by Peter A. Bilello, President, CIMdata
Despite progress made by vendors and users, there are still product lifecycle loops that must be closed to facilitate the development, manufacture and support of globally competitive new products.
There has been significant progress made by both users and solution providers in closing the many still-open loops that exist throughout the product lifecycle and, for that matter, throughout the extended enterprise.
For many years, the PLM industry has greatly benefited from a steady stream of improvements in collaboration among ever more diverse enterprise groups—in data interoperability, for example, and in the transparency of workflows and processes. The development, manufacture and support of globally competitive new products are, however, still hamstrung by the remaining open loops new and old.
Within manufacturing, digital communication problems are nearly all resolved thanks to closed-loop controls on computerized production machinery, embedded quality assurance (QA) systems, statistical process control (SPC), manufacturing execution systems (MES), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and factory floor automation in general, plus engineering support and programming. All this technology is summed up as “digital manufacturing,” and, as with the Internet of Things (IoT), enhancements continue among competing sets of standards.
New sets of open loops are appearing around additive manufacturing/3D printing technology. In recent years, additive manufacturing has burst out of low-volume, highly customized production and prototyping into manufacturing in general. This loop-closing, game-changer melds design and forming into a machine-and-software package. That package, however, creates new connectivity needs with the rest of the enterprise. Prototypes have always been the lifecycle loop closers between design and manufacturing and between product development and customers.
In engineering, much remains to be done in closing the loops despite the almost universal employment of the tools and solutions in computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE) with its simulation, analysis and optimization capabilities. There are big pushes from engineering managers striving toward the so-called “single source of truth” and for more and better application program interfaces (APIs).
Among the many engineering challenges is the difficulty of verifying accurate translation of files between CAD/solid modeling and CAE systems with their dozens of file formats and versions. Ensuring the interoperability of these files with automated bidirectional file exchanges remains a headache, especially in large enterprises.
Between engineering and manufacturing, open loops appear regularly with each new product, its processes and new factory technology. With so much at stake, however—production bonuses, incentive pay, reputations—nearly all such loops are quickly closed. The usual strategy is engineering change management: fully documented and often partially automated. One successful approach is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Corrective Action Preventive Action (CAPA). CAPA, an offshoot of quality assurance, seeks to identify flaws in medical devices and surgical implants, correct them in manufacturing as soon as possible, and then document what was done to avoid a recurrence.
Between engineering, manufacturing and finance, a big remaining challenge is the bill of materials (BOM) in its many forms—the as-designed BOM, the as-engineered BOM, the as-manufactured BOM, and so on. Generated and managed with PLM and often executed by enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, BOMs themselves are loop closers. PLM-ERP connectivity and interoperability are steadily improving, but some open-loop issues are resolved only after time consuming face-to-face meetings.
Also closing loops are supply chain management (SCM) and customer relationship management (CRM). Both systems bear directly on the product lifecycle, but even the best of these implementations leave some loops open—among them, risk management. This, of course, is the realm of the prototype.
After a product leaves the factory, closing the loops is hit or miss. At best, design engineers and manufacturers get sporadic feedback from “the field,” very little of it useful. Field-service technicians are getting better at communicating with outsiders, but much remains to be done. The IoT is already proving valuable to them, if not yet indispensable.
In users’ hands, the situation is different. New input and feedback loops appear constantly in social media and close rapidly. Cellphones and video cameras monitor the customer “experience,” tracking shoppers through store aisles to reveal how they choose products. Many retail and apparel decision makers rely on these direct, immediate feedbacks plus analytics. Traditional customer focus groups are falling into disuse.
Closing the loops at the end of a product’s useful life is still being explored. The end-of-life challenge is to pull obsolete and worn-out products into next-life cycles of refurbishing, remanufacturing and re-purposing. This is the Circular Economy, which addresses risks to environmental sustainability caused by population growth and increasing consumption.
There are loops to be closed beyond these, however. The ultimate loops connect the physical world and its digital representations in the human mind. The most promising technique for linking them is virtual reality (VR). VR is the computer generation of lifelike, three-dimensional video representations of processes—interactive, animated and high-resolution.
VR merges CAE technologies with electronic/optical scans of the physical environment being examined, usually with high-performance computing (HPC). Pioneering VR efforts include Ford’s analyses of assembly line ergonomics and Lockheed Martin’s studies of F-35 Lighting II warplanes aboard aircraft carriers. VR is moving into medical design, construction and infrastructures.
VR is available as “immersive engineering” systems with room-sized display projections that surround the user with digital data and video and “augmented” reality that relies on 3D head-mounted displays. The latest in augmentation is the Microsoft HoloLens, a wireless headset display that generates interactive holograms; users say holograms enhance comprehension of complex products and systems with visual parallax for depth perception. Microsoft’s January 2015 launch of HoloLens put it ahead of Google Glass, which was pulled off the VR market for a time, and Facebook’s Oculus, still in development.
Product developers and manufacturers in the medical industry are well aware of the benefits of closing loops in surgically implanted devices, for example, as the SIMULIA image shows.
Infrastructure operations have virtual-to-physical challenges like those of regulated industries. A company called C3global helps users tackle them with infrastructure analytics, asset performance and asset lifecycle management. The company’s tools and strategies close loops between IT and operations in utilities (water, oil and gas) and electricity transmission. The company, which was recently acquired by Bentley Systems, uses configuration management, asset health monitoring, inspection, maintenance, and compliance.
Technology is also closing loops that are entirely in the physical world. In Japan, drone aircraft with scanners are replacing ground-based surveyors at construction sites, speeding up Komatsu’s introduction of automated earthmoving machinery and helping to solve a labor shortage. The Komatsu approach, called Smart Construction, goes far beyond what can be achieved with satellite-based GPS technology.
The same virtual-to-physical challenges drive in the decades-long quest for viable artificial intelligence, or AI. AI researchers seek to close the loop between human brain and computers with digital equivalents to human reasoning, learning, natural language processing, perception and much more. In academia, AI systems are built on mathematics, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience and computer science. Progress in AI has never been smooth, but Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and others have made significant commitments to furthering AI development.
To place loop closing in its broadest context, it is hard to find a technology trend from any place or from any time period that isn’t a loop closer. For millennia, technology has linked whatever is happening in our immediate environments to the human brain. This is much more than a mere linking of the physical and digital realms. The real role of technology, right up to today’s PLM solutions, is to connect the otherwise unconnectable. Connecting the unconnectable is much more profound often than technology’s humdrum everyday label, “the extensions of man.”
Closing the loops: micro and macro
Here are two very different examples of closing the loops. Each can be seen as micro and macro perspectives.
In the realm of the practical everyday business, showing the way is a CIMdata client that leases and services video game consoles. These devices have printed circuit boards, microprocessors, motherboards, card readers and built-in printers. All of these need periodic attention, as do casino slot machines and banks’ automated teller machines, which are similar in many ways.
After a thousand cycles, the consoles are brought in from gaming arcades for cleaning inside and out. After 10,000 cycles, which is usually several months, they are refurbished to original condition. After 100,000 cycles, or several years, the consoles are overhauled and remanufactured to new specifications and then repurposed to new types of games.
In the conceptual realm of closing loops is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation based in Cowes, UK, which acts as a catalyst for the Circular Economy. The Circular Economy is often expressed as having a steady supply of clean clothes without buying a washing machine. The Circular Economy focuses on what happens after a product’s original life ends, a role increasingly filled by the IoT and PLM as it is restructured into a true end-to-end enterprise innovation platform.
For physical goods, the Circular Economy is regenerative and restorative, “cradle to cradle” rather than “cradle to grave,” turnaround rather than termination. Instead of one-way trips to the scrap yard, obsolete goods get new lifecycles satisfying new requirements; worn-out products get new lives as something else. A new education and certification group, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, was launched last year in San Francisco.
A European Commission report titled “Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe” has drawn considerable attention to the Circular Economy. Commissioned by the MacArthur foundation and developed by McKinsey, the report estimates that manufacturers could save materials costs of up to $630 billion annually by 2025.
Thanks to the Circular Economy, it is conceivable that the notion of obsolescence—planned or naturally occurring—is itself destined for the scrap yard.