Integrating technology with tradition: advancing advanced manufacturing

Originally published in the 2016 edition of Innovation magazine

It’s no easy task to name the differences between advanced manufacturing and traditional manufacturing. The distinctions are tough to pin down. Companies with histories of manufacturing automobiles, machinery and steel are typically considered traditional. Those manufacturing products in the realms of electronics, aerospace and medicine, for example, are often considered advanced.

Today’s manufacturing world, however, is infused with empowered workers, flexible assembly lines, lean manufacturing techniques, tightly integrated supply-chain vendors, smart robotics and optimized product designs. No executive would likely describe her company’s modern manufacturing techniques as merely traditional.

How, then, does one define advanced manufacturing in the second decade of the new millennium?

“Advanced manufacturing is characterized by the use of computing or data-driven processes to better enable manufacturing decisions, processes and optimization,” says Nathan Hartman, professor of computer graphics technology and director of the Product Lifecycle Management Center at Purdue. “The novel use and application of existing tools, materials and processes are also factors.”

For higher precision, longer life and lower-cost products, manufacturers are using existing materials in new ways and/or incorporating more exotic materials. Designers are shaping materials differently, carrying out traditional processes in a different order, or offering some combination of both.

“We have moved away from traditional ‘heat it and beat it’ manufacturing,” Hartman says. “It is no longer only about production. There is a life cycle view of products” that incorporates design, optimization, production, usage, support and, increasingly, recycling. “It’s changing the way people are working and companies are operating.”

Increasingly, Hartman says, products are being designed to capture, store and present information about themselves or the environment in which they’re used.

Modern automobiles are a good example. To predict motor oil life, designers consider vehicle type, engine size and typical usage conditions. Then they program vehicle computers to know the maximum number of engine revolutions after which the oil’s ability to properly lubricate the engine is likely to diminish. During every drive, the computer records the actual number of engine revolutions plus conditions like ambient temperature, frequency of stop-and-go driving and engine load. In mild weather and moderate load, the computer might wait to notify the driver to change the oil until it reaches that predetermined number of engine revolutions — which, under ideal conditions, might be every 10,000 to 15,000 miles. But if the car was driven frequently in extremely hot or cold weather or under heavy engine loads, the computer might call for an oil change after only 5,000 miles.

“We don’t have to change the oil every 3,000 miles anymore,” Hartman says. “Taking the car to the shop only when it really needs servicing is obviously better for both people and the environment. Designing the systems that make this possible is just one facet of advanced manufacturing.” Products that communicate in real time back to the manufacturer are another step forward.

Vehicle telematics, introduced in the 1990s through systems like GM’s OnStar, is an application of real-time data transfer that has become familiar to many consumers. By sending and receiving information via cellular and satellite links, a car may help its driver steer clear of traffic jams, avoid severe weather or summon help automatically on the driver’s behalf if the air bags deploy.

These principles are now being applied to the production and supply-chain stages of the product life cycle to help manufacturers understand production anomalies, in-service usage conditions of the product and the appropriate maintenance of a product over time.

Compiling all of the data necessary to design, simulate, model and optimize a product has required partnerships among companies. Designing a new commercial airplane, for example, involves the airplane manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, and the airline that will buy and fly the aircraft. Airlines have requirements for flight hours, fuel economy, travel distance and passenger capacity, among many other specifications. Airlines and engine manufacturers work together to meet those needs.

The role of data

Advanced manufacturers rely heavily on comprehensive data while simultaneously struggling to manage that data.

“It’s the Achilles’ heel in the entire manufacturing industry today,” Hartman says. “There are at least two issues: quantity and format. Airplanes and their engines are gathering information as they fly, and any one flight is recording terabytes of info. Think about how many flights are taken daily worldwide. Companies find themselves in a conundrum of what to do with all that data. How do they store it, distill it, analyze it and present it for human decisions?” Through a partnership with the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, known informally as the Digital Lab, Hartman and his research team at the PLM Center are tackling the data format issue.

One aspect of traditional manufacturing that remained constant through most of the industrial era is the two-dimensional design. “The 2-D, paper-based communication process was slow, arguably inefficient, and prone to error — usually human error,” Hartman says. “Yet we have drawings hundreds of years old that still exist, going back to early inventors who made drawings to document their work. Those exist because their medium of communication is a physical form that can stand up over time.”

As practices have evolved, product drawings have become increasingly detailed, sometimes providing enough information to enable one manufacturer to precisely replicate another company’s product years after the original manufacturer stopped building it.

Confronting challenges of a global marketplace

The manufacturing industry’s transition to the digital age solved some problems while creating others. In today’s global manufacturing environment it’s comparatively easy to transmit a technical data package — a term used especially by U.S. Department of Defense suppliers to describe the compilation of comprehensive data about a product, including requirements, design, materials, fabrication, operating parameters, provisioning and procurement strategy, and life cycle support — from designers on one continent to manufacturers on another. And software used to create modern designs often provides common ground among different manufacturing teams composed of disparate cultures.

“Even a large company like Boeing is an integrator of components manufactured worldwide,” says Timothy Ropp, associate professor of aviation technology and director of Purdue’s Aerospace and Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Technology Innovation (AMT-I) Center and its Hangar of the Future Research Laboratory. “Aviation is one of the most globalized industries. Even though English is the standard international language in aviation, it might not be an engineer’s first language. Technology helps bridge that gap.”

On the other hand, Hartman notes that the use of digital forms of technical data packages have led to three challenges: translating digital product data into real-world processes; clarifying contractual obligations of primary original equipment manufacturers and their suppliers given that historically their roles were likely different; and continually adjusting for the ongoing development and maturation of technology.

“Today’s 3-D design models are very sterile,” Hartman says. “CAD systems are very good at capturing shape, but they fall flat when capturing the behavioral and contextual information for a part. That kind of info was often included in those 2-D drawings.”

The fast-paced nature of the digital world offers challenges, too, he says.“Software rolls over every six to 12 months. There are incompatibilities even when we’re working with tools from the same software developer. Historically, we did not have to worry about ‘Paper 2.0’ in the context of a drawing,” Hartman says. “In a 2-D world, moving the paper was tougher. In today’s 3-D world, we have to be concerned about data security. Even the 3-D process has potential inefficiency and error.”

Ropp agrees. In some contexts, even with the best available technologies, the digital solution isn’t the right one.

Traditional technology still has its place

“Let’s say you’re in the avionics tunnel under an airplane, looking at a schematic on your phone. If you’re chasing a wire from nose to tail but have forgotten to set the phone’s software not to automatically rotate the screen’s content, then you lose your situational awareness,” Ropp says. “Also, you’re limited by the real estate of the screen — even a tablet’s screen. Having a wire run on paper, folded like an accordion into a technical manual, is actually easier and more accurate in this situation. Nate and I have both seen this. Sometimes it’s more efficient to use paper. You drop in your technology enablers when it makes sense.”

The PLM Center’s cooperative project with the Digital Lab will examine the methodology and technologies used during design and development of aerospace component parts. During the 3-D digital design process, Hartman’s team will create authoring sequences using the same commercial software tools most commonly used in industry. The new sequences will then be validated through industrial practice with sample projects by interviewing, observing, and interacting with partners who were not initially involved. Initial project partners are expected to be Rolls-Royce, Lockheed Martin, and ITI, an Ohio software firm.

Hartman also is working on a second Digital Lab proposal for Rolls-Royce, GE, Boeing, and ITI that would extend the technical data package model to include a design’s behavioral and contextual information as well as version, change and configuration-control data.

That goal is essential, Ropp says, because technical documentation often lags behind changes implemented to solve real-world problems.

“The technical manual for our Canadair Regional Jet might provide a specific procedure to replace a pump on the back of the wing — unscrew this plug, pull this component out, put a new one in,” Ropp says. He adds, however, that airline engineering departments frequently customize aircraft for specific mission profiles or in response to Federal Aviation Administration directives. “Now I have two new hydraulic lines around that pump. It’s airworthy, but the tech pub hasn’t been updated yet. So I could be reading a technical instruction online, and follow the procedure perfectly — yet do it perfectly wrong.

“Nate and I have the same philosophy. Humans must stay in the loop, in control of decisions, to troubleshoot and innovate. We want to truly leverage technology, not be bound by it.”


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