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Digital Manufacturing for Small Manufacturers

men looking at a laptop in a digital manufacturing facility

This article originally appeared on IndustryWeek. Guest blog post by Dave Boulay, president of the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC), part of the MEP National NetworkTM.


Smart Manufacturing. Factory of the Future. Industry 4.0. These are the buzzwords used by those driving the manufacturing world forward. At the heart of these concepts is digital manufacturing and design (DM&D). But what exactly is DM&D? And what does it mean for the small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) that make up the majority of the industry?

At a basic level, DM&D is simply using digital technology to collect and use information to increase efficiency across the entire lifecycle of a manufactured product. It’s an integrated approach that brings together software, data, and control systems to model, simulate, analyze, control, and optimize a product’s design and manufacturing process, as well as the ongoing operation, maintenance and end of life phases. Digital technology radically increases the efficiency of each step in the product lifecycle and offers new ways to use data to make decisions in real time that optimize processes.

The Digital Twin & the Digital Thread

Current design software enables manufacturers to create a “digital twin,” a virtual replica of a physical part or product. This virtual product opens the door to an unprecedented level of collaboration, tapping multiple sources of expertise across multiple disciplines throughout the supply chain. With it, stakeholders involved at various levels can engage in real-time, virtual product and process optimization.

This is where the real magic of DM&D happens: syncing together processes and companies in a “virtual vertical integration,” where assets are independently owned and operated, but managed as if by a single organization. In this scenario, stakeholders throughout the supply chain will be connected to a larger system and information will be shared across an integrated network that includes everyone from raw-material providers to end customers.

This communication network linking siloed functionalities is known as the “digital thread.” It connects different parts of the manufacturing and product lifecycle through data. By adopting digital manufacturing and design tools and methodologies, SMMs can become a part of this new paradigm, where OEMs such as Amazon and General Electric manage the process as a virtual vertical integrated enterprise.

The Role of Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers

In this vision of the Factory of the Future, SMM suppliers will need to be integrated into OEM’s processes and software. As a part of this new supply chain, OEMs will expect SMMs to be able to collaborate on digital design and engineering and to use digital manufacturing tools to optimize production. SMMs that fall behind on these digital capabilities may lose out to competitors. On the other hand, both OEMs and SMMs will benefit from these new technologies, and connected through the digital thread, OEMs will be able to provide assistance to SMMs to advance their processes and enhance production.

Fortunately, the sharp cost decline over the last few decades has made it possible for companies of any size to make modest investments that will allow them to reap the rewards of digital technologies. Today, with the right partner, SMMs can easily commit to DM&D investments that will provide value to their customers such as:

  • Data-driven production planning
  • Automated data exchange with customers and suppliers
  • Design tools that bridge manufacturing processes
  • Automated machine data capturing and analysis
  • Cybersecurity protocols for equipment, employees, and the enterprise overall

Furthermore, these strategies make perfect sense for today’s high-mix/low-volume production environments as they can help with:

  • Optimizing manufacturing execution performance
  • Ensuring overall product and process quality
  • Enabling cost-competitive manufacturing

In other words, by embracing accessible digital manufacturing and design techniques, SMMs can tackle their present needs as well as secure a place in the supply chain of tomorrow.

To learn more about digital manufacturing and design — and to start assessing how it can be incorporated into their operations — manufacturers can contact their local MEP Center. Part of the MEP National Network, a unique public-private partnership that delivers comprehensive, proven solutions to U.S. manufacturers, fueling growth and advancing U.S. manufacturing, your local MEP Center will be able to recommend trusted resources for developing your company’s digital future.

About the author

David Boulay

Dr. David Boulay is President of IMEC, a public-private partnership, committed to driving growth through enterprise excellence. In this role, Boulay centers his passions on the intersection between economic development, workforce development, and manufacturing competitiveness. With over twenty years’ experience in manufacturing, university, and non-profit settings, he brings a diverse blend of expertise in performance management, small business development, and organizational growth strategies. 

Over the course of his career, Boulay has held leadership roles with several manufacturing companies, The Ohio State University South Centers, and North Carolina State University’s Industrial Extension Service. He has created and implemented several initiatives designed to increase the flow of state and federal funding to manufacturers for projects to improve energy efficiency, update worker skills, and help smaller manufacturers adopt new technology and business practices.

Boulay holds a Ph.D in Workforce Development and Education, an M.B.A., and a B.S. in Operations Management.

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