The rise of the digital factory

New digital factory systems are coming to market that work in tandem to automate additive manufacturing processes. (Image courtesy 3D Systems)

Industry analysis by Randall S. Newton 

Manufacturing companies are racing to digitalize their processes. From initial market planning to design and on to supply chain management and production, digital processes are changing most aspects of manufacturing. The factory floor is an exception. Generations-old processes, long lead times, and a disconnect from digital automation is still the norm at most companies. 

Some companies are embracing a new initiative, the digital factory. You don’t buy a 3D printer and suddenly have a digital factory. You transform a traditional factory to a digital factory when your product intellectual property, your workflow intellectual property, and your supply chain connections are all digital. Using CAD and PLM, for example, does not give you a digital factory workflow if you are designing parts for traditional factory production methods.  

The process of converting to a digital factory starts with digital part automation. First, digitally optimize a part for fit, form, and function. There is a new generation of CAD tools for this, including such names as nTopology, ParaMatters, Frustum, Dyndrite, and more. Then choose the right material for the part. Only then do you choose which 3D printer to use, or decide the part still requires a traditional production method.  

When all product decisions have been made, it may be the digital process is to use 3D printing to create molds for thermoplastic injection molding, or 3D printing wax casting for foundry work. Or the job could require an initial production run of a few hundred parts using metal 3D printing while the factory sets up for a longer manufacturing run. 

The key is to optimize each step of the workflow, then connect to other digital processes. Start by designing a part and optimizing it for additive manufacturing. Then work through how this design plan affect the rest of the production chain. When you get to a smooth workflow for one part, then try it with an assembly. Keep a close eye on the impacts of going digital on all existing processes. 

New business models are arising to take advantage of digital processes. Customers expect rapid design iteration and state-of-the-art materials. Manufacturers can become more agile by including manufacturing in their digitalization transformation. There are new 3D printing processes available that can reinvent foundry production, mold making, and rapid tooling. Vendors, processes, materials, and build specifics vary wildly from one vendor to the next. Most companies investing in additive manufacturing do not work with only one vendor. 

New so-called “unbuildable” parts can be created with additive manufacturing processes. Such new parts can simplify or eliminate assembly processes. The new generation of additive manufacturing products offer high repeatability, which improves productivity.

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