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By Bob Beckmann, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager & Energy Expert

To provide some insight into Digital Manufacturing, let’s first establish a baseline of understanding through the analogy of your home thermostat. If you live in an older home, the thermostat may be a round dial which you rotate and set the little red pointer to the temperature you want. If you are a little more advanced, you may have a programmable unit that has the capacity to turn the thermostat to different settings based on the time of day or maybe even the day of the week. Now, the thermostat of the future is truly digital and smart. 

It connects to the internet. It knows the weather forecast, the temperature and humidity outside and inside your home. It tracks your position with your phone and knows when you are coming home or when you leave. The thermostat learns what temperature you like it to be when you sleep in the summer or winter, or how you like it when you are making dinner. It can send you a message when any part of the system is not working and even when you need to change the filter. It can self-diagnose a problem and send out for software updates when needed. Maybe even shut down the system if it detects smoke to give you time to leave if a fire breaks out. That system complexity is now available because of the low cost of data storage, the ease of communications with Bluetooth and internet, and the proliferation of smart phones.

Now-- imagine that level of communication within your plant.

A customer goes onto your website and selects a product you sell. The customer personalizes the product according to their wishes and hits the quote button and your software automatically generates a number, along with a delivery date. When the customer presses the purchase button, your plant goes to work. The raw material is ordered or sent to the line, work-orders are created, and the process is begun.

But wait, what if it is a new product? Engineering is notified, and they create models of the parts using CAD software, send the models to be manufactured, then send a bill of materials to purchasing. The models are used to create the tooling (if needed) and then to create the parts. No drawings need to be created, and since all of the files are digital, there is no possibility of the wrong set of prints being used since there is only one set of prints.

Eventually the parts make it to the assembly station. The parts are transported in assembly fixtures created using 3D printers based on the CAD models. The folks on the assembly line have never seen this version of your product before but the assembly instruction screen over their work station shows an exploded version of the assembly. The engineer puts notes on the screen to explain anything that isn’t clear.

Once the assembly is completed, the part heads to inspection where data is collected and automatically recorded (no writing dimensions on sheets of paper). Then the completed part goes off to shipping where the mailing label is already printed, the item is boxed and sent to the client with a notification email with tracking number sent as the box is loaded on the truck. Everything that has been done to the part is recorded and stored with the order number or serial number.

(Caption: Controller for robots that were developed in house at ABB, based in St. Louis)

And the fantastic thing about digital communication is that it is NOT limited to brand new equipment. Secondary devices can be attached to older equipment and used for a multitude of services. For example – you have an expensive product in your machining station and half way through the process, the tool bit breaks and the part is ruined. If you had a fairly inexpensive setup with vibration monitors and software, you could predict the life expectancy of the cutting tools and a computer could text you to do preventative maintenance and change the tool when it is a few hours from failing.

All of these features are available today. In fact, many larger firms like those in the aerospace or automotive industries are pushing this down their supplier network. These systems give everyone the flexibility to change designs, speed to get the product into the process quicker, and accuracy in manufacturing and traceability through every step of the process.

So, by now you are seeing nothing but dollar signs and an impossible hill to climb. That doesn’t have to be the case because you can get into this world in baby steps if you are hesitant. Companies can start by building on existing software like AutoCAD and incorporating packages they offer. You can talk to the companies that support your machining centers and see which add-ons they have for your models. The same can be done with your air compressors or your environmental control package. A 3D printer can be purchased for a few hundred dollars and suddenly you can make assembly fixtures in an hour.

You may not use all of these steps, but any that you incorporate into your process will help to reduce your costs and time to market and increase your accuracy of production. And know you are not alone. Missouri Enterprise can help you find your path to adding the proper digital components at the pace you feel comfortable with. Just give us a call.

For a limited time, we are also offering NO COST Smart Manufacturing Assessments. Learn more.