Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »
September 13th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
IMTS 2018 is behind us and we survived it! With thousands of exhibitors spread over a million+ square feet and shoulder to shoulder with well over 100,000 attendees, it’s a challenge to see what’s the latest and greatest, but we did our best.
Walking the show floor, I personally checked out hundreds of products and services and talked with dozens of exhibitors trying to find what was most interesting and unique. Although tough to determine, below are the hardware and software products that I considered to be the best of the best with a close runner up.
Hardware Best of Show: Wazer Desktop Waterjet
Wazer is a relatively new company (it began as a Kickstarter project) that had a booth directly across the aisle from ours, and we were impressed with both the machine itself, its low functional requirements (110V and a little water), as well as the crowds it attracted throughout the week.
The result of a design project of a group of University of Pennsylvania graduates, WAZER is the first desktop waterjet that cuts a wide variety of hard or soft material with a high level of precision. Initially the team was looking for an easy-to-use tool that could make precision cuts in hard materials. Existing desktop digital tools like 3D printers and laser cutters work well for soft materials, but the only affordable method for cutting metal, glass and stone was to use hand operated tools, both of which are time consuming and inaccurate.
“We set out to create the very first desktop waterjet cutting machine. WAZER is not just a low-cost tool for hobbies and prototypes – we wanted to empower individuals to turn ideas into durable, finished goods,” said co-founder Nisan Lerea.
WAZER takes standard drawing files like .svg or .dxf and cuts out the digital profile with a high-velocity jet that uses a combination of high pressure water and sand-like abrasive particles to cut through the work piece.
WAZER is the only desktop machine that cuts virtually everything, including steel, titanium, aluminum, glass, stone, tile, and carbon fiber. The waterjet machine is compact, self contained, and fits in any small workshop. It’s fully enclosed, making operation safe, clean, and quiet.
Wazer’s cutting area is 12″ x 18″ and kerf (width of cut) is 0.044″
Price for the Wazer desktop waterjet starts at $7,500, a good price for a machine with this level of design and capabilities.
For More Information: Wazer
Hardware Honorable Mention: Velo3D Metal 3D Printer
I wrote about this new metal 3D printer a couple weeks ago (check out this link), and got to see it in action this week at IMTS, as well as some representative parts. The system actually consists of the following three parts:
Sapphire System: A laser powder bed metal additive 3D printing system designed for high-volume manufacturing and capable of building complex geometries including designs with overhangs that are less than five degrees and large inner diameters without supports. Sapphire’s integrated in-situ process metrology enables closed loop melt pool control.
Flow Print Preparation Software: The software includes support generation, process selection, slicing and simulation of complex part designs to validate execution feasibility before the build. Geometrical feature-driven processing enables low angles below 5 degrees.
Intelligent Fusion Technology: The technology that powers Flow software and the Sapphire system that optimizes the AM process by combining thermal process simulation, print prediction, and closed-loop control during print execution.
The parts produced were impressive in terms of size, density, and surface finish.
For More Information: Velo3D
Software Best of Show: nTopology
This company develops functional design and optimization software for additive manufacturing. The company has developed software with a unique combination of computational, procedural, and simulation-based design tools for creating lightweight and optimized parts that meet functional requirements. Its lattice design products include:
Element Free that provides a full set of lattice design tools for creating complex structures with variable properties.
Element Pro adds powerful editing, analysis, and data interchange features to Element Free’s structure design tools.
The heart of lattice design is the ability to create and use infinitely variable lattice topologies in your designs. With nTopology’s lattice rule builder you can do just that – select from a wide variety of predefined tessellations and units or create your own from scratch.
Element’s non-round thickening feature allows for lattice beams with non-round cross sections to be generated and thickened for improving printability or creating beams with specific directional properties, offset thickening promotes design freedom.
With the conformal structures tool, you can create lattices that follow the form of your part and support just the loads that you need them to.
The company gets it that STL files suck, and with its CAD interchange module, you can import and export native CAD data in a variety of formats including IGES, STEP, and Parasolid. Its Lattice Graph interchange file allows lattices to be imported and exported in a lightweight, open source, XML based file format, providing analysis capabilities for complex structures using existing FEA toolsets and without having to deal with slow, heavy 3D meshes.
There are a number of lattice design optimization tools out there on the market, many of which promise more than they can actually deliver, but nTopology’s products look like the real deal. In the future, the company is hoping to include subtractive manufacturing process capabilities to its additive manufacturing ones.
Interestingly, nTopology has partnered with Velo 3D with some impressive results.
For More Information: nTopology
Software Honorable Mention: Artec 3D Studio 13
There is a lot of 3D scanning point cloud processing software out there, but Artec 3D Studio 13 really caught our eye at IMTS for its capabilities and ease of use.
On the capabilities side, for checking raw scans, X-Ray mode highlights high point density areas and makes the data semi-transparent. This is a good tool for checking complex geometry for possible holes or misalignments.
You can make DXF sections of 3D models in Artec Studio 13 and export non-closed contours to CAD software, such as SOLIDWORKS.
Global and fine registration performance have been significantly improved, for controlling scanning speed/quality balance by specifying the number of key frames, the feature type, and feature search radius.
On the ease of use side, the most significant feature is 3D Radar mode, a new distance-based prompt for easier 3D scanning. It helps you hold your scanner at the optimal distance from an object by visualizing the real-time data capture in green. If you hold the scanner too close, the color turns yellow, and then red if you get even closer. Moving the scanner too far away turns the color blue. 3D Radar mode is helpful for getting the best scanning results quickly.
For More Information: Artec 3D
And We Have A Winner!
Based on a drawing of business cards dropped off at our booth at IMTS 2018,honor a third-party person randomly picked the winner of an Amazon Gift Card. And the winner is Gary Pribyl, Toolroom Machinist at QuickCable. Congratulations Gary!
We recorded over 30 video interviews during the course of IMTS 2018 and will post them to our website as soon as they are edited and ready for viewing. The interviews covered a range of the offerings from the show and represent a broad cross-section of what was presented and demonstrated at the show, so stay tuned! We also interviewed all of the Best of Show and Honorable Mention winners.
So you can start planning now, IMTS 2020 will be held in Chicago, September 14-19, 2020. It’s a manufacturing spectacle not to be missed! Just be sure and wear comfortable walking shoes.
Homage To A Great Man & Machinist
Finally, I’ve been attending IMTS for a long time, and for the past several events, I have made a pilgrimage to a special elevated vantage point in the middle of the Metal Cutting pavilion that overlooks a large number of big (and I mean BIG) machines that incredibly transform pieces of metal, some that weight tons, into a wide variety of amazingly finished parts. The reason I do does this every IMTS is to pay respect and special homage to my late father-in-law who was a machinist. He was a master in his craft and a wonderful person who instilled in me the honor of making things and the self respect of doing things well and seeing them through. I miss him and at every IMTS wish we could walk the show floor together and talk about how manufacturing has changed, but is still a very worthy endeavor.
September 6th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
We’re preparing for five exhausting but exhilarating days at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) 2018 in Chicago. This biennial, week-long exhibition and conference is by far the biggest manufacturing showcase in North America. As a matter of fact, it is expected to host over 115,000 registrants this time around.
IMTS 2018 is on pace to have the most exhibit space in the show’s 91-year history. Technology, product, conference and meeting areas will occupy all five levels of McCormick Place’s four buildings.
Changes for IMTS 2018 include portions of the Controls & CAD-CAM Pavilion and events associated with HANNOVER MESSE USA: four co-located shows, a Digital Factory and the Solutions Theater. IMTS has expanded the Tooling & Workholding Pavilion. Recognizing the pace of innovation, IMTS 2018 will feature not one but two AMT’s Emerging Technology Centers (ETC) in the North and West Buildings. The ETCs explore current and over-the-horizon technologies for digital connectivity and additive manufacturing, the industry’s most explosive growth areas.
“A myriad of factors are bolstering the manufacturing technology market, and IMTS 2018 has expanded its exhibit space to accommodate the increased interest,” says Peter R. Eelman, Vice President – Exhibitions & Business Development at AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, which owns and produces IMTS.
“Factors include the exponential rate of technology advances, the need to use technology instead of manpower to boost productivity and the strongest manufacturing economy in a decade,” says Eelman. “Businesses have more money and will continue boosting their investment in capital equipment and R&D. Coupled with higher consumer confidence, manufacturers need to increase production to meet strong demand.”
Since IMTS occupies virtually all of the buildings at McCormick Place, covering well over a million square feet, you have to strategize how to see everything you want to see. It showcases just about anything you can imagine for manufacturing – metal cutting, abrasives, additive processes, CAD/CAM, controls, inspection – you name it, and it’s probably at IMTS.
MCADCafe will be conducted several video interviews that will be available for viewing in the very near future after the show at www.mcadcafe.com. The interviewees we’ve got lined up so far are a diverse group, everything from traditional CAD/CAM vendors, to software component suppliers, to metrology and machine manufacturers, and service providers.
August 29th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
PTC announced that it has been named a leader in the Industrial IoT software platforms market for its ThingWorx Industrial Innovation Platform, according to a new evaluation from Forrester Research. In the Forrester evaluation, entitled “The Forrester Wave: Industrial IoT Software Platforms, Q3 2018,” PTC was the among the top five highest ranked in the “Current Offering” category and among the top four in the “Strategy” category.
Forrester evaluated the current offering, strategy, and market presence of PTC and 14 other vendors. Each company was evaluated according to a comprehensive set of 24 criteria, grouped into three high-level categories: current offering, strategy, and market presence. Participating vendors all had a significant focus on the industrial domain and its use cases, native support for key industrial protocols, and a strong international presence. Within that context, PTC was named one of the leaders by Forrester.
With few exceptions, the leaders had a public cloud capability, analytics capabilities, and API-led integration. Some companies, such as C3 IoT are focusing on the analytics part of Industrial IoT, while leaving device connection to companies such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, although C3 IoT is a partner of both AWS and Azure.
The following graphic shows how Forrester perceives the industrial IoT platform market based on its criteria:
Regarding PTC’s standing in the evaluation, Forrester noted: “PTC fuses device connectivity strength with augmented reality vision . . . and the company offers rich capabilities spanning design, manufacture, service, and operations, combining these in accessible end-user applications.”
August 23rd, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
The march of new metal AM machines continues as this week, Velo3D announced its comprehensive metal additive manufacturing (AM) solution comprised of the Sapphire system, Flow print preparation software, and Intelligent Fusion technology. According to the company, the solution solves some difficult AM challenges including product design limitations, part-to-part consistency, process control, and cost-effective manufacturing.
“Additive manufacturing has the potential to be revolutionary,” said Ashley Nichols, general manager at 3D Material Technologies (3DMT), a leading metal additive manufacturing services bureau. “Systems are getting bigger, but not delivering on the promises of metal additive manufacturing. Through a collaborative partnership, 3DMT and Velo3D are unlocking new applications, pushing the envelope of what is currently considered possible. We look forward to continued success, and to delivering on the promises of the potential of metal additive manufacturing.”
The Sapphire system is a laser powder bed metal additive 3D printing system designed for high-volume manufacturing. Sapphire is capable of building complex geometries including designs with overhangs that are less than five degrees and large inner diameters without supports. To deliver part-to-part consistency, Sapphire’s integrated in-situ process metrology enables closed loop melt pool control. To maximize productivity, the Sapphire system contains a module that enables automated change-over with offline unpacking.
The Velo3D Sapphire automated system in action
Build envelope is 315 mm diameter, z-axis 400 mm. Build materials include IN718 and Ti6AlV with a typical throughput of >60 cm^3/hour of IN718.
Flow Print Preparation Software
Flow print preparation software includes support generation, process selection, slicing and simulation of complex part designs to validate execution feasibility before the build. Geometrical feature-driven processing enables low angles below 5 degrees. In addition, deformation correction technology enables the user to produce parts without the need for iterations, achieving a first print success rate of up to 90 percent. Flow minimizes the need for supports, reducing typical support volume by 3-5 times, which removes or at least reduces the labor intensive post processing necessary with conventional approaches.
Supporting a part may seem like a straightforward proposition, but there are significant hidden costs and complexities in this process. The first is in the design of the supports. Deciding where to put supports takes design time and effort during print preparation, because support shape and placement is not a simple process; it requires experience and judgement in order to get the best results.
A frequent outcome is that designers err on the side of over-supporting low-angle surfaces, in order to avoid build failure. This results in many supports that later need to be removed, and depending on the complexity of the supports, this can be a difficult proposition, requiring multiple set-ups on a CNC mill, or wire EDM, or a turning step. It takes time to print so many supports; this adds to the total build time, and build cost is primarily a function of build time.
The Velo3D Sapphire System is a 3D metal printer for high-volume manufacturing
August 16th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
An innovative organization called ASSESS Initiative LLC was formed by Joe Walsh in mid-2016 for bringing together the key players for guiding and influencing the software development and implementation strategies related to model-based analysis, simulation, and systems engineering, with the primary objective of expanding the use and business benefit of the many forms of engineering simulation.
The changing role of engineering simulation is really about business benefits. However, achieving those benefits and associated growth of the engineering simulation market is tempered due to the lack of understanding regarding its true benefits. According to ASSESS Initiative, a simulation revolution needs to occur that will bring a whole new set of opportunities as well as challenges.
The ASSESS (Analysis, Simulation & Systems Engineering Software Strategies) Initiative is a broad reaching multi-industry initiative with a primary goal to facilitate a revolution of enablement that will vastly increase the availability and utility of Engineering Simulation, leading to significantly increased usage and business benefits across the full spectrum of industries, applications and users. The vision of the ASSESS Initiative is to bring together key players for guiding and influencing the software tool strategies for performing model-based analysis, simulation, and systems engineering. To achieve this vision the ASSESS Initiative will collaborate with multiple activities and organizations across the broad spectrum of engineering simulation.
ASSESS Initiative has been organized around a key set of themes associated with expanding the usage and benefit of engineering simulation that include:
ASSESS Initiative is planning on publishing a series of positioning papers and Strategic Insight papers related to each of these themes. The positioning papers will be publicly available from the ASSESS Initiative website, however, ASSESS Strategic Insight papers will be made available on a “members only” basis.
As part of this effort, the ASSESS Initiative recently released the first two positioning papers related to its themes above:
Like a debate, position papers (sometimes called point of view papers) present one side of an arguable opinion about an issue; in this case engineering simulation. The goal of any position paper is to convince the audience that your opinion is valid and defensible. However, it is very important to ensure that you are addressing all sides of the issue and presenting it in a manner that is easy for your audience to understand – not always an easy case with engineering simulation. The biggest job is to take one side of the argument and persuade your audience that you have well-founded knowledge of the topic being presented. It is important to support your argument with evidence to ensure the validity of your claims, as well as to refute the counterclaims to show that you are well informed about both sides. ASSESS has succeeded on all counts with the publication of the first two papers.
The second paper is particularly interesting because the Democratization of Engineering Simulation is implemented in many forms. While there are many common characteristics, issues and opportunities across them all, there are also critical differences that need to be identified and explained, to enable a path to achievable solutions.
The first aspect of any form of implementation of DoES is whether or not it is driven by customers or providers of Engineering Simulation. The second aspect in any form of implementation of DoES is the type of customer that this form of implementation is intended to be used by (Large Enterprise, Small-Medium Business (SMB), Industry Consortium, mixture of customer types). The third aspect in any form of implementation of DoES is the “level” of democratization desired, that include:
Product/Project-level democratization – Democratization within a company, at a project level.
Product Development Process-level democratization – Democratization within a company, at a product level; crosses various departments involved in the development of a product; could be distributed globally.
Corporate Enterprise-level democratization – Democratization as a standard practice across an entire enterprise; the company has standardized simulation practices, wishes to enforce them globally, and has committed to putting simulation in the hands of everyone who needs it globally.
Industry-level democratization – Democratization across a particular industry; solution providers create applications that are targeted towards the particular needs of an industry and its products and promote democratization; these applications become widely used across the industry.
The ASSESS Initiative working group related to the Democratization of Engineering Simulation has established the following initial goals for the ASSESS activities related to this theme:
1. Highlight the issues, impediments, and opportunities related to Democratization of Engineering Simulation
2. Advocate for all people who could benefit from using engineering simulation to be able to use it appropriately
3. Advocate for getting engineering simulation safely into the hands of current non-users
4. Advocate for addressing engineering simulation ease of use and required expertise issues that are limiting its broader usage
5. Collaborate with other organizations (e.g. NAFEMS, Revolution in Simulation, …) to support the Democratization of Engineering Simulation
6. Advocate for and support growth in the use of engineering simulation by 10x in 5 years
The paper surmises that the Democratization of Engineering Simulation, not too surprisingly, is likely to require significant changes to current business models for engineering simulation software and computing infrastructures. The current business models for Engineering Simulation software is based on a small number of expert users that run simulations as their primary task. Democratization of Engineering Simulation requires that the use of engineering simulation is broadened to a large number of part-time users with the objective of having more technical personnel being able to make informed design decisions when needed.
This paper reinforces what we have witnessed over the past several years. Namely, engineering simulation being conducted earlier and more often in the product development process by “non-specialists,” such as designers and engineers.
These two papers bring some interesting insights into the present and future direction of engineering simulation on several different levels and I’m looking forward to reading more as they become available.
For more information: www.assessinitiative.com
August 9th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
Since its inception in December 2015, Autodesk claims that rapid progress has been made with adopters of its Forge Platform in changing both what and how things are made, and at transforming “the future of making things.”
Simply, the Autodesk Forge Platform is a set of cloud services that connects design, engineering, visualization, collaboration, production, and operations workflows. Application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) let software developers of all sizes to build cloud-powered applications, services, and experiences. Admittedly, this is a heady set of claims, but Autodesk is well on its way to fulfilling them.
The cloud-based Forge Platform features APIs and SDKs developers can use to create design, engineering, visualization, collaboration, and other types of enterprise applications. The Forge developer program aims to bring together a community of cloud application developers by providing application development resources.
Forge is an application program interface (API) platform and supporting materials (sample code, manuals) as well as a community of developers who use those APIs. Although Forge is intended for Autodesk customers and 3rd party developers to be able to use its web services. The company uses Forge for its development of cloud-based services, and developers can leverage Forge in the same ways that Autodesk does.
Forge is defined by seven groups of APIs:
Authentication for Forge is based on the industry standard OAuth, specifically OAuth2, that provides for token-based authentication and authorization. The basic flow for using OAuth is:
July 26th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
A number of companies over the past several years have proclaimed that they have the answer for resurrecting manufacturing in the U.S. Unfortunately, several of these efforts have turned out to be little more than chest beating without much real substance. Then, a company came along about four years ago that really had a concept and plan for making a difference for the future of manufacturing in the U.S. – Xometry.
Xometry, the largest on-demand manufacturing platform, announced earlier this month that it has acquired MakeTime, another leading on-demand manufacturing company. This acquisition brings together the country’s two top manufacturing network platforms. The combined company will operate under the Xometry brand name and have offices in Maryland and Kentucky.
The acquisition will allow Xometry to grow its national partner network of manufacturers from 1,100 to more than 2,300 while gaining MakeTime’s enterprise product expertise and features including their Autodesk Fusion add-in and Shop Advantage program. Drura Parrish, MakeTime Founder and CEO, will join Xometry as Executive Vice President for Platform.
Foundry Group, one of MakeTime’s investors, will lead a new $25 million round of funding for the newly combined company. Almaz Capital, BMW i Ventures, GE Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Maryland Venture Fund will also contribute to the round. Xometry has now raised a total of $63 million to date.
Xometry and MakeTime: The Future of Manufacturing
“We’re thrilled to combine Xometry’s online manufacturing platform with MakeTime’s proven success in building a distributed network of over 1,000 manufacturers,” said Randy Altschuler, co-founder and CEO of Xometry. “This acquisition will provide our customers with access to massive capacity through the industry’s largest distributed manufacturing network as well enhanced product features.”
“We’re excited at the prospect of joining forces with Xometry,” said Drura Parrish, CEO and Founder of MakeTime. “We’ve both been building the future of manufacturing, and now we will be able to offer small- and medium-sized manufacturers access to more jobs, more opportunities for growth and advanced products to power their businesses.”
July 19th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
Last week, SME and Stratasys Ltd. announced the winners of this year’s additive manufacturing student competition held at the 54th annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
During the past four years, SME and Stratasys have collaborated on the Additive Manufacturing Competition — a contest designed to stimulate student knowledge of additive manufacturing and 3D printing techniques. This year’s contest included 44 teams representing high schools, colleges/universities and career technical institutions — each competing for a chance to take home a gold, silver or bronze medal. Prizes include scholarships from the SME Education Foundation (for high school participants), a one-year Tooling U-SME subscription, RAPID + TCT conference passes, Solidworks’ 3D-CAD design software and a MakerBot Mini printer.
“The SkillsUSA Additive Manufacturing Competition allows students to explore and apply promising emerging additive technologies that are increasingly used in manufacturing operations,” said Jeff Krause, executive director and CEO of SME. “SME and Stratasys have built a competition that is inspiring and attracting tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce.”
This year’s challenge focused on solving a real-life medical problem for a veteran who endured a traumatic thumb amputation on his left hand. As part of the contest, students watched an introductory video to learn about the patient’s disability, assessed his current condition and determined how each could design an adaptive device enabling the veteran to continue using his PlayStation 3 gaming system. The winning devices consisted of 3D-printed parts designed to allow the veteran to comfortably use a PlayStation 3 controller, without his current silicone prosthetic.
July 12th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe
Last week we started a roundup of some digital manufacturing trends based on a recent ‘‘Trends in Digital Manufacturing” survey, that was jointly conducted by SME, a manufacturing association promoting advanced manufacturing technologies, and Plataine, a provider of Industrial IoT (IIOT) and AI-based manufacturing optimization solutions, that shows key insights on plans for factory digitization.
While we agree with most of the issues raised in the report, they represent pretty broad strokes when real digital manufacturing trends are considered. However, we do see several positive trends occurring and one glaring negative one (but there is hope) in these trends:
Blockchain Migrates To Manufacturing
One of the most interesting, but mysterious and most misunderstood technologies in the digital realm are blockchain and bitcoin. Blockchain, specifically, is also the technology with great potential for securing data and transactions that demand trust. Although it requires quite a bit of space to adequately explain, this time around, I’ll focus on a few aspects of blockchain and possible implications for manufacturing.
Blockchain combines the openness of the Internet (that is, until Net Neutrality goes away) with the security of cryptography to give companies a faster way to verify vital information and establish trust without the need for third parties and other intermediaries. It was initially developed more than a decade ago to provide the technical underpinnings for Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency with which it is sometimes mistaken. As Pat Bakey, president of SAP Industries, noted, “Early horror stories about bitcoin, the most famous digital currency to use blockchain, prompted its mainstream dismissal as a dubious tool of the dark web.”
Manufacturing Cloud Services (Source: Researchgate.net)
At its core however, blockchain is simply an open and secure method of recording transactions, just like a traditional ledger. Because blockchains establish trust, they provide a simple, paperless way to establish and track ownership of money, information, and objects by individuals, companies, and other organizations.
By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification. The data stored in a blockchain exists as a shared and continually reconciled database hosted on millions of computers around the world, so that no single version of it exists in a single place. In addition, each block of data in a blockchain is linked and secured to the next in a sequence using cryptography.This makes it virtually impossible to add, remove, or change data without alerting others in the chain.
Understanding what blockchain can do and enable is part of the process of understanding both the challenges and opportunities for innovation, afforded by digital transformation.
Data (more about that below) is at the core of this transformation, and has become the biggest resource for business. The companies that survive and thrive in this new hyper-competitive environment will collect and curate Big Data using IoT sensors and other tools, process that data to discover patterns and insights through machine learning and analytics, and secure and streamline their operations using blockchains.
Blockchain may just be getting started in manufacturing, but is almost certain to be one of the most disruptive technologies taking it into the future.
However, before we do our blockchain happy dance, let’s briefly touch on the potential downside.
Even though its been around a while, there is still a significant amount of confusion and debate what a blockchain even is. Some would argue that it’s become just another meaningless marketing buzzword, but the most commonly accepted definition describes a shared, decentralized, cryptographically secure, immutable digital ledger. In theory (and it’s only theory), provides new opportunities to solve complex coordination problems without letting ingrained coordinators so much value in the process. This same philosophy was one of the initial tenets of the internet. Eventually, the open collaborative potential succumbed to a massive takeover of “trusted” third parties – Amazon, Facebook, and Google. So much for decentralization. Will blockchain ultimately go the same way? That’s hard to say or predict now, but nothing should surprise us – there’s just too much at stake for somebody not to try.
As long as we’re speaking of blockchain in the context of manufacturing, last week General Electric announced that it had filed a patent application for using the technology of blockchain in validating and verifying 3D printed objects on their supply chain. The application which was filed in December 2017 and recently released by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, discusses methods for implementing a distributed ledger system into additive manufacturing. GE proposes to use blockchain and the distributed ledger system, which would keep a record of the historical data on the additive manufacturing process with proper verification and validation of the devices used for 3D printing and the stakeholders who push the product along in the supply chain. This patent has far-reaching consequences and gives GE a good start into the world of blockchain.
Data and Analytics
It is predicted that by 2020, there will be as much as 50 times the digital content compared to what exists today. Big data analysis becomes increasingly difficult and time-consuming as digitized manufacturers struggle to manage, update, and analyze product and consumer information. As such, many businesses are opting to move content to the cloud as well as house on-site for a hybrid approach to their storing, managing, and processing needs. Information about things like supply, delivery, customer support used to be difficult to find or cumbersome to work with. In the digital era, that data is streamlined and collaboration-friendly, increasing accessibility for all stakeholders. Because production teams and consumers are growing accustomed to the immediacy and intuitiveness of IoT, they now expect the same from their processes and products, requiring faster innovation from manufacturers. To keep up with these expectations, digital transformation changes the way businesses manage and share product information across the enterprise, increasing production and transparency and decreasing cost and down time.
Most manufacturers have already made the most obvious changes to streamline their operations, using traditional methods to eke as much productivity out of their supply chains and plants as possible. To do even more with less in a slow-growth and uncertain environment, however, companies must look for new ways to boost the productivity and profitability of their operations.
There’s one significant asset that manufacturers have not yet optimized: their own data. Process industries generate enormous volumes of data, but many have failed to make use of this mountain of potential intelligence. Historically, manufacturers have lagged other industries in their IT capabilities. However, thanks to cheaper computational power and rapidly advancing analytics opportunities, process manufacturers can put that data to work, gathering information from multiple data sources and taking advantage of machine learning models and visualization platforms to uncover new ways to optimize their processes from the sourcing of raw materials to the sale of their finished products.
Advanced analytics also help manufacturers solve previously impenetrable problems and reveal those that they never knew about, such as hidden bottlenecks or unprofitable production lines. There are three applications of advanced analytics in particular that together are powerful tools for maximizing the physical and financial performance of manufacturers’ assets and often-complex supply chains.
Advanced analytics approaches can deliver earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) margin improvements of as much as 4 to 10 percent. They can also boost ongoing continuous improvement efforts at a time when manufacturers have seemingly exhausted other options for increasing productivity. Moreover, they offer a lever for competitive advantage, even for companies with overcapacity, by helping them better manage their production systems and optimally reallocate resources in real time.
Data-driven manufacturing can be realized by applying advanced analytics to manufacturers’ data can produce insights to optimize the productivity of individual assets as well as the total manufacturing operation. Deployed in conjunction with each other, these tools enable operators to maximize their productivity and profitability.
In an increasingly complex manufacturing environment, this ongoing data-driven transformation can enable companies to dynamically optimize their tactical planning and make better strategic decisions for the long term. However, advanced analytics tools alone will not magically transform process manufacturing. The value of these new tools is only realized when they complement human skills and expertise. These new approaches make it possible for manufacturing professionals to engage in more fact-based discussions, comparing the real impact of different parameters on business outcomes before making decisions and, in many cases, to consider counterintuitive actions that might improve productivity or profitability.
Cyber Threats Increase
A huge issue that affects all of the aforementioned trends is how do you keep all of this stuff safe and secure? From Equifax to WannaCry to Russia’s manipulation of U.S. social media, 2017 was the most challenging year ever for cyber threats. An IT security firm, AV-TEST Institute, says it now registers more than 350,000 new malicious programs every day, and believes 2018 may turn out to be worse (with up to 780+ million malware instances), as the number of sensor/internet-connected devices increases.
It could be particularly challenging for those in the industrial IoT space: cyber expert Shachar Daniel warns that as manufacturers increasingly embrace cyber-physical systems, the vulnerability of their operations will become far more vulnerable.
The good news is, while there are more opportunities to make life miserable for businesses, advances in AI and machine learning offer solutions that will help predict and ward off random cyberattacks.
All of these trends point to the fact that there has never been a greater need for highly skilled workers with STEM talents – a tall order given the lack of urgency and the state of education in too many schools. However, the manufacturing organizations that can hire qualified employees, and who continue to use technological advancements to move their companies forward are the ones that will thrive and remain relevant, competitive, and profitable.