Digital Manufacturing

Weaving a digital thread

By Nick Wright

Digital manufacturing aims to develop software allowing smaller manufacturers to operate like OEMs

January 2015 - Think about the truly game-changing manufacturing technology that has bubbled to the surface in the last 10, 20 or 30 years. Depending on who you ask, it could be 3-D printing or fiber lasers. Maybe it’s the automation behind robotic welding. It could be the speed with which punching machines change tooling or the energy saved by a servo press. Whether it’s a modern riff on an old-school metalworking process, or a completely new line of equipment, the hardware wouldn’t be where it is without software and networking.

Now, think about all the types of software out there. There are countless proprietary programs dictating every move a machine, controller or counter makes. Subsets of competing software for design, nesting and ERP comprise rows of booths at trade shows like Fabtech and IMTS. And that software is marketed to companies of all sizes, from the two-man job shop to the General Electrics of the world.


Machines progressively become interconnected and networked, letting employees monitor all processes from just about anywhere, from the plant floor to the front office. But what about machines that need to talk to one another? Sure, some major equipment manufacturers let their lasers seamlessly talk to their press brakes, for example. But what if your laser, made by Company A, needs to talk to the brake made by Company B? In such instances, it’s no longer so seamless and instructions can get lost in translation, if translated at all. 

Digital manufacturing is the process committed to solve this kind of problem. The concept isn’t easy to define, and five people might give you five different explanations. But the common goal is to transmit technical data in any direction, between every stage of the manufacturing process. One group in Chicago is working to simplify digital manufacturing around the product of all modern machine processes: raw data.

Digital lab

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, set to open in the spring in Chicago, will be tasked with researching digital manufacturing to a point where manufacturers can apply tangible tools to their operations. It will be housed in 94,000 sq. ft. on Goose Island, an industrial area on the north branch of the Chicago River. 


“We define digital manufacturing as the clever, intelligent, effective use at every stage of the manufacturing process,” says Jacob Goodwin, director of membership engagement and communications at DMDII. Originally conceived as a way to aid the defense industry, the DMDII is one of four current high-tech manufacturing hubs under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a public-private initiative founded in 2013, whose purpose is to research ways to make U.S. manufacturing more competitive. The federal government is providing $70 million for this Chicago hub.

The DMDII is still nailing down all the specific projects it will tackle, but project solicitations are sorted into three categories: advanced manufacturing enterprise (AME), intelligent machines and advanced analysis. Essentially, AME projects will develop hardware and software to speed up all steps of a manufacturing process. Intelligent machines will integrate data-collecting sensors on equipment such as welding and CNC mills to capture performance data in real time, crunch that data and adjust machine performance based on analysis. Finally, advanced analysis will focus exclusively on interpreting data to reach conclusions about manufacturing processes.

If that sounds nebulous and abstract, imagine this hypothetical: Say the DMDII starts collecting data from a passenger vehicle manufacturer. Not just production data for every car, but also the maintenance records for every one of those cars for 10 years. 


“Now you’ve got lots of data,” says Goodwin. “When you crunch it, you might discover the carburetors tended to malfunction earlier than expected. When you dive deeper, because of the malfunction, maybe some metal part was melting at temperatures lower than expected. Crunching this data, you might determine that if you change one part you might lower malfunction rates substantially.” 

To the degree that machine-produced data has already been harnessed by manufacturers, the clearest picture of those data-driven insights largely stay within each company’s walls to protect its proprietary resources. But the DMDII has invited major manufacturers that traditionally might compete in the same markets to collaborate on these projects—rivals such as General Electric and Rolls Royce, Caterpillar and Deere & Co., and The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin. Multinational conglomerates such as these have resources to contribute so that eventually, small manufacturers can deploy the same data tools as big ones. 

Cloud of metal

Located also in Chicago, just a few miles north of DMDII is O’Brien Metal Inc., a new breed of metal fabricator whose business model is founded upon digital manufacturing. In many ways, O’Brien Metal is a textbook example of how a company its size can compete in what’s increasingly a digital age. It has redefined the classic supply chain in leveraging a diverse vendor network and advanced digital tools to fabricate nonferrous precious metals into architectural pieces that adorn universities, libraries and private residences throughout Chicagoland.


John O’Brien founded the company in 2008. It occupies about 7,000 sq. ft. in what was an A. Finkl & Sons Co. steel warehouse. He estimates 70 percent of the company’s time is spent perfecting CAD designs and prototypes, and 30 percent fabricating components. Often, that involves 3-D scanning an existing part so it can be perfectly duplicated.

“The digital aspect has allowed us to be incredibly more efficient with our prototyping,” says O’Brien. As of early December, O’Brien Metal had a 35-week backlog of work. It’s an order book made manageable not only with rapid prototyping, but also working with its many vendors—specialized welders here, expert machinists there—in a digital space. 

To elucidate, O’Brien manages each aspect of any project online. Instead of reducing a CAD design to a paper blueprint and risking details getting overlooked or misinterpreted by a contractor, vendor or engineer, it handles everything in the “cloud.” One of its tools is Basecamp, a web-based project management program that ensures its vendor network uses the same CAD files. Having everyone on the same page lets everyone access files from anywhere in real time, speeding up projects and avoiding miscommunication while reducing costs, says O’Brien. (Disclosure: FFJournal uses Basecamp.) In this regard, O’Brien operates not unlike a company double or triple its size.


O’Brien Metal doesn’t have full metal-fabricating capabilities, so you won’t see big waterjet tables or laser cutters on site. Its limited floor space contains semifabricated material that its crew of 10 welds, finishes and delivers to contractors, rarely requiring rework. A large custom architectural structure may have up to 600 interconnected points that need to be perfectly aligned. It shows O’Brien puts full stock into the value his digital efforts give not only his bottom line, but the final products for clients. If you type into your browser, you’ll get redirected to O’Brien Metal. He says he gets thousands of unique hits a month on the site. A few months into 2015, O’Brien plans to rebrand the company under that domain name, and possibly collaborate with DMDII.

Software tools

The core of digital manufacturing is powerful software that allows machines, companies and individuals to communicate.

San Rafael, California-based Autodesk Inc., best known for its AutoCAD design software, is one of the 40 industry partners contributing to the DMDII’s research. Autodesk’s approach to product development “focuses on providing the tools to simplify the product development workflow, from concept to manufacturing, and marketing through maintenance, allowing customers to ‘experience it before it’s real,’” says Diego Tamburini, the company’s manufacturing industry strategist. That approach aligns Autodesk with the concept of a digital thread pursued by the DMDII.

Simply put, even though a part’s life might begin on the back of a napkin, eventually it ends up in a CAD design. However, when it comes time for the designer’s entire technical data package—including dimensions, tolerances and notes—to move to the next stage of production, the receiving end needs to talk to the sender seamlessly, or else a prototype risks missing every nuance of the design. If the prototyper isn’t using the same software as the designer, he or she may have to recreate the blueprint, adding time and money spent. “The goal is to have that technical data package move swiftly and efficiently onto the next stage,” says Goodwin at DMDII.


Involving well-established companies like Autodesk in the DMDII ultimately will benefit them, too, and not just the small and midsize companies at which the research projects are targeted, says Tamburini. The exchange of design and manufacturing information from the OEM down to its smallest supplier is often a challenge, because the suppliers in the chain frequently employ different, or even incompatible, software programs. 

“Often OEMs demand the use of specific software tools to its suppliers to avoid having to deal with interoperability issues, but this imposes an unfair burden, since they often have to satisfy multiple OEMs with different software tools, and they may not have the resources to do so,” he continues. 

To that end, the DMDII will eventually publish the Digital Manufacturing Commons (DMC), a web-based open source platform of tools for manufacturers to use at no or low cost. If a small manufacturer is bidding on a job and needs to perform a cost analyisis before moving a part through production, it could do that faster and submit a sharper bid. “Our goal is to make tools that would let them benefit from these digital manufacturing advancements,” Goodwin explains.

It will be months, maybe years, before manufacturers and suppliers see applicable results of the DMDII’s efforts. At any rate, the institute’s mission is shining a light on American manufacturing. In the face of low wages and intellectual property pirates abroad—with which the U.S. cannot compete—digital manufacturing will put U.S. computing power to work, allowing domestic companies to innovate and rise above seeming disadvantages in a global economy. FFJ


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