I have been talking with a lot of folks about the future of manufacturing. They use terms like Industry 4.0, 3D printing, digital twin and mass customization to describe this glorious future. Hearing this so often, it might be easy to get cynical and dismiss it. But to get beyond the hype, observing the actual actions of companies helps reveal the reality behind the hype.
For example, one company whose actions are revealing is Siemens AG, long known as a supplier of industrial equipment, automation and machine controllers. One of this company’s surprises was buying a major CAD supplier, UGS, a few years ago. Another, more recent surprise, was acquiring Mentor Graphics, a major electrical CAD supplier. Electrical CAD and mechanical CAD were long considered to be in separate universes. Now, Siemens is combining these design tools with its base of manufacturing technology, bringing such universes together into its corporate playhouse.
Why this emphasis on integrating such disparate technologies? The answer lies in the growing complexity of the end product. For example, take the automotive sector. “[Today’s vehicles] are becoming so much more complex,” said Tony Hemmelgarn, president and CEO of Siemens PLM Software, speaking at Mentor’s Integrated Electrical Solutions Forum (IESF) in September. “[They include] software, electronics, mechanical—all coming together.”
Carmakers are faced with unprecedented complexity, including up to 30,000 different requirements, according to Hemmelgarn. To get a grip on this complexity, he points to Siemens’ digital twin technology, which can combine inputs from all the disciplines, including manufacturing. How you make something affects its performance, and a comprehensive digital twin that includes the effects of stamping, machining and forming on performance provides an avenue for manufacturers to get even more involved.
Such technology is great, but we cannot ignore that as the industry moves forward, a cultural change is in the offing. As technology improves integration, professionals from the shop floor to marketing will need to learn how to “play together” on an unprecedented level. Consider one of Siemens’ partners, a start-up called Hackrod.
Presenting at IESF, the company’s stated goal is to fully “redefine the way vehicles are designed, engineered and produced.” Showing how we can play with each other, it employs the techniques of video games in designing cars. Hackrod combines this with artificial intelligence techniques, digital twins and digital threads supplied by Siemens PLM. Then, it will make the cars.
To do this, Hackrod showcased its video game front-end for design and additive manufacturing (AM) machines it plans to use to convert designs into custom cars comprised of a metal space frame cladded with composite panels. Its AM machines include integrated metrology to make sure it meets specs and documents its digital twin at the moment of creation.
Caution Signs Ahead
While I was impressed by what Hackrod showed, caution is needed. A car is not just a body and frame. It needs an engine, wheels and an electronic system to control it. As was pointed out during IESF, the second most expensive component of a car is the wiring harness. Hackrod’s goal of producing a single car on demand means figuring out how to include these other crucial elements. For it to work well, integration has to be at the point of design and production.
This technique will challenge existing management structures. Today’s engineering education system and organizations encourage system engineering through interfaces, not working and playing with concepts together. We will have to learn how to play well with others.