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‘The democratization of manufacturing’

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

Machinery, software and services all have starring roles

In an interview with Manufacturing Engineering Editor in Chief Alan RooksDIEGO TAMBURINI, senior design and manufacturing industry strategist for Autodesk, details key strategies for remaining competitive and spells out the IIoT opportunity for manufacturers.

Diego, please describe some of the main forces that are shaping the future of the fabrication industry.

We’re noticing three main groups that are particularly interesting around the demand, the means of our design and fabrication, and the products themselves.

Demand is always changing, but customers now expect to be empowered. Customers want products that are uniquely tailored to them, to their tastes and even their body shapes. And they want to participate more closely in the design and development of the product. The demand is, at the same time, fragmenting. For the mainstream that thrives in mass production, that’s a big change because now the demand is not monolithic in big groups like North America and Western Europe; now it’s in much smaller groups everywhere.
In terms of design and production, the means for designing and manufacturing are more accessible to everybody. We call that the democratization of manufacturing. Now, the ability to introduce innovation is much more available to smaller entrepreneurs and start-ups, and they are innovating sometimes faster than the big ones. Of course, there have been more technical trends around design and manufacturing—around generative design, machine learning and materials. And 3D printing and hybrid manufacturing have started shaping the way people are designing and manufacturing things.

Lastly, the products we are designing and making are changing. They are more connected and smarter, meaning that they have more autonomy. They have more ability to decide on the edge, partly because customers are demanding it. We are more interconnected: We are participating in larger scenarios with other things. And in the products themselves, there is a push to extend the product value beyond the point of sale. So customers, particularly in heavy machinery, specialty vehicles and in large capital products, are expecting the manufacturer to provide attached services, mainly enabled by the IoT, such as predictive maintenance and optimization. It’s becoming a competitive advantage in their use of machinery: the ability to provide attached services, after the sale.

Regarding the democratization of manufacturing and customers wanting to be involved in the design process, are we talking about machinery, software, services or all of the above?

All of the above. In manufacturing, probably the biggest roadblock for someone who wants to get started making things is the fabrication part. It’s not easy for a start-up to set up a manufacturing facility. As you know, it requires a major investment and facilities. [But those resources are] becoming more and more accessible: We’re seeing ‘manufacturing as a service.’ These manufacturing contractors function digitally. Services like MakeTime … started as 3D printing shops, but they’re expanding into machining and injection molding. These type of services are allowing start-ups doing below 5000 units to get their products onto shelves without necessarily building a manufacturing facility. And then there is the availability of software and computing power in the cloud, which is allowing many more people to do sophisticated analysis, design and renderings without huge and expensive IT infrastructure.

Also, there are business models in the software industry; we at Autodesk are introducing subscription services. You can subscribe to the software for as little as $300 a year.

What key strategies should manufacturers pursue to remain competitive five or 10 years from now?

Empower your customers. The two main practices that empower customers are (1) to engage with them on product ideation and (2) help them reimagine products so they can customize and personalize them. Also, [manufacturers should] connect their products and start thinking about services or user experiences they can deliver. What could you do if you connect your products? How can you provide subscriptions to, say, a pump, a tractor, a turbine? (We believe that that’s going to become a significant competitive differentiator.) Lastly, embrace the cloud—for your design, planning, programming and manufacturing operations. There are valid concerns about security and privacy and IT protection. But more often than not, a cloud provider will have more sophisticated safety and IT protection capabilities than most small and medium-sized manufacturers.

How do you empower or engage customers on a granular level?

There are the traditional focus groups and requirements gathering. Those are always valid, but we’re seeing more innovative and impactful practices like design challenges or crowd sourcing. For example, FirstBuild [a microfactory created by GE] reaches out to the cloud and says “bring ideas” for a coffeemaker or an icemaker. And they make it fun. Sometimes there’s a cash prize or bragging rights. With that, they receive ideas that their design group probably wouldn’t have come up with. Then there’s social listening: Engage younger customers on social media. They are either praising or complaining about your product. You have to learn how to listen to social media for trends and customer sentiment.

What are a couple of promising technologies that Autodesk is developing?

In recent years, we’ve invested heavily on the fabrication side. We have tools for subtracting or adding things. We made some significant acquisitions and acquired Delcam for advanced subtractive manufacturing, Netfabb for 3D printing, and Majestic for composites. So that’s from the point of view of commercially available tools. Looking to the future, we are very interested in a few things: We believe there is a huge opportunity for machine learning throughout the lifecycle of the product—from helping designers find alternatives to manufacturing and the actual operation and making sense of IoT data, for example. We are working very hard on the concept of generative design: We have some commercially available products. (Generative design is the ability to tell the computer, “Here are my requirements, here are my constraints.  Generate a shape for me.”)

We already do generative design for… lightweighting. And we are looking for ways for a human to communicate with a robot. Perhaps I could tell a robot, “Drill a hole here.” Or “move this part over there”—and have that kind of interaction with a robot, as opposed to just programmatically. [The idea is to take advantage of the precision offered by the human and the strength and repeatability offered by the robot.]

How would you summarize the opportunity of the Industrial Internet of Things for manufacturers?

It is a huge opportunity. For a manufacturer that’s implementing the IIoT in its operations, the main opportunity is cost savings [through] predictive maintenance. GE provides some numbers. For example, for heavy machinery like a crusher, the yearly savings just in predictive maintenance are around $120,000.

The IIoT also lets vendors deliver connective services. When your programs are connected, you get a lot of data on how your product’s being used. And that allows you to understand what features are used the most and what things are causing customer dissatisfaction. That feeds into the design process to improve the next iteration of your product. We are also working on the concept of closed-loop design: taking IIoT data and feeding it directly into our generative design to generate a better next version of the product.

Lastly, if you’re products are connected, you can think about new business models like product as a service. GE is the quintessential example: In its turbines for commercial airplanes, it provides more than turbines: It sells kilowatts to the airlines.

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