Bringing a Digital Mindset to Manufacturing

The digital age will provide manufacturing insights that will save money and transform how we work across supply chains.

By Christine M. Furstoss
Technology Director, Materials & Manufacturing Technologies

As manufacturing leaders and innovators converge on Detroit for the annual Big M Conference, it’s clear the digital revolution in manufacturing has taken hold. Just glancing at the title of major talks and presentations in the conference program will show just how much digital has penetrated mindsets.

  • “Transforming Your Manufacturing Business for the New Digital Age”
  • “Expert Panel Discussion: SMAC and Other Roads to the Internet of Everything”
  • “Expert Panel Discussion: Navigating the Cloud for Small and Medium-Size Business”
  • “Cyber-Physical Systems, and Industry 4.0 in Big data Environments”
  • “The Industrial Internet: Optimizing Customer Experience and Engagement with Connected Industrial Machines”
  • “Brilliant Factory: Manufacturing from `The Cloud’ to the Factory Floors”

Are you beginning to see a theme here?

This week, GE joined the UI LABS-led Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation Institute (DMDII) in announcing the creation of an open-source platform that will form a “digital thread” in manufacturing.  Within two years, we expect this platform to support more than 100,000 users collaborating on manufacturing product development and design in the cloud. Within five years, it will support millions that allow entire manufacturing supply chains to interact and work the mechanics of manufacturing digitally.

This new platform, called the Digital Manufacturing Commons, presents yet another signal of the dramatic changes happening in manufacturing as the physical and digital worlds converge. We’re experiencing this transformation across GE’s 400 factories, which make everything from jet engines and medical imaging scanners to power generation equipment, locomotives, lighting systems and more.  As someone who has worked in and around GE’s manufacturing plants for more than 25 years, I could not have imagined just how much technology would change how we design and manufacture products.  But with the integration of software, analytics and digital assets, virtual reality is becoming a physical reality on the factory floor.

For you gaming fans, it’s like massive multi-player online (MMO) gaming meeting the real world of manufacturing. Like MMO, we can build things digitally before they’re even built with raw materials in a real factory. And with a digital record, you can go much faster and at much lower costs to retire or greatly reduce the manufacturing risks associated with the functionality and producibility of a part and how it’s manufactured in the factory. Furthermore, once you have a digital model of a part that you think will work, you can then build it, test it and — if it’s not quite there — tweak the model digitally to optimize it much faster. And this gets to the heart of why the digital age has been so embraced by the manufacturing world.

Manufacturers can achieve new degrees of speed, efficiency and yield with these digital tools that were previously not possible. At GE, I lead a team of 600-plus engineers around the globe who are literally working around the clock with engineering and supply chain leaders in our industrial businesses to instill and integrate these new digital tools in into their manufacturing operations. We call it the Brilliant Factory initiative.

But for as exciting as even these gains are, the true value of the physical/digital convergence in manufacturing will arrive when we can take track the entire lifecycle of our products digitally and feed information and learnings back to the production designers and to the virtual manufacturing engineers. This will provide new insights that enable them to improve a product and how it’s manufactured. It would essentially create a self-improving factory that never stops.

The digital age spreading through manufacturing has created a new mindset for manufacturing leaders and innovators. With new digital tools, the insights into the things we make and the factories that make them are like never before. These insights are opening our eyes to a whole new world of possibilities that will not only save the manufacturing sector hundreds of billions of dollars, but fundamentally change how we work across entire manufacturing supply chains.

 

This post originally appeared on GE’s Ideas Lab website. Ideas Lab is a place for debating and dissecting the future of manufacturing, transportation, energy, health — even the nature of business itself. GE’s unique thought-leadership platform is about sharing knowledge and instigating conversation among industry leaders and policy influencers — to help not only address today’s global challenges, but to prepare for what’s to come.