Making both CAD renderings and BOM information available to all systems on the factory floor and outside its doors cuts costs and raises productivity, whether the product is new or remanufactured.
Jean Thilmany, Senior Editor
For many years, a three-dimensional product remained locked inside the computer-aided design system, meaning only the engineers who had designed the model could access its associated data. Sometimes that information was shared with a select few people in manufacturing to assure engineers the part could be manufactured as defined.
In today’s digital age, manufacturers saw no reason for that information to go to waste.
They knew that model data could be used in a myriad of ways to improve efficiencies and cut costs. It could drive the build of a digital twin, for example, that mirrors how the product is operating in the real world. It could be associated with bill of material information to predict how much raw material to procure and to manage logistics.
Beyond the factory floor, marketing departments could refer to the models to answer potential customer questions. And they would certainly be a boon to service and repair people, who could consult them to learn more about a part and a product.
But freeing that information from the CAD system has come with two pretty significant drawbacks. The first is that CAD models must be essentially translated before they can be used by other software systems across the company. The second is the offer of data visualizations to any number of users. If they can see a rendering of the product, and can dive down into its individual parts they can better understand how the product works and to repair and maintain it.
And then there’s Industry 4.0, which moves to digitize the entire manufacturing plant. The move necessitates pushing product models—and the 3-D data they contain—across the extended enterprise to business systems like the enterprise resource management system.
“Access to 3-D models and product data across the extended enterprise has been a major barrier to collaboration for cross-functional teams for decades,” says Dan Murray, who founded Vertex. The company takes CAD information into the cloud and turns it into a high-quality rendering that is tied to the BOM.
The rendering software allows models and information to be quickly and easily shared with the ERP, the product lifecycle management, marketing, and many other business systems. That data has use beyond the factory walls. Repair and service people, for example, would easily be able to reference a simulated model on their tablet.
That’s a big key for Vertex. The rendered CAD models—no matter how intricate—are available on tablets and even smartphones, Murray says.
He showed the example of an intricate airplane model that included CAD information for every part on the aircraft, no matter how small. The rendered results were almost instantly viewable on a smartphone. Data-heavy sets like these can take several minutes to load even on a powerful desktop computer. To see the model pop up quickly and to manipulate it—zoom in on a part, move the drawing, and look up part information—in real time can actually be startling, just like the internet itself was in its early days.
For Industry 4.0, software like Vertex’s enables companies to integrate 3D visualization anywhere along the digital thread. Gartner research defines the digital thread—and by extension a product’s digital twin is “a virtual representation of a product, process, or system from inception, through production, to operation.”
The digital twin is made up of three main elements, says Mairi Kerin, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Birmingham in England. It’s comprised of:
• a real product in real space
• a virtual product in virtual space
• the connections of data and information that tie the “products” together
For digital efforts to move forward within manufacturing, product data must be easily integrated across all the systems that will use it, says Sonal Naik, managing director of Deloitte Catalyst, a consultancy that helps startups by connecting their prototypes with a larger community,
“As manufacturers continue on their digital transformation journey, the value of having data at the fingertips of all workers—whether it’s on a factory floor or in field service—is only growing,” Naik says. “When we turn that data from text into pictures and videos, it drives even more value.”
A thread through the middle
Though the digital thread ties every stage of a product by defining it in digital forms, the term mostly refers to products in their first go-round: from initial inception to creation. What’s not as discussed is how digital transformation applies for what’s called “middle-of-life” or remanufacturing, use.
The capability to share CAD models across many types of software systems holds great potential to drive that sector forward, say industry watchers including TWI, a membership organization in Cambridge, England, that consults with remanufacturing companies, offering information on engineering, materials, and joining technologies.
Remanufacturers rebuild and recover previously sold, worn, or nonfunctional product that can be rebuilt and recovered. They do this in a number of ways, including by disassembling and cleaning the product, repairing it, or replacing worn or obsolete components, according to TWI.
The remanufactured piece can be returned to a “like-new” or even a “better-than-new” condition. The process differs from recycling in that products retain their general form, even if it includes remade parts. With recycling, the product is broken down into component parts, which are then remade into something completely new, the consultancy says.
Those in the remanufacturing industry need straightforward access to a product’s digital twin: but that’s not always so easy for products that may have been produced a while ago or those where original manufacturers can’t provide a digital twin. After all, the digital factory is still in its infancy. Many companies don’t maintain model information and visual files.
The problem is compounded by the fact that no ultimate, universal definition of the digital twin—not to mention associated standards—exists today, say a team of four researchers who write about the challenges of using a digital twin for remanufacturing in the May 2022 issue of the International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology.
At every stage of the asset’s life, there is a need to update the virtual twin to match that of the real one,” writes Kerin, lead author the manufacturing journal paper. “However, there is still a need to access data from previous key points in the asset’s life.”
To use primary digital records, including a digital twin, in middle-stage remanufacturing, the researchers propose a unified modeling language that can be applied to generic assets to be remanufactured.
For example, the original as-built CAD data the digital twin provides can help remanufacturers find a way to machine a vital part they need to remake a product.
The researchers propose what they call digital siblings, which provide information about a product at different states of creation and use. These include the data information used to make the part, of course, as well as digital data on how the part might appear in the future states and at what manufacturers call end-of-life, which is when a product can no longer be used or remade, Kerin says.
The sibling could help remanufacturers determine if a product is at the end of its life, or if it could be remade.
“That way, remanufacturers have visibility of the previous state, current state, and potential future states of the asset whether that be a component, product, system, or process,” she says.
In addition, remanufacturers can use the bill of material data tied to the sibling to ensure their product will meet the definition of “remanufactured” by matching or surpassing the “as-new” performance the BOM depicts. If their parts lists match those of the original product, remanufacturers can be pretty sure they can say their products are “good as new.”
The generic asset model the researchers propose for digital siblings would use unified modeling language (UML), which is a standard way to draw software models, sketch out designs, or document existing designs and systems. To be useful for future digital sibling users, engineers will need to denote possible future processes the part might undergo. This could be part of the UML model before the original build is released, Kerin says.
Of course, an engineer drawing an original part model can’t be expected to know how the product will be remade, but the possible future processes give insight into the recoverable parts of an asset, she says.
Engine makers, for instance, might prioritize digital siblings for valves over pistons.
“A piston seizure can cause a catastrophic failure and unrecoverable engine; however, a valve seizure is likely to need only a cylinder head replacement making remanufacturing a more realistic proposition,” Kerin says.
Remanufacturers could also refer to a digital sibling to help plant the remanufacturing process, which today remains fairly manual and few decisions are automated. The CAD software used for original design does automate some processes. If an engineer changes the geometry within one part area, the software updates the measurements for other areas accordingly, she adds.
The digital tool could also be used to help simulate how a product functions before remanufacture and how it will perform after its remade.
“Simulate is significant when predicting life expectancy, failure modes, and processing outcomes for remanufacturing,” Kerin says.
No more sticky notes
To see how model data can best be shared within a typical manufacturing process, take the example of Vermeer Corp., which makes industrial and agricultural equipment. The company recently implemented Vertex to help with design review and approval.
Design reviews across departments often required slide decks created from CAD screenshots. Of course, they were not interactive.
The most complete review of design—called the milestone review—happens at the company after a physical prototype is built, says Ethan Roth, project engineers for Vermeer’s hose and harness routing team.
“After the technicians build the prototype, every relevant group in engineering and non-engineering visually reviews it in person,” says Roth. “There was no great way for those groups to provide notes and for engineering to aggregate them.”
Vermeer had come up with a manual solution; team members placed notes on the physical prototype with change suggestions. Of course, the notes resulted in rounds of follow-up emails and procedures and could result in late-stage, expensive design changes, Roth says.
The company has improved collaboration through its move to Vertex, which gives everyone access to full-scale model visualization, he says.
Milestone design reviews can now be done using virtual prototypes because the cloud-based software doesn’t use much computing power when compared to software housed on site. Team members can now leave feedback directly within the model rather than on sticky notes.
Also, the virtual reviews ensure that physical prototypes more closely follow design intent, saving time and cost, Roth says.
Vermeer, like many other manufacturers is taking steps into its digital future. And it’s finding that, by pushing CAD data out to many other departments, it can save significant time and money.
Murray, who owns Vertex, isn’t surprised.
Expect your technician to carry a tablet and to call up a full-scale CAD model of your dishwasher in the future. That can only make repairs easier and faster—and hopefully cheaper for the person who pays the repair bill.