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What are some applications that qualify as digital manufacturing technologies?

Digital manufacturing is a broad term that embraces a concept of data-driven connectedness. Here are two areas of enterprise technology that can help create it.

If you've been confused about what digital manufacturing means in terms of the actual digital manufacturing technologies,...

you're not alone.

First and foremost, digital manufacturing is a strategy. Ideally, this comprehensive strategy for managing and sharing engineering data -- product definitions, bills of materials (BOM), engineering specifications, etc. -- through the entire product lifecycle can be valuable for design improvement, product support and logistics. But how do you implement digital manufacturing? What counts as digital manufacturing technology?

You can't buy a digital manufacturing application. You can, however, make smart choices when you add or replace basic manufacturing and engineering applications or suites and piece together the infrastructure to build your own digital manufacturing environment. Many of the pieces may already be in place and may only need to be tied together. Here are two broad areas you'll want to research.

CAD/CAM foundation to digital manufacturing

Most companies already embrace digital product design and specification in the form of CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing). The resulting digital files are routinely passed to manufacturing in the form of machine instructions and work instructions. That's a good start.

This data is often duplicated in the management systems, typically in ERP systems, but rarely shared or interfaced digitally, and that's the first challenge of implementing digital manufacturing.

Enabling digital manufacturing through ERP

An ERP system's product data management module stores item definitions and specifications, BOMs and routing data for use in the planning, scheduling, production control and costing applications. Multisite organizations use a variation of this facility, called master data management, which acts as a central repository for product data for the entire enterprise.

Most often, ERP product data or master data is manually entered and controlled. Digital manufacturing would rather that engineering and ERP share a single database, or at the very least have the engineering applications automatically update product data and maintain continuous synchronization. In this way, there is no ambiguity or duplication for one version of the truth, as engineers like to say. Look for engineering and ERP systems that talk to each other, offer engineering release functionality to exchange data or are capable of data transfer (APIs, user exits, open interface design) to accommodate your custom or third-party engineering change or engineering release software.

On the lookout for digital manufacturing technologies

A comprehensive ERP suite may have applications for field service, warranty tracking and product lifecycle management. Or there may be equivalent modules available from third-party sources. An ideal digital manufacturing infrastructure includes these applications, using the same database to avoid duplication and to keep all the parts of the enterprise in sync.

Data collected and used by these downstream functions should be added to the master data established in engineering. It should then be carried through production and distribution to create an end-to-end history of the product's design, manufacturing, use, maintenance and ultimate disposal, remanufacturing or recycling. Engineering and design can use this data to improve design, performance and support. Service benefits from knowing which parts to stock and what maintenance will extend product life and improve performance.

Engineering analysis can improve performance and longevity in future products and variants. 

Next Steps

How to create a digital manufacturing strategy

How the internet of things and digital manufacturing work together

Manufacturing gets a digital makeover

This was last published in May 2017

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