About 10 years ago, Bell Flight began a culture shift to set a strategy of bringing together its manufacturing bill of material definition and its engineering bill of material definition—to achieve better interactions with its people, Glenn Isbell, VP for rapid prototyping and manufacturing innovation at Bell Flight, said during a recent panel discussion on digitizing the supply chain.
The value of that approach has become especially clear during the pandemic.
“When you get pressed with a significant event, it is your report card of how well you’re doing and how strong you are,” he said. “The last four products that we have designed using that approach have been order of magnitude better integrated and had much better performances. The latest aircraft the company built went together in a fraction of the time company standards predicted.
The next step for virtual twins, Isbell said, is to develop a digital thread for individual parts.
“Everybody says it’s people, processes and tools,” he said. “It’s also a vision of a company. Agility is our key. We want to be faster. We want to be able to fly before our competition. We want to build our products to go together better than our competition. These are the tools and this is the language we are using to accomplish that.”
Moving forward, manufacturers have to be not only more efficient but also agile enough to adapt and react quickly to disruptions and to continually refine their business, Isbell said. “The challenges are happening quicker now than they did a couple of years ago.”
Ongoing challenges include lack of a clear vision of where an organization should go with digital transformation, retrofitting legacy machines and other equipment to enable Industry 4.0 technology, upskilling workers and resistance to change, said panelist Hassan Rashidi, an engineer and consultant.
Strategies, policies and recommendations proposed by Manufacturing USA, including a national manufacturing guard, will strengthen the national manufacturing base and improve its ability to respond to future disruptions and supply chain challenges, said panelist Brett Brune, editor in chief of Smart Manufacturing.
Companies are adopting different strategies to overcome supply chain issues, including reshoring, near-shoring, shifting capacity into their manufacturing network, readjusting their product and storekeeping unit (SKU) within their manufacturing network and adjusting their supply base, said panelist Eric Green, brand marketing VP at DELMIA (Digital Enterprise Lean Manufacturing Interactive Application) Dassault Systèmes.
Virtual twins offer advantages compared with static CAD models, Green and Rashidi said.
A machine is built based on its CAD model, Rashidi said, but none of the machine components will match perfectly with the CAD model in terms of geometry and dimensions. And few, if any, perform exactly to spec.
“When you run the machine over time, its performance, functionality and behavior will change,” he said. “This is natural. You have two worlds, a virtual world where you have the CAD model of the machine and the real world where you have the machine. Traditionally, these two worlds are not connected to one another and there is no communication between them.”
Instead of ongoing communication, designers make multiple prototypes based on the performance of the machine after each iteration, Rashidi said.
“When a product is designed, you have its CAD model individual role, then you will make a prototype of it to see if it functions as it should and as it is expected,” he said. “Then, based on the result you get from that prototype, you make improvements on the design, and then you prototype it again. This process of making iterations and physical prototype is very time-consuming and expensive.”
Using virtual/digital twins allows manufacturers to eliminate many of the unnecessary steps involved in prototyping, Rashidi said. This shrinking of the timeline will help manufacturers achieve the demands for shorter product-development cycles.
In contrast to a CAD model, a virtual twin is more than merely a static representation of a machine or even an entire factory, Green said.
Unlike the model, a virtual twin, for example, of a factory includes real-world performance and operational data, such as how that factory operates on a given day or shift, he said.
That knowledge and insight helps factory operators and managers mitigate downtime, react to customer order delays, work through quality issues, and make the right decisions faster.
Virtual twins also can play a role to help meet supply chain challenges.
Green cited an example of a manufacturer that had outsourced additional non-value add parts and components. Then, the company grew to the point where the manufacturer’s supplier couldn’t provide the parts on time and at the quality the manufacturer needed. The company modeled its factories and realized it could reconfigure its manufacturing footprint to make the needed parts without having to add more factories.
That also helped the relationship with the overburdened supplier, he added.
That ability to map and model manufacturing capacity is helpful when factories are planning to add more equipment and production lines, Isbell said.
“The ability to take our design, the parts in our design, map those to a bill of process, map that to a factory design that actually has equipment and we know what piece of equipment does which process—we can have the discussion at the same time we’re doing the design work,” he said. “It shifts the way we think and it shifts our capability and it shifts how lean we are.”
Modeling remains important but the relationships with suppliers made an important difference at Bell Flight before and during the pandemic, Isbell said.
Before the pandemic, Bell Flight had worked with its suppliers to ensure they shared a common language and a common data set, he said. Those relationships kept the company and its suppliers strong during the pandemic.
“We knew who they were, and we understood their business,” Isbell said. “We had some shared systems and intelligence with virtual information going back and forth with our suppliers. But the biggest piece was our teams had relationships with them.”
Those relationships weren’t simply, ‘Here are my systems and here is what I demand,’ he said. More deeply, Bell Flight teams worked to understand the issues and the struggles its suppliers faced. Because of that understanding, Bell Flight was able to help some of its suppliers get through lulls in demand by shifting future demand to the present, he said.
“You can always say you’re doing strong in easy times and everybody thinks you are,” Isbell said. “I think we were one of the only ones in industry that never missed a day. Our parts kept flowing. Our products kept delivering on time.”
Green concurred that the last two years have highlighted the importance of relationships and trust across an extended supply chain.
“We’re beyond the point now where a supplier is looked at based on lowest total landed cost, based upon ‘Can they deliver the goods on time, and provide good quality product?’” he said. “The companies who are treated as [only] a vendor relationship versus a business partner, I think it’s very evident those companies are suffering.”
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