They say experience is the best teacher, and the manufacturing sector has learned some hard lessons over the past two years. Unprecedented and unrelenting market turbulence has shown that the old ways of supply chain planning and manufacturing production are outdated and vulnerable to disruption. Manufacturers now have evidence of what happens to a “just-in-time” globe-spanning supply chain that operates without contingency planning.
At a time when manufacturers are expected to produce increasingly customized products with shorter production deadlines, some companies are still using planning solutions that require manual entry in spreadsheets. Now we’re seeing clear separations between businesses that have embraced the data-driven optimizations of the new manufacturing renaissance, and businesses that still struggle with legacy processes and systems.
Data-driven solutions are reshaping how the manufacturing sector operates, and the businesses that incorporate analytics and connectivity are building the capabilities needed to compete and thrive. It seems there is no shortage of ways to acquire business data these days, but the real benefits come from putting that data to work for you, and separating insights from the distractions.
One of the most powerful digital technology concepts in manufacturing is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which connects the machines and processes in a factory so they can “talk” to each other and share real-time data across the organization — from the product development team to the manufacturing operations center. The most beneficial outcome of a comprehensive IIoT strategy is to turn that raw data into actionable information, in the form of a dynamic visual model we call a virtual twin.
Most companies understand the concepts and benefits of a digital twin, which is a static visual 3D mockup of a real-world object. But by combining real-world data with the digital models and operational simulations of an organization, business can create a virtual twin. This convergence of digital data and the real world offers more value than simply a digital twin, by capturing complex systems in the context in which they exist, and not just a digital representation of an object.
From product development, to supply chain and shopfloor, across companies of all sizes, harnessing operational and physical connectivity data into the visual form of virtual twins is enabling growth and resiliency in the face of unprecedented economic headwinds.
Optimizing Manufacturing Operations and Product Development
Manufacturing has always been a business where continuous improvements to operational efficiency determines success or failure. Shaving milliseconds from a process, or milligrams from a product design, can produce enormous downstream business results. And the industry-wide embrace of digital transformation has added powerful new tools for businesses to leverage in the pursuit of efficiency. By creating virtual twins of products in development, and virtual twins of the manufacturing processes that will eventually produce these products, businesses can begin meeting the growing demands for customized products and overcoming the supply chain shortages that can grind businesses to a halt.
Starting in the product development cycle, virtual twins of products enable shortened time to market by connecting design and manufacturing disciplines as catalysts for collaboration. By acting as a “single source of truth,” with all product information and related metadata accessible in an always-on, always-updated source, the virtual twin is a resource for all stakeholders across the organization — from design to supply chain to field operations. Product engineers can leverage this scientifically accurate product model to simulate how it will interact with the real world (e.g., optimized sensor placement location to reduce interference in a handheld device) before producing expensive prototypes.
As designers make these iterative changes to the product model, those updates are immediately available and can be cascaded across the organization without cumbersome email exchanges. Also, the manufacturing processes that will eventually produce this product can be developed concurrently while the product goes through design and engineering, significantly reducing the time to market.
Moving into the production phase, virtual twins of manufacturing processes enable visibility on an unprecedented scale, and the benefits of accurate real-world data collected in real-time from across a manufacturing operation can be immense. Indeed, entire production lines can be optimized through virtual testing to eliminate bottlenecks and improve efficiency. In a virtual twin environment, these production changes are swift and trouble-free, and downtime is minimized. Equipment with sensors feeds real-time data back to the twin model to confirm outcomes and establish a new baseline for the next series of experiments and improvements. Even workers themselves can be equipped with sensors and represented in the virtual twin to view movements within the facility for improved safety and productivity.
One company to realize the benefits of digitally simulating its shop floor is the Canadian industrial automation company CenterLine (Windsor) Limited, which produces automated welding and assembly lines, and needed a way to address design errors and reduce worker accidents prior to installing these highly complex manufacturing systems.
CenterLine began virtually simulating its products, processes, and factory operations before installing their complex robotic work cells, optimizing their placement for product flow, worker ergonomics and overall plant efficiency. This proactive virtual layout resulted in a 90 percent reduction in tooling-related problems, a 75 percent drop-in programming time, and shortened their overall time to market by nearly 20 percent.
A virtual twin of the manufacturing floor also enables businesses to digitally reconfigure operations if the need for a quick pivot emerges (e.g., shifting from makeup application brushes to nasal swabs) and the right layout can be simulated and finalized before making any physical moves.
A Holistic View of the Virtual Supply Chain
The biggest challenges for the industrial sector continue to revolve around the supply chain, and the downstream effects caused by delays and uncertainty. To meet modern demands, the manufacturing sector can no longer allow a divide in the production innovation process between manufacturers and their suppliers, as it creates a visibility gap that leaves companies far too slow to respond to supply chain disruptions.
A dynamic virtual twin can extend visibility beyond the walls of the manufacturer to capture the real-time location and status of all physical assets from third-party suppliers around the world. Starting from the warehouse or even from raw material producers, manufacturing managers will have a view of inventory on-hand, in-transit or unexpectedly delayed, enabling timely adjustments that produce a more resilient supply chain.
With a virtual twin, manufacturers can also train for disruptions of any size by simulating “what if” changes — from supply chain disruption to workforce availability — and determine how this affects the manufacturing process. Operators can simulate the crisis conditions of a sudden drop-off in supply, create contingency plans for an agile response, and examine the steps required to return to “normal” while also addressing pent-up demand. Or businesses can simply look at any number of day-to-day interactions with their supplier network, and test more efficient plans that result in zero delays to work orders based on dynamic changes to multiple conditions.
When data from product design environments is paired with real-world data from the manufacturing facility and supply chain, that organization will have achieved an end-to-end fully digital model of the entire product lifecycle. That level of visibility is the Holy Grail for any business that succeeds or fails based on optimizing the smallest details.
By visualizing the data aggregated from the production line, manufacturing equipment, people, and processes in a dynamic virtual twin, product design is accelerated and collaborative, production processes are optimized, shop floors are streamlined, and sprawling supply chains can be monitored and stress-tested on a comprehensive dashboard. This moment of recovery from a sector-wide crisis is the best time to invest in the digital manufacturing technologies to future-proof your business.
This article was written by Adrian Wood, DELMIA Strategic Business Development and Marketing Director, Dassault Systèmes’ (Waltham, MA). For more information, visit here .