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Up Front - The Digital Manufacturing Divide

By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief

The opportunity to modernize the US manufacturing sector—and enhance its global competitiveness—is phenomenal. Consider: Even though an estimated 98% of all products will be manufactured digitally by 2020, many small and medium manufacturers, who represent the vast majority of the US manufacturing sector, have not yet adopted digital manufacturing tools. These facts are according to the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a non-profit organization that says digital manufacturing is one of the key innovations that will drive North American competitiveness in the 21st Century.Sarah A. Webster

While the digital manufacturing landscape in the US is divided, however, it's not a simple case of the haves and have-nots. There’s also a group of manufacturers who’ve adopted digital manufacturing tools but have yet to optimize their use—or fully extract their value.

Before we get to that, though, just what is digtal manufacturing? With President Barack Obama announcing his latest manufacturing hubs, including one in Chicago dedicated to digital manufacturing, the question needs to be answered.

Siemens, a leader in digital manufacturing, defines it this way: The use of an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, 3D visualization, analytics and various collaboration tools to create product and manufacturing process definitions simultaneously. In fact, "many of the long-term benefits from product lifecycle management (PLM) cannot be achieved without a comprehensive digital manufacturing strategy," according to Siemens.

Many large original equipment manufacturers, such as Boeing, are already adept at exploiting the advantages of digital manufacturing. So, too, are some dedicated small and medium manufacturers. But many others have not been quite as lucky, even if they’ve purchased the high-tech systems that may give the appearance of a digital manufacturing strategy. Our software specialist, Senior Editor Patrick Waurzyniak, explores the issue in his feature article this month, "Connecting the Digital World with the Factory Floor."

Because of a variety of factors—from the complexity of digital manufacturing tools or, say, a lack of company-wide commitment to them or even a shortage of skilled workers—many manufacturers that have invested in these tools question whether they’ve gotten what they expected out of them. This may be slowing down their adoption, and, in turn, holding US industry back from being as fully competitive as it can be. That’s why investing in digital manufacturing education and R&D is a good investment in the future. ME

This article was first published in the April 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 4/1/2014

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