusiasts are free to trick out their ride with engine, suspension, and exhaust upgrades. All this at a time when supply chains are stressed to the breaking point and labor shortages are rampant. How will automakers do it?
And yet, there’s much more to automaking (or any manufacturing endeavor, for that matter) than parts and processes. Industries of all kinds face increased regulatory pressure from government agencies, and products must remain safe and secure even as their variations skyrocket. As with the factory floors that deliver them, these products must also be sustainable, made from eco-friendly materials and using socially responsible manufacturing and logistics processes.
Then there’s accelerated innovation. The push to get products to market more quickly means design cycles are much shorter than they once were. And thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT) — Industry 4.0’s connected counterpart — consumers have come to expect that goods and services of all kinds are online, all the time, a trend that will grow with each passing year. Again, how will manufacturers cope?
Enabling Customization at Scale
The virtual twin is an excellent place to start. Consider a typical product launch. Historically, designers will put their best foot forward, transforming their ideas into CAD models that are then machined or 3D printed into physical prototypes. These are evaluated for fit, form, and function, and the process repeated until the design is correct or the budget exhausted. With a virtual twin, however, multiple design iterations are no big deal. Digital models can be put through their paces over and over again until the optimal design configuration has been achieved, all in a virtual world, quickly, cost-effectively, and without fear of failure.
These benefits apply to parts and assemblies as much as they do the machine tools and production lines that make them. Because the virtual twin contains everything there is to know about the product, including procurement information and manufacturing processes, engineers can lay out virtual factories and simulate material flow. They can measure efficiency, identify safety concerns, and look for improvement opportunities, iterating at will until the manufacturing and logistics processes are as optimized as the product design.
Once the digital model becomes physical, IoT-based sensors can be used to gather real-time production and quality statistics and feed them back to the virtual twin, helping management head off potential problems before they can rear their ugly heads. Such capabilities extend to the field as well, where smart, internet-connected products gather usage information and send it to the OEM for incorporation into the virtual twin, thus closing the design loop. The result is greater efficiency and flexibility throughout every stage of the product lifecycle.
Of course, there’s much more to this digital manufacturing story than described here. For instance, virtual twins enhance inter-departmental collaboration, even where teams are separated by multiple time zones. They help increase knowledge retention, a significant benefit given today’s tumultuous labor market. Virtual twins provide greater supply chain visibility, assist with manufacturing planning and execution processes, and increase the asset utilization levels of capital equipment.
The shift to mass customization has a lot to offer consumers and manufacturers, but also a new array of technical challenges. With a virtual twin-enabled platform, manufacturers can flexibly optimize products' customization through better-informed decisions without relying on physical prototypes.
Simply put, it’s an excellent time for a twin.
This article is written by Eric Green, VP of marketing, DELMIA, Dassault Systèmes. For more information, visit here .