5 Companies Using Digital Manufacturing

Digital, smart and intelligent manufacturing is the new standard for businesses

Digital manufacturing is the application of digital technology to enhance the manufacturing process – including product, supply chain and relevant services. Digital has been a feature of manufacturing for at least the past 30 years, but recent technological developments have seen an explosion in the kinds of tools that are available.

Many countries are strategically pursuing digital manufacturing policies – from Industrie 4.0 in Germany, Made in China 2025, and Smart Manufacturing from the USA’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. But what can individual companies do to keep up with digital manufacturing trends? D/SRUPTION examines 5 businesses who have concentrated their efforts on smart, digital or intelligent manufacturing systems.

1) Adidas Speedfactory

German sports-goods firm Adidas brought its manufacturing back to its home country with the creation of its Speedfactory in 2017. Constructed in collaboration with a local manufacturing equipment firm, the Speedfactory uses digital technology to drastically cut lead times on new trainer designs. By designing shoes digitally, testing them virtually for fit and performance, and simulating their production on a digital twin, the company can anticipate any problems before they reach the physical manufacturing stage.

Highly automated machines on the factory floor – such as industrial 3D printers – take care of most of the manufacturing processes at the Speedfactory, ensuring that production can quickly switch to different trainer models. With growing customer demand for personalisation and the fast delivery of products, this kind of factory is a sign of future manufacturing expectations.

2) Bosch and the IIoT

Over the past four years, engineering and technology company Bosch has made more than €1.5bn with Industry 4.0 applications. By 2022, the organisation wants to raise this figure to €1bn annually. Nowhere is this emphasis on digital technology more evident than in Bosch’s Automotive Diesel System factory in Wuxi, China, where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and advanced data analytics has been applied to factory machinery.

By embedding sensors to machines and analysing their data in real time, engineers have been able to predict faults. This has enabled them to prevent unplanned downtime by fixing problems before they occur. Bosch reports that this approach has increased output by more than 10 per cent in some areas of the factory, while also improving delivery and customer satisfaction.

3) Tata Steel and Analytics

In January 2019, the World Economic Forum recognised Tata Steel’s steelmaking plant in the Netherlands as a factory of the future, inducting it into its community of ‘Lighthouses’ – manufacturing facilities which are deemed to be leaders in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The site at IJmuiden, which produces steel in a variety of different finishes, is lauded for its use of advanced analytics. This important digital technique is applied to optimise yields from raw materials, improve logistics between the various manufacturing processes, and increase the overall quality of the finished product. In addition, Tata also instituted an Advanced Analytics Academy for its employees, helping them to find solutions to waste reduction, and quality and reliability improvements.

4) General Electric and AR

One important emerging technology in the digital factory is Augmented Reality (AR), which can improve manufacturing in a variety of different ways. Employees can interact with complex machinery in the virtual world for training purposes, enabling them to learn without interrupting factory operations. AR headsets also give factory workers access to additional visualised information, such as machinery performance statistics, product assembly guidance and sites of potential malfunction.

General Electric Aviation recently piloted AR glasses to help engineers manufacture jet engines. Through the use of AR glasses and industrial AR software, workers received instant feedback on whether or not they were properly tightening and sealing nuts in the engine. This resulted in considerable time savings, with mechanics reporting increased efficiencies of between 8 and 11 per cent. It was also instrumental in improving quality control and safety standards.

5) Tesla and intelligent automation

Intelligent automation is one of the defining characteristics of Tesla’s manufacturing model. What does this mean in practice? The integration of digital technologies such as robotics, data collection, and advanced analytics with operations, all controlled by the Tesla Manufacturing Operating System.

With intelligent automation, you might expect to see a lot of robots, and that is exactly what Tesla’s factory in Freemont, California, delivers. A host of 200 robots carries out procedures such as welding, assembling, and painting the cars on the assembly line. The size of the factory also impacts automation – at 5.3 million square feet – the site is large enough to keep many manufacturing operations in house, but that’s a lot of different processes to keep running smoothly.

The increasing size of factories may come to define manufacturing in the future, if Tesla’s other industrial operations are anything to go by. In 2014, construction began on the company’s Gigafactory which produces lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. When completed, Tesla anticipates that the factory will be the biggest building in the world, with corresponding economies of scale aimed at lowering the cost of battery cells and making electric vehicles more widely accessible. Two further Gigafactories are now also underway, which will produce Tesla vehicles and battery cells.

Making the grade

With technologies such as advanced analytics, automation and AR in the mix, it’s clear that manufacturing in the future will look very different to what we’re used to. These changes are already beginning to happen. Although digital manufacturing can take many forms, its overall aim of increasing productivity, lowering costs and reducing errors is a worthy aim for all businesses. Like many industries, manufacturing has been slow off the mark with digital disruption, but these innovative companies show that change can be managed effectively, and for significant business advantage.

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