Digital Thread: Creating A Self-Improving, Brilliant Factory

Christine Furstoss, Global Technology Director, GE Global Research
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Christine Furstoss, Global Technology Director, GE Global Research

Innovative manufacturing processes and manufacturing execution systems have transformed the plant floor over time. Rapidly however, technology is reaching a tipping point where new advancements and improvements will come from the machines and systems themselves through predictive technology, advanced controls, and Smart Manufacturing systems.

Henry Ford perfected the Assembly Line, Toyota introduced the concept of "Lean Manufacturing", and more recently, GE opened a new battery factory that illustrated concepts of Smart Manufacturing ; how sensors and data analytics can improve the speed and efficiency of operations. Tomorrow, GE sees a self-improving, agile, connected supply chain, communicating and operating through a digital thread in real time.

When designing a new product, a CAD designer creates a model of the part or product to be made. That CAD designer may crowd source with other CAD designers - hundreds, perhaps even thousands - to create an optimal design. Once a design has been determined, it is transmitted digitally to manufacturing engineering. Here the manufacturing processes are modeled and simulated. Are features producible? Will the manufactured part give a structure that will survive the stresses it encounters when in use? What trade-offs can be made to open up the tolerance to improve part yields? There are a few of many questions you can test and simulate. In addition, factory flow and layout, robots and manufacturing controls will be simulated and optimized prior to actual production.

Once the design is created and the processes virtually validated, all of those data get transmitted to the brilliant factory where intelligent machines will accept and translate the data to physically make that part or product. This brilliant factory has more than just the product and manufacturing process information; it is digitally connected real-time to its suppliers to optimize production control and logistics. But the digital thread does not stop there.

As any plant operator knows, the unexpected is bound to occur in your manufacturing process. An operator might be absent, a machine breaks down, a part from a supplier does not arrive in time, or the variation in incoming material causes a process to be out of control. The brilliant factory will help adjust to problems with through put, quality, and fulfillment optimizing the extended enterprise in real time. In fact, utilizing predictive capability, the brilliant factory even reacts to problems that have not even happened yet, resulting in a factory that literally never stops. Knowledge gained from the manufacturing process can be fed back instantaneously to the virtual manufacturing stage to make modifications and improvements. Once tested, new and improved processes can be sent back to the brilliant factory to be implemented (production feedback loop).

Once a product has been out with a customer for some time, it will need to be serviced. It is at this stage that a lot of new insights about the product’s usage and shortcomings can be determined. In fact, servicing parts can be thought of as a failure mode and effects analysis for 100 percent of the products, which allows for improvements in the design and manufacturing process (design feedback loop). both the production and the design feedback loop capture information and generate new knowledge for engineering and manufacturing of new and existing parts. This is the essence of GE’s selfimproving brilliant factory. What we are building is a truly open collaborative innovation model that captures and acts on new information in ways that allow product design and manufacturing processes and systems to continuously improve. What’s truly amazing is that we are rapidly reaching a point where machines will be able to make these optimizations themselves through realtime analytics and controls.

Increasingly, the key to manufacturing competitiveness will reside in who can offer the highest value at the lowest cost point. On both fronts, technology will be the driver. The digital thread, with its feedback loops, is here and it will become even more pervasive as the quest for higher value, higher productivity and higher degrees of efficiency continues. Its impact will grow because the advancements in computing power and the Industrial Internet are creating the platforms needed to enable it to function.

Increasingly, the key to manufacturing competitiveness will reside in who can offer the highest value at the lowest cost point. On both fronts, technology will be the driver. The digital thread, with its feedback loops, is here and it will become even more pervasive as the quest for higher value, higher productivity and higher degrees of efficiency continues. Its impact will grow because the advancements in computing power and the Industrial Internet are creating the platforms needed to enable it to function.

These are very exciting and dynamic times in manufacturing; however, many technology challenges still exist. To unlock the huge benefits promised by Smart Manufacturing we will first need to connect sensors, machines, networks, and PLM, manufacturing execution and supply chain software of different ages and sophistication which will require interoperability standards. Sensing hardware, feedback and control loops and equipment flexibility must advance to new levels. However, the resulting connected extended enterprise will allow us to unleash the power of analytics, simulation, and optimization and develop real time data-driven manufacturing solutions to reap the benefits of Smart Manufacturing.

As we look ahead to manufacturing in the 21st century, we see a digital thread empowered by information that pushes the boundaries of what's possible in manufacturing. Information is the value proposition that will define its future.

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