Virtualize Manufacturing? – A Binary Choice
The key to transforming manufacturing is to take operations off the floor. Design and assembly must expand its ambit and produce two products – a virtual model that contains pure information about the product and its actual physical counterpart. Digitalization has enabled us to do exactly that. Digital manufacturing empowers operators with the agility to scale production volume and deliver multiple product variants early in the process – factors essential to maximize program revenue and ultimately, profits. At its inception, the manufacturing process can be virtually conceptualized at a prototype center and subsequently transferred to volume production centers, increasing business flexibility and cost control within the global marketplace. Furthermore, digital manufacturing makes room for operators to freely exchange design knowledge and technical learnings. In turn, it allows effective identification of production bottlenecks which permits factories to meet peak demands with optimally adjusted output. In collaboration with a leading software multinational, a French porcelain manufacturer is overhauling its manufacturing ethos by taking the entire design and development process to the Cloud. The platform aims to do away with cost-intensive physical prototyping practices, enabling the manufacturer to create and validate virtual models that can serve as reference points for developing molds. The company is also planning to digitize its existing catalog – preserving 150 years of design contributions. Virtual product prototyping techniques have been characterized by the same 3D wireframe technique that George Lucas used to create the Death Star in the original 1977 Star Wars series. Engineering has further leveraged the process, layering virtual models with scanned samples to identify suitable materials for manufacturing the product. However, as sustainability has become a critical performance indicator, the process of testing and selecting materials needs to be simplified. Virtual prototyping must therefore support conservation goals – saving valuable resources and promoting sustainability.
Reinventing the Drawing Board – Digital Replicas and Rapid Prototyping
Following the prototyping stage, manufacturing begins to struggle with the need to replicate the ‘first one’ as closely as possible in terms of design and functionality. Currently, this warrants expensive physical quality audits whose accuracy may be debatable. Addressing this particular challenge will require a data-driven approach from an engineering perspective. The manufacturing process itself will need to capture product data as it is being built, concurrently crafting a virtual model that mirrors the physical product. This sets the stage for implementing a product specification management system (PSM) that can ensure quality as part of the overarching product lifecycle management process. Physical inspection hardware like scanners, co-ordinate measuring machines, and gauges can be integrated with sensors. Data capture, while the product is making its round on the assembly line, needs to be relayed to the middleware layer. At this point, automated mechanical design software refines and structures the data, creating a perfect ‘as built’ replica. This is then stored in the manufacturing execution system for reference and homologation.
Mobilizing Maintenance – Parts on Demand
In terms of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations, a network-centric manufacturing environment can utilize computer assisted design (CAD) data to almost organically grow production parts. These can be used to implement rapid engineering changes in the field or at the maintenance depot. 3D printing technology is already being used by leading aerospace OEMs to streamline product design and build operations – enabling them to deliver world-class support and eliminate the need for warehouse tools and spare parts. The idea is to work towards building a manufacturing ecosystem that is capable of creating components and tools on demand in space, on land, or at sea. At present, laser-forming technologies and digital design data is being used to transmute powder materials into complex avionic structures, such as F/A-18E/F ducts. In a process called selective laser sintering, titanium, among other materials, are used to ‘print’ parts small and large. The case for virtualizing manufacturing grows stronger. When an enterprise uses physical prototypes to carry out design iterations, certain material classes, like metal, cannot be digitally fabricated or machined at a favorable cost. If the final production material varies from the prototyping material, the material properties of the end product cannot be accurately predicted, even when a company implements rapid prototyping or 3D printing. When it comes to structural design, tea cups, aero planes and automobiles involve the same set of challenges. Material selection, durability, design feasibility will need to be aligned with how the product interacts with real-world forces, heat and vibration. In this context, virtual manufacturing has been able to take finite element analysis (FEA) to the next level. Welding simulation which factor in thermal and residual stress will help optimizing tooling design and the actual welding process. R&D efforts are under way to develop FEA software to simulate and develop predictions for automatic process optimization. Once integrated with the control system, it should be able to re-calibrate tools on the factory floor to accept design, tooling, fabrication or material changes without any human intervention.
Through the Looking Glass – Digital Twins
Manufacturing’s future however, lies beyond using virtual product information to improve output quality. We are close to practically replicating the entire factory floor using amalgamated data from the entire production ecosystem – in effect, creating a digital ‘twin’. A major technology conglomerate is already exploring the concept, creating working simulations of wind farms to forecast equipment failure and increase daily power output by 20%. In this regard, virtual commissioning allows operators to comprehensively verify the sustainability of a manufacturing system by creating a virtual plant and linking it to a real controller. This requires the plant simulation model to be fully described down to the level of sensors and actuators. By connecting the model to a real controller, engineers can detect potential errors of control programs long before the actual commissioning stage. A simulated factory floor can monitor various parameters to expose gaps in the production process, highlight cost inefficiencies, and reduce carbon footprint. The same concept can be scaled down, and applied to a product in isolation, to understand how it would perform in the real world without even taking it off the drawing board.