What is digital manufacturing? The term can be applied to anything from robot arms on the floor of an automotive factory to built-in data collection systems utilized by digital camera manufacturers. Essentially, it refers to the use of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence to enhance and streamline all aspects of the production process, from the initial design idea to the end user.

Digital Manufacturing Hardware

As digitalization in manufacturing progresses, new technologies will emerge that can increase production efficiency. The digital manufacturing market size is expanding exponentially, and the associated technology is changing and advancing quickly. Understanding the past, present, and future of digital manufacturing is key to staying competitive in today’s market.

Digital manufacturing in the past

A 2009 article published in the Journal of Engineering Manufacture provides a concise overview of the history of digital manufacturing. Late 20th century inventory control and material requirements planning (MRP) systems implemented early computer algorithms to optimize product supply chains. As digital manufacturing evolved, computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) was used to streamline production processes by determining the most efficient factory floor layout. Computer-aided design (CAD) simplified the prototyping stage of product development.

CAD Design and Digital Manufacturing

With the introduction of computer numerical control (CNC) machines in the 1990s, digital manufacturing and design technology achieved a seamless transition between concept and realization of a product. A digital camera manufacturer could design a prototype lens mount using CAD software and mill it in a CNC machine on the same day. Digital manufacturing encompassed all aspects of a product’s life cycle from design to inventory management.

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Digital manufacturing in the present

Current digital manufacturing utilizes product life-cycle management (PLM) systems. A digital print silk scarf manufacturer will design patterns on one piece of software, determine the factory layout with another, interface with suppliers and determine material requirements with a separate MRP system, and distribute inventory with yet another. Integrating separate digital manufacturing processes into PLM systems increases efficiency throughout a product’s life span.

Digital twin-driven smart manufacturing is a key component of modern-day PLM systems. A virtual simulation of a product or a machine is updated with real-time data. This allows for virtual monitoring of production processes and an unprecedented level automation of quality control. For instance, a digital textile manufacturer can monitor ink levels on a simulated silk press given the designs and number of scarves being produced on a given day. These ink levels can be adjusted if the digital twin produces too many or too few scarves to meet the current demand. Did a viral YouTube video instantly drive up market demand for checkered fabrics? Social media monitoring software can feed that data right into the digital twin, who can instruct its real-world component to drastically alter the ink supply.

Companies like the Alibaba Group are disrupting the market as you read this by using data collection to provide enhanced sales forecasts and to paint a real-time picture of consumer preferences. Digital twin-driven manufacturing achieves excellence through virtual factory replication. Our silk scarf manufacturer is plugged into a smart PLM system that instructs factory machines to switch to a new pattern based on increased consumer demand. An optimal number of scarves to meet consumer demand are produced, with less wasted inventory and more customer satisfaction.

Innovation in Digital Manufacturing

These applications of digital manufacturing use artificial intelligence to adapt simulations and data analysis to an ever-changing reality. Artificial intelligence adds agility to a complex digital manufacturing PLM system. Without the ability to adapt to new circumstances, a static algorithm quickly becomes cumbersome. Smart PLM systems already in use now will no doubt undergo significant innovation in the future.

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The future of digital manufacturing

From digital marketing strategy for manufacturers to optimization of the factory floor plan, it seems like automation, AI, and robots have pervaded almost every sector. Still, there are a few industries that are slow to adopt digital manufacturing—like pharmaceutical companies. When medical imaging, pharmaceutical, and other life sciences companies begin to implement smart technology and automation, the changes in the field will be staggering. Conversion of a biomedical factory from producing one vaccine to another could be automated and controlled by highly evolved digital twin smart manufacturing technology.

With the heavy workload imposed by AI systems and the sheer amount of data that must be collected and analyzed to keep a large factory going, serverless computing is often cited as a feature of digital manufacturing. Without maintaining their own servers, a vaccine company can monitor production in real time with a smart, data-driven PLM system on a virtual server.

But “serverless computing” is really a misnomer. The servers are still there—controlled by a third party. In the future, digital manufacturing may move away from storing key software and databases on someone else’s servers. Savvy manufacturers are already moving toward company-owned servers that are managed using proprietary software.

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Experts predict that specialist roles will emerge for navigating these new digital manufacturing technologies. 

Team at Digital Manufacturing plant

Digital manufacturing in industry 4.0

We are living through industry 4.0: the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by automation and digitalization in manufacturing. What began as an early implementation of algorithms to address supply chain logistics has evolved into a comprehensive virtualization of product design, digital marketing, quality control, and many other aspects of manufacturing. Now and in the future, successful digital manufacturers will need to consider computing hardware and software in tandem with their factory infrastructure.


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