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Making Custom Machine—Building Accessible To All Manufacturers

The world is going digital. That doesn’t just change how we work and learn and shop, or what we do for fun; it changes how products are manufactured. Even the smallest machinery suppliers have to be able to create modular, customisable, multi-function designs that can be tailored to exactly what their customers need to build their products. Article by Frans Adamowicz, Solutions Director for Industrial Machinery and Heavy Equipment, Siemens PLM Software.

But that level of flexibility makes it hard to reuse designs because the requirements for each customer will be very different, and very specific each time, turning every project into a custom, one-off design. How do you get that flexibility without raising costs?

Industrial machinery manufacturers also have to be able to show customers, even before they deliver new machinery, how it should work and how it will integrate with other systems; that way, they can prove it will have the high ROI and low total cost of ownership product manufacturers are looking for. They have to comply with ever more regulations that cover the entire lifecycle of machinery, from energy efficiency in use right through to the eventual cost of reuse, recycling or disposal – and document that all the relevant regulations were met. And they have to be able to build and deliver these designs faster than ever to compete with new low-cost suppliers around the world, while still taking the time to understand exactly what the customer needs and how they’re going to use it.

To cope with these pressures from customers, competitors and regulators they need integrated tools that get rid of siloes because there just isn’t time to design, build and commission a machine as separate steps that move through different departments. A sequential process like that isn’t just slow; it runs the risk of losing information and introducing errors every time a design moves from one department to another. And it doesn’t reflect the realities of modern manufacturing.

Designs are getting more complex to accommodate; they might have sensors to monitor machine performance and output, and networking to connect multiple machines into a unified manufacturing system, alongside both software-based and physical controls. That complexity affects the physical design. You can’t afford to waste time at the end of a project redesigning a part or an assembly plan because the wires and cables can’t be connected correctly. When you’re testing the physical machine is far too late to discover that, for example, the control software doesn’t take mechanical limits into account.

Solution To Complexity of Designs

In fact, with so much software, automation and electronics in modern machinery, getting a design right needs a mechatronic design platform that handles much more than just mechanical CAD because tackling a problem will often require being able to work in multiple disciplines at the same time. The solution is investing in new digital technologies to create a digital thread of information that connects all the departments involved in a project and runs through every stage of gathering requirements and creating specifications, through design, development, production and commissioning, to delivery, support and monitoring in production.

This digitalisation lets you create digital representations of the smart, connected, custom machinery that customers are demanding. These ‘digital twins’ are immediately useful because you can use them to sell new machinery even before it’s built. Once you’ve made the sale you can hand over a digital copy of the real machine, so customers can prepare to install and integrate it with their existing systems, while you use the digital twin to build the new machines faster and with fewer mistakes or delays in commissioning, because you have a functional model that mechanical, electrical and automation teams can all work from together.

Creating that digital twin requires next generation design tools that go well beyond mechanical CAD to support a multi-disciplinary process that includes modelling, mechatronics, simulation, testing and performance validation. The right design tools can also make it easier for manufacturers to reuse existing modules for these very specific new orders.

Technologies To Simplify

New modelling technologies like generative design and topology optimisation find the best designs for components using constraints like maximum stress, size, weight and displacement, improving the performance and reliability of machinery. Single parts created with additive manufacturing could replace complex assemblies of precision components, as well as saving on weight and materials costs. Synchronous Technology makes it faster and simpler to create and change geometries while preserving design decisions, like keeping mounting points aligned or having the outer surfaces of a part stay parallel. Convergent Modelling Technology lets you work directly with facet and mesh models, without reverse engineering, alongside traditional CAD geometries. Rather than redesigning similar parts from scratch every time and increasing the amount of inventory you need to hold, you can reduce costs by incorporating existing components in a new design or designing a replacement that can be used in multiple projects.

Use mechatronic design alongside these modelling tools and you can validate design ideas quickly. Experiment early in the product development cycle, confident that you can see not just how a design looks but also how it will work, using physics-based interactive simulations of joints, actuators, motion, collision behaviour and other dynamic and kinematic properties.

For example, the faster operating speeds customers are asking for can actually lower production capacity if vibration at these faster speeds causes process inconsistencies or shortens the life of key components. Fully simulating operation of the machine running at higher speed will reveal the problem before the production line fails, and engineers can redesign parts to control noise and vibration, rerun the simulation to ensure the new design can run at full speed – and pass the details to the automation engineers to validate their machine operation routines without waiting for the new physical part. Integrated tools that use the digital thread allow you to take steps to improve the design of the machinery without slowing down the overall project.

Digital Twins

Digital twins continue to pay a dividend once the machinery is completed and delivered, because manufacturers can rely on the accurate digital representation to deliver any necessary after sales support more cost effectively. Streaming information from sensors in the machinery to monitor performance is an opportunity to deliver improvements later on, building brand loyalty, improving service revenue with predictive maintenance and uncovering needs customers don’t yet realise they have. Taken to the next step, the digital twin can lead to a whole new business model as a consulting solution provider where you make sure customers get the value from the expensive, custom machinery you’ve created for them with remote diagnostics, software maintenance and process optimisation, offering them the complete solution they’re looking for rather than an isolated machine.

The benefits of digitalisation can add up to a significant increase in production, creating more (and more efficient) machines with the same resources and either lowering costs or increasing output at the same cost. Think of it as a digital productivity bonus adding up to anything from 6% or even close to 10% of annual revenue. Investing in the next generation design tools needed to create custom machinery is the way to outpace commodity suppliers who can’t move this fast or deliver exactly what customers want, giving you a loyal customer base.


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