Digital Factory Within Reach

14 Jun, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Modular options mean even SMBs can take advantage of production and manufacturing visualization tools

In last week's edition of MCAD Tech News, I discussed the benefits of using digital analysis in the manufacturing process. This week, I'll compare manufacturing simulation and manufacturing visualization and discuss their benefits and how they are being used.

3D visualization, virtual reality and collaborative PLM-related tools are beginning to provide benefits for manufacturing processes. Like their counterparts on the product design side, production visualization tools are accelerating build cycles, reducing production costs, increasing plant efficiencies and adding to the overall bottom line. These process-oriented tools are used to simulate everything from factory floor layouts to machining processes to human-machine interaction, and new applications are constantly being explored and brought to the factory floor.

Up to now, digital manufacturing simulation tools have been largely relegated to industries and enterprises that could afford them -- primarily OEMs in the automotive and aerospace industries. This situation is changing, albeit slowly, to include more SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses). Digital manufacturing visualization, also known as digital manufacturing, is a subset of a comprehensive PLM system, primarily related to what is known as MPM (manufacturing process management).

MPM consists of digital tools and methods used for manufacturing products and -- pardon the number of upcoming acronyms -- incorporates technologies such as: CAPE (computer-aided production engineering), CAPP (production planning) and CAQA (quality assurance), as well as CAD and AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) tools for factory layout and DMU (digital mockup) and simulation for assembly analysis. As the digital manufacturing part of PLM, it connects product design to production planning and on to resources, materials inventory and task scheduling. In other words, CAD defines what’s going to be made, MPM defines how it will be made and finally, to complete the chain, ERP/MRP defines when it will be made.

Integrate Tools

One of the most important aspects of MPM is the central repository for MDM (manufacturing data management), analogous to PDM for product design data management. MPM takes the product data eBOM (engineering bill of materials) to create the process-oriented mBOM (manufacturing bill of materials) along with a BOP (bill of processes). All this, along with resource management that is concerned with things such as tools, machines, work centers, robots and human operators (ergonomics) constitutes what’s known as product/process/plant resources 3PR data. It gets complicated fairly quickly, doesn’t it?

The purpose of integrating all these tools and activities is to explore alternative, what-if production-line scenarios. Ideally, these different scenarios make assembly lines more efficient, reducing lead time to product launch, shorter product cycles and reduced WIP (work in progress) inventories, as well as providing rapid response to product or production changes.

MPM Programs

Probably the two best-known vendors of modular suite MPM software are Tecnomatix (now a part of UGS) and DELMIA (part of Dassault Systemes). Gauging the size of this market can be difficult, but I’d put it somewhere around $450 million to $600 million for products and services. This figure should top the billion-dollar level sometime in the next few years as more companies realize the benefits of digital manufacturing and prices come down.

As has been the case since the beginning, the biggest obstacle to greater adoption of  manufacturing simulation by SMBs has been cost. This process is expensive due to the vast amounts of data that enters the manufacturing pipeline and the level of complexity that must be handled with absolute integrity and certainty. Just how expensive is the entry point for implementing a digital manufacturing system? Startup costs for digital manufacturing implementations typically range from $100,000 to $250,000 and go up from there, but most organizations start conservatively with pilot programs for testing the waters and determining return on investment.

Unlike enterprise OEMs, many SMBs may not need all the modules offered by a digital manufacturing software vendor, so the initial price point can be lower, based on specific needs. For example, an SMB might only need digital manufacturing tools for assembly, and not necessarily machining or inspection. Later, however, because of changing needs and the fact that the data is transferable to additional modules in the future, digital manufacturing system scalability and assimilation are important considerations.

Increase Efficiency = Save Money

So, when properly implemented, just what are the benefits of digital manufacturing? The most common benefits are reduced overall production costs resulting from reduced time to market, reduced number of design changes and reduced manufacturing process planning. The two things that should increase are product throughput and quality.

In the end, digital manufacturing and MPM are all about leveraging data and ensuring that product data matches up with process data. Although this is not an easy task, it can maximize and optimize just about all aspects of real-world production. Expect to see MPM play an increasingly important role as manufacturing perpetually continues its path of greater and greater competition.

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