The ongoing trend in the automotive industry has been to produce more vehicle styles, so that consumers can select the niche vehicle that fits their lifestyle. Exciting as this may seem to the design engineer, it can be a bit more demanding on the manufacturing side. Each product record created multiplies into approximately 1000 manufacturing records. Add to each product multiple shapes of the part with multiple levels of detail. Now mix this with tooling design, facility and layout design, robotic programming-- and make sure you account for the numerous design changes occurring throughout the process.
The importance of managing all of this data is obvious. The means of doing so lies in 3-D digital design and manufacturing, which allows the storage, sharing, and reuse of data across the enterprise. Typically, engineers create a product in their CAD environment, and then develop a physical prototype. Manufacturing is supposed to then apply its own set of tools to that prototype to figure out if the product can be manufactured, and at what cost. This process involves massive data searching and information re-creation by manufacturing. Then begins the design iterations: a tweaking of the prototype, a retest of the manufacturability, another design tweak, and so on.
By using a common 3-D digital platform, data created in design can be stored in a data hub accessible to all those involved in the process, eliminating information search time by as much as 80%. Manufacturing can work straight from data stored in the hub concurrently with the design engineers. Manufacturability issues are discovered during design, so that product and process planners get feedback much earlier, reducing the time required for problem resolution. Since everyone involved in the project is working from the same set of original data, the potential for error decreases; product and process quality improve.
We all understand that engineering changes are going to happen--they are a necessary evil in product development. It's the control and synchronization of these changes that is critical. Everyone involved in the project should be working with the most current and correct set of data. With a digital shared database, changes are automatically propagated in the shared environment. There is no longer any question of whether you are working with the latest set of data--all changes, whether made by design or manufacturing, are saved to the common data hub and shared with all involved in the project, again eliminating the potential for error.
Using 3-D digital manufacturing technologies, organizations can also dramatically reduce the number of design changes. Through simulation, designers can see how a product is to be produced and assembled prior to actual physical production. They can explore design alternatives and assess impacts on production effectiveness. Doing so permits designers to detect potential problem areas earlier in the processes. Using existing geometry accessed from the common data hub, 3-D validation of processes and assemblies has been shown to reduce interference or "clash" errors by 80%. Because the cost of design changes increases dramatically as a product moves further into production, these early virtual changes can result in significant cost avoidance. Further, more design iterations can be made in a shorter time.
Simulation verifies that all the pieces will fit together as planned--it helps eliminate the risk of incorrect tolerances, fastening holes that don't line up, or missed weld points. When it comes time for model change, you don't have to recreate the wheel. Best practices are stored, allowing a reuse of proven data and automated tasks. Using these verified processes assures the most appropriate methodology is being employed. Best practice procedures provide consistency and improved production quality, and can significantly reduce process planning time. Best practice procedure also reduces engineering changes since you're starting with already-proven processes.
With the competitiveness of the global market, we don't have time to be inefficient in any way. We must produce a high-quality product at a competitive price and in a shortened time to market. And to do this we need to leverage our knowledge base, which stems from the original 3-D CAD product data, shared and updated seamlessly throughout the manufacturing process to control changes, to control cost, and to improve both product and process quality. A failure to invest in technology now will only serve to slow your ability to compete effectively in the future.
This article was first published in the September 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.