Digitisation of Manufacturing
Published on : Monday 12-07-2021
The future of manufacturing will be widely varied from conventional processes, says Sreeja Gadhiraju.
Sometimes, wishes come true and how!
‘Can I just sit at home and get paid? No, I am not lazy, I just do not want to travel for hours.’
-The thought of an employee who must travel more than an hour to the workplace.
‘I hope my baby is doing ok at home, is the babysitter taking good care of my kid?’
-The thought of a working woman who is also a mother of a 3-year-old.
‘How I wish I could just sit on my couch and do my work; I get back pain from sitting all day.’
-The thought of a software engineer.
All these thoughts were nothing more than wishes once, but the current pandemic situation made most of these possible. Work from home became the new mantra for the corporate employees and the regular work routines changed vastly. But is it possible with manufacturing? How can we run a production plant remotely? Did the production technology adopt the digital methods? Let us analyse.
First, let us see what is a ‘Digital Transformation’? Digital transformation is the adoption of digital technology to transform services or businesses, through replacing non-digital or manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer digital technology. If we apply the definition of Digital Transformation to Manufacturing, then the first term which we can think of is Additive Manufacturing (AM). A technology which is as young as 40 years old, can be considered as the first step of digitisation of manufacturing. The CAD model has replaced the technical drawings and design software has made the solid modelling possible. According to the Global Digital Transformation Survey Report 2019 by Fujitsu, 32 per cent of manufacturing companies have already brought about digital transformation, with 40 per cent starting to implement digital transformation initiatives.
Why does Additive Manufacturing play a key role in digital transformation?
In traditional manufacturing, you create and move fixtures and tooling through a set of discrete processes. This means smaller batch sizes and production runs. Between each run, tools must be changed, and the next batch needs to be set up. These transitions hamper productivity, increase costs and slow product development and launch cycles. Embarking on a digital journey can change that.
The workflow of additive manufacturing is relatively very simple compared to traditional manufacturing. In short, additive manufacturing have:
1. Pre-processing – The Design phase
2. Printing – Production phase, and
3. Post-processing – Finishing the parts phase.
Unlike traditional manufacturing, we can modify the parts and print them without changing the entire production unit like tools and fixtures. New products often require many design iterations and prototypes before they are ready for market. Additive manufacturing significantly compresses this design cycle. In the time it takes to make one iteration using traditional practices, 19 iterations can be completed with 3D printing. That is a significant speed gain over traditional manufacturing methods.
The design phase of additive manufacturing is in CAD files and completely on computers. Unlike the drawings, they can be shared across the globe and thus increases the usability to a great extent. If a manufacturing company owns multiple production units and different locations, the designs can be shared as attachments via emails or even all the units can also incorporate a cloud system where all the digital files are stored and can be accessed. The development of the product becomes easier and more efficient as the engineer from one location can access the design of the engineer from a different location and modify the same. All these designs can also be stored forever without having to worry about losing them in time. Creating the designs of the parts which are needed quite often in the industries as spare parts, makes it possible to print them whenever they are needed. Altogether with additive manufacturing, the process of manufacturing a part is controlled by software, making it a highly digitised process.
One of the advantages of additive manufacturing in the digital era is that production happens in real time, in an optimised environment. It eliminates the need for excess inventory saving on logistics and warehousing costs, with the software system taking care of production planning and sequencing, with adequate material in stock. With the vendors and customers also part of the same digital environment, it is easier to coordinate and factor in last minute changes. Another advantage is flexibility where a printer effortlessly changes to different products without the need for any changes in the production line unlike traditional manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing in smart factories
What is a smart factory? The Smart Factory is a concept for expressing the end goal of digitisation in manufacturing. The way the term is most used, a Smart Factory is a highly digitised shop floor that continuously collects and shares data through connected machines, devices, and production systems.
With AM, or 3D printing, the process of manufacturing a part is controlled by software, making it a highly digitised process. A successful smart factory is a combination of software and hardware. Thus additive manufacturing with the combination of IoT can definitely create a streamlined process for an end-to-end digital production cycle.
In the near future, the 3D printing process will be cheaper and faster. Mass production will be the most discussed by researchers and practitioners. However, many manufacturers still believe that in order to shift their products to the AM processes, the most disruptive effects will be restructuring the future of additive manufacturing to look bright. 3D printing will grow through increasing the applications in existing markets, finding new opportunities in non-industrial markets such as food, fashion products, eyewear, and textiles. Famous footwear companies have already integrated AM in their production line and enable individual customisation of the shoes for the customers.
Additive manufacturing has bought so many innovations in multiple fields such as aerospace, medical and automotive industries. The medical industry has achieved some wonders like the ‘Bionic Ear’. Additive manufacturing is also considered to be a part of the fourth industrial revolution. The ability for mass customisation of products, less time to market and freedom for designers, are some of the features which makes 3D printing so special and a part of Industry 4.0. Another reason for the manufacturers to adapt 3D printing is its sustainability. Looking at 3D printing as a whole which includes Pre-processing, Production, Post-processing and Distribution, we can conclude that 3D printing can be named as a sustainable process according to the 3R approach for sustainability: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The material waste is reduced, the material which is left during the production can be reused and most of the plastics which are being produced through additive manufacturing can be recycled similar to the plastic waste in conventional manufacturing.
The future of manufacturing seems very exciting and widely varied from conventional manufacturing processes. Maybe a regular day for a production engineer will just look like a day for a software engineer soon. The artificial intelligence will do the production planning, the robots take care of the maintenance and additive manufacturing stands together with the conventional manufacturing in the same plant. Does this sound like a smart factory and digitisation of manufacturing? If yes, then definitely we are on our way to it?
Sreeja Gadhiraju is a young engineer pursuing Masters in Mechatronics in Germany. A former team lead in Amazon, for Sreeja the craving to know and study latest technologies is an addiction. Presently studying Robotics, Modelling and Simulation, Cyber Physical Systems, etc., she has fallen in love with additive manufacturing. “There is so much to know, there are so many things which can be done using this amazing technology. I want to finish my masters and proceed further towards PhD in Additive Manufacturing,” says Sreeja.