Manufacturing Innovation Institute Will Build "Digital Commons"

April 9, 2014

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A new Chicago-based manufacturing research hub, introduced recently by President Barack Obama and funded in part by the federal government, will develop digital technologies to raise the capabilities and competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector. Among the innovative efforts planned for the Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation (DMDI) Institute will be what its leaders are calling the Digital Manufacturing Commons (DMC).

Speaking with ThomasNet News, William King, chief technology officer for the new digital lab, described the DMC as “an open-source-software collaboration tool for design and manufacturing,” in which “distributed teams can work together in a common virtual space and use it to share data and information.” King said the DMDI plans to have a demonstration version of the DMC working this year.

Christine Furstoss (pictured below), global technology director for manufacturing and material technologies at General Electric (GE), believes that the Digital Manufacturing Commons will help solve a key problem in the U.S. manufacturing sector: disjointedness in technology development. GE is one of the key industry participants in the new institute.

“Being a diversified industrial company, we are in the forefront in many new manufacturing technologies,” she told ThomasNet News. “We are also working with many types of design technologies. But what is the means of tying this all together and working with small and medium-sized enterprises? How do we share information and collaborate in an effective way? Right now, that can be very difficult.”

Furstoss said GE plans to contribute capabilities and technologies that the company uses internally to benefit the larger network of partners that is coming together around the DMDI hub. “We have platforms and software that allow us to collaborate effectively, and software and physical tools that help us optimize the factory floor,” she said. “As a partner in this, we plan to bring in some of our tools and help others adapt them for use. And we plan to learn from others, as well.”

As the institute’s first effort, the Digital Manufacturing Commons will help partners not just by sharing technologies and ideas, but also in fostering a culture of collaboration. “To me, that will be the first thing,” said Furstoss, who added that another goal is “to find out what collaboration feels like for other companies, whether [they are] manufacturers or suppliers or customers.

“What kind of information would help them do what they do better?” she continued. “How can everyone be more robust? What do people need, and how will they use it? It will be an ecosystem of manufacturers and suppliers working together.”

The White House recently announced two new manufacturing innovation hubs supported by the Department of Defense (DoD) with $140 million in federal funding. The DMDI Institute will be headquartered in Chicago and led by research collaborative UI Labs, which will coordinate a consortium of 73 companies, universities, research labs, and other organizations. The other hub, the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation (LM3I) Institute, will be centered around the Detroit area.

The DMDI initiative will focus on the integration of information technology with manufacturing, according to the White House, to “enable interoperability across the supply chain, develop enhanced digital capabilities to design and test new products, and reduce costs in manufacturing processes across multiple industries.” Along with GE, consortium participants include Autodesk, Boeing, John Deere, Caterpillar, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, and Dow Chemical.

“Manufacturing is a $3 trillion-dollar sector in the American economy,” said King, CTO of the DMDI hub. “But in many ways, it’s still kind of a clipboard, paper, and pencil world. What I tell people is that the challenge for manufacturing companies is the same as it’s been for many years: How do you design and manufacture more products, get them to your customers as fast as possible, and make the best use of resources along the way, and doing all that with high quality?”

Digital technologies have the potential to improve that picture, though. “What has changed is that we have massive computing capabilities,” said King, citing “cloud computing [and] pervasive mobile technologies” as the enablers. “We all carry supercomputers around on our smartphones. What’s going to happen is we are going to bring this massive computing power to bear on the challenges in manufacturing. That’s the new thing.”

King gave an example of what the DMDI Institute will be working on: “One of the low-hanging fruits is what I would call the link between the design and the make. What’s happened over the last couple of decades is we’ve separated the designers and the makers through outsourcing and offshoring. In many cases, the designer of something is not even in the same time zone as the person who makes the thing. It takes a huge effort for designers and makers to collaborate.”

The trend in reshoring manufacturing to the U.S. is based in part on the desire to bring it closer to design again in the product life cycle, which will foster innovation, it is believed. “Some of the barrier is on the technology side, some of it is logistics, some of it is skills,” he explained. “In many cases, you have a big manufacturing company with lots of technology and a highly educated workforce, dealing with a supplier that is much smaller and doesn’t have the technology or the people.”

Designers and producers suffer from other barriers around organization of the work, incentives, and issues of trust and intellectual property. Such barriers, King asserted, can be broken down through technology-based collaboration and computing power. “When I design a product in cyberspace, I can see it before it has even been prototyped. I’ve got the design on my computer and can make changes to improve it, to look at different costs and even levels of quality and see those changes instantaneously,” he said. ”Maybe I can even see how the product might be sourced through different suppliers because of the changes I’ve made.

“In the present state, it’s hard to collaborate, technology is slow, and we have organizational barriers,” King said. “In the future state, we apply digital technologies to close that loop much faster. The design-make relationship is the low-hanging fruit, but I can tell stories that look like that about the whole product life cycle.”

UI Labs received $70 million in DoD funds for the DMDI hub and secured another $250 million in support from industry, universities, and government and community sources. This brought the total institute’s funding to $320 million.

Background materials from UI Labs say that the DMDI effort is conceived to commercialize research and to create an innovation “ecosystem” to “increase the innovative capacity of OEMs and their suppliers through digital integration and strategic collaboration.” The institute will focus on three key technology areas:

  • The Advanced Manufacturing Enterprise (AME) -- “Agile and robust manufacturing strategies and integrated capabilities that dramatically reduce the cost and time of producing complex systems and parts.”
  • Intelligent Machining (IM) -- Development of “self-aware manufacturing” through integration of smart sensors and controls throughout the production environment.
  • Advanced Analysis (AA) -- Using high-performance computing for modeling of materials, processes, and products to enable “design with manufacturing in mind.”

While the program’s key partners number 73 -- 40 industry participants and 30-plus educational, government, and community organizations -- UI Labs stresses that the network of beneficiaries is much wider. Membership and participation is open to potentially thousands of smaller manufacturers and supply-chain partners that want to get involved.



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