Virtually Flawless?

Virtually Flawless?

Using real-time simulations, manufacturers are working out kinks in their processes and plant layouts - before bending metal and without building costly prototypes.

Warning lights flash as cars careen into walls and crumple, accordion-style. Crash-test robots twist and turn to avoid collision, while lifelike, three-dimensional characters do their part to reassemble the pieces. This is no extreme video game. Rather, it's the latest chapter in an information revolution that is transforming the manufacturing industry. Computer simulation and collaboration technologies, known collectively as digital manufacturing, are being used by car companies and aerospace giants to test-drive product concepts and experiment with manufacturing techniques in lieu of building costly and time-consuming physical prototypes.

The idea behind digital manufacturing is to leverage IT to collaboratively develop the manufacturing plan and manufacturing equipment simultaneously with the product. Why is this important? Because design flaws, manufacturing kinks and inefficient processes can be hammered out and corrected early on when changes create little disruption of critical time-to-market schedules. The potential cost savings are huge. While the concept isn't entirely new (early iterations were known as concurrent engineering or design for assembly), it's only now starting to take root. CIMdata, a consulting and research firm specializing in product lifecycle management issues, estimates that investments in digital manufacturing technologies will grow at a clip of more than 25 percent annually for the next three years.

And CIOs, rather than engineers, have turned out to be the linchpins of the digital manufacturing push. "The CIO is responsible for all information technology, and [digital manufacturing] is part of information technology. The way to look at it is as a partnership between IT, engineering and manufacturing," says Amal Girgis, CIO of Pratt & Whitney Canada. DaimlerChrysler senior vice president and CIO Susan Unger, who has been a driving force behind the company's digital manufacturing initiative, known as Digital Factory, says: "If you don't have IT fairly active [with digital manufacturing], there ends up being stand-alone types of activity and you lose the power of this virtual team."

CIOs have several roles to play in digital manufacturing. They need to be futurists who identify the competitive possibilities. They must act as key sponsors and change agents to facilitate all the new business processes and organizational transformations. And plenty of traditional IT responsibilities are associated with digital manufacturing. Orchestrating a product information structure within the organization, creating a data integration strategy to sync up with other core business systems, and identifying the areas where digital manufacturing can deliver the most compelling results can only be accomplished through CIO direction, in partnership with executives in engineering and manufacturing. "You have to re-engineer an organization to deal with digital information and create a culture of sharing across functional areas. The CIO is the enabler," says Michael Grieves, director of industry research for the MIS Department at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management.

Virtual Manufacturing, Real Savings

Not too long ago, it took Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) five years to bring a new aircraft engine to market; today, thanks to its Digital Engine initiative launched in 2002 and other internal improvement initiatives, new engines take three years to develop. P&WC is looking to digital manufacturing and other technologies to reduce time to market even further, to two and a half years. Using simulation to ferret out production flaws and assess maintenance costs has had huge ramifications - new engines designed in the new virtual world have saved the company $US500,000 for each engine program by eliminating physical mock-ups, says CIO Girgis. Moreover, 70 percent of so-called interferences - conflicts between production parts - are now resolved at the early design stage.

The simulations also help verify whether the engine can be maintained cost-effectively. Instead of building expensive wood or plastic mock-ups of an engine to determine if maintenance workers could, say, easily access parts, P&WC engineers use simulated mannequins to test ergonomics and estimate maintenance time more accurately. "Cutting metal to produce a product is very slow and very expensive," says Girgis. "Seeing a simulation helps us understand what to expect."

Automotive companies Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, and aerospace company Boeing, among others, have recently begun applying digital manufacturing tools and processes in earnest. The early results are promising. According to a 2003 CIMdata survey of companies doing digital manufacturing, companies achieved one or more of these results: They reduced time to market by 30 percent, pared the number of design changes by 65 percent, cut the manufacturing planning process by 40 percent and saw increases of 15 percent in production throughput on average.

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