What is the future of manufacturing? Recently, Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, hosted a roundtable discussion with four other industry executives to discuss the future of manufacturing, the impact of COVID-19, aspects of manufacturing that will change, and industry collaboration.
The participants were:
Meghan West, CEO of CNC Software, a provider of CAD/CAM solutions;
Marc Lind, senior vice president of strategy for Aras, a provider of enterprise PLM software;
Sam Golan, CEO of High QA, a provider of manufacturing quality management software; and
Max Lobovsky, CEO of Formlabs, a 3D printing technology developer and manufacturer.
Fritz: There’s been a lot of speculation that the disruption that COVID-19 caused to supply chains will prompt companies to de-risk their supply chain and return more of their manufacturing to North America and Europe. To what degree do you think that will happen?
Golan: This is about human psychology and behavior. As long as COVID-19 remains an issue, people will temporarily manufacture parts closer to home, but once the pandemic has passed, they will revert back to what they used to do before.
West: Manufacturing is such a price-sensitive industry—the profit margins are just so small. Regardless of the risk, manufacturers will always look for the lowest-cost option, whether that’s outsourcing to China or another country, or whether that’s bringing it inside.
Lind: We have already been seeing companies start to think about how their supply chain is constructed, given the current geo-political tensions. It seems the pandemic is accelerating decisions that were already being contemplated. Those at the executive level are looking at the allocation of capital, right-sizing the workforce, and the real estate footprint. Where do I have factories, where do I have dependencies? That is playing out now.
Lobovsky: Companies are learning to be less present on their manufacturing floors, even when they’re local. High-volume consumer goods figured that out a long time ago, but lower-volume industrial goods are figuring out that they can get by as well. I don’t think manufacturing is coming back to the U.S. or Europe in any large-scale fashion anytime soon.
Fritz: Five or ten years from now, what aspects of the manufacturing world will have changed dramatically?
West: I think trade shows are going to be one of those things. The idea of everybody spending time and money to set up a booth for people to come and meet with you—that’s one of the things that’s going to change. At my company, we’ve shifted to virtual, and that’s enabled us to reach a far larger audience.
The manufacturing industry in particular is such a face-to-face industry. I think because it’s so small, everybody knows everybody, so it’s all about networking. Going to a trade show is almost like a family reunion: You see the same people there year after year after year, which is a wonderful part of it. I think we’re going to have to find a way to still make those connections and strengthen those relationships in a different way.
Lobovsky: Since we’re a hardware company, the trade shows are quite important to us because people need to see our products. In fact, because we don’t do much outside sales, it’s often the only way people get to see our products. So, we’re looking forward to those types of in-person gatherings continuing. In the meantime, though, we have other ways of demonstrating our capabilities to potential customers, including sending out sample parts.
Golan: The move towards remote working during COVID-19 has showed a lot of companies that they don’t need as much office space. Factory floors are a different story, but corporate headquarters are going to rethink how much office space they actually need.
Lind: Data visibility will be one of the big changes. A lot of data has been collected in factory settings for years now, but not much has been done with it, as far as managing operations. Instead, there’s still a lot of management by “walking around” and seeing what’s going on. It’s going to become self-evident that you need to have data feeds and KPIs.
Fritz: What trends do you see around information sharing and collaboration among manufacturers and suppliers?
Golan: Model-based definition is even more important now than it was before. Prior to the pandemic, OEMs were likely to visit their suppliers regularly to make sure parts were being manufactured correctly. Now, it’s more difficult to travel, so it’s critical to get suppliers all the information they need to make the part correctly. And geometry, while vital, isn’t the only thing that matters.
Lobovsky: Something that people don’t understand about drawings today is that their primary purpose isn’t to transmit the geometry information. It’s primarily a human-readable overview of what’s important about the part that’s being made, and it conveys all kinds of other information besides the geometry. I would love to kill drawings; people spend a ton of time making drawings, and our 3D printers live in a world that’s free of drawings, so it’s possible. But STEP or non-drawing systems need to account for the human-readable part of it, and you do need a document to go along with the geometry data.
West: In general, in the manufacturing industry, there’s a trend towards more collaboration between different parties, which means a requirement for more information. The richer that data is, the easier it is for somebody to take something, understand the context behind it, and turn it into a reality. Without all of that information, it’s so difficult to pass a part or anything on without someone having a lot of questions or trying to better understand it.
Lind: To jump back to an earlier question: in 10 years, are we going to say ‘That inter-operability problem has changed so much—nothing worked with anything else back then.’ Part of the hitch between not just the collaboration component, but also the seamless flow of data from engineering to manufacturing to quality, is that the tool’s not designed to have the data accessible, available, and compatible with other tools, whether it’s the machines on the floor or the other tools downstream that people are using in the supply chain. And you just wind up with the requirement to redo work because of the incompatibilities. You need to be able to bring data together so that you can collaborate, not just within the four walls, but down through the supply chain and in remote settings.
Golan: This is a great way of describing Quality 4.0 or Industry 4.0, in which everything is connected. And it’s not just about having data—it’s about having access to that information when you need it, so that you can make the right decision at the right time.
West: Everybody used to work in silos and was protective of their data. But now, there has to be a focus on working with partners and making sure that there’s compatibility with other processes in the manufacturing chain. It’s all about the user’s experience. Everyone wants that ‘easy button.’ As vendors, we need to make the process more effective and more efficient. Every vendor should figure out how to improve their piece of that experience and make it seamless from start to finish.