Ask someone to describe manufacturing today, and they’ll probably describe giant machines operating in tandem along an assembly line putting together a product in vast quantities.
But as someone who works in manufacturing today, I can tell you that mass production – which has dominated how we’ve made things since the Industrial Revolution – is no longer the predominant manufacturing model.
Consumers today want products that are smarter, more customized and available on demand. The only way companies can satisfy this need is by creating a new business model that applies digital manufacturing strategies. Digital manufacturing – which combines software with physical manufacturing – can help manufacturers iterate faster, customize more, reduce lead times and respond more quickly to market changes.
Consider how this plays out in two of today’s biggest corporate challenges: shorter product life cycles and demands for greater customization.
Shorter Product Life Cycles: We may not always need the latest and greatest technologies, but we want them. Studies have found that consumers replace about one-third of their home appliances with a better product even though the old appliance still works. And that number goes up to 60 percent for TVs.
Companies that want to be part of these purchase decisions need to have new products ready as quickly as users demand the latest model. Digital manufacturing makes it feasible for companies to quickly develop new products and get them to market faster than their competitors.
For example, front-end engineering is an essential part of new-product development, but it can be time consuming and costly. Digital manufacturing can help automate this process in ways that accelerate the design phase and take cost out for product developers.
When quoting custom parts, for instance, a digital model can reduce manual steps and the need for human interaction. And it can give companies critical design feedback within hours, instead of the days, weeks or even the months that traditional manufacturing suppliers can require.
Greater Customization: Creating customized products is neither efficient nor cost effective with current mass production strategies. But digital manufacturing can help companies meet more targeted consumer and industry demands.
Consider drones as one example. A company may produce a variety of drone models for different applications, like tracking warehouse inventories, providing security surveillance and monitoring livestock. And each model may require slightly different hardware or systems. This, in turn, requires multiple short production runs to make each drone model.
With digital manufacturing, companies can use software to manage through production complexities. This makes high-mix, low-volume production runs for each drone model much more economical.
Companies can also use digital data sharing with contract manufacturers to quickly get parts, in the exact quantity they need. So, if an engineer needs 1,500 molded components, she can order that many. She doesn’t need to place a financially risky minimum order (in the tens of thousands) as required by a traditional mass-production model.
New Tools for a New World
Consumers want products that are smarter, more customized and available on demand. But consumer product, manufacturing companies and supply chain partners simply can’t meet this demand using the same business model we’ve used for decades. Instead, we need to understand and apply digital manufacturing strategies and embrace new tools that streamline operations. This way, we can stay better connected to our customers and suppliers and focus on innovation on our journey toward Industry 4.0.