Digitalization / Smart Manufacturing / Predictive Maintenance

Building a digital manufacturing playbook for small to midsize manufacturers

In this Big Picture Interview, a public-private team takes on the digital manufacturing awareness gap.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

When it comes to digital manufacturing, the big names in industry—Fortune 500 manufacturers and tier-one suppliers—can and do shell out big bucks to identify their best options for digitalizing management of their operations, maintenance, and supply chain. For small to medium-size manufacturers, resources to do the same often are in short supply, resulting in a gap in not just adoption of digital monitoring and analytics tools but awareness of what digital manufacturing encompasses (and why it’s worthwhile).

Christopher Peters, CEO of The Lucrum Group, and Gregory Harris, an associate professor of engineering at Auburn University and director at the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Center, are investigating and trying to address this gap as part of a project coordinated by Chicago-based digital manufacturing institute MxD. They spoke with Plant Services about their survey of smaller manufacturers and the new online digital manufacturing resource that will launch on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (nist.gov) website.

PS: What prompted this survey of small to midsize manufacturers, and what were your top takeaways?

GH: The initial effort for this came from a workshop that MxD had where they were looking into trying to identify what were the next big areas that needed some help, and some industry members were saying we just need help in getting our suppliers engaged with digital manufacturing. The idea came up of, “What if we build a playbook for OEMs and small to medium manufacturers to use in helping them along the journey of becoming digitally capable?”

We had a plan to go out and do some interviews with companies. We got into about five or six of them, and we were getting some consistent answers that were very troubling, in that companies just didn't know what we were asking them about. They didn't understand digital manufacturing. When you started getting into the supply base, these guys have their heads down and are really focused on just getting parts out.

We realized that we had a miscalculation—we had an assumption that about half of the companies would be ready for some level of engagement on how to go and implement now rather than, "What are you talking about?" That was quite a shock to us, and it made us have to step back and rethink the entire project, which we did over about a three-month period to go back and say, “You know, this really needs to be more about awareness and getting information out to people to help them understand the what and why they need to do this.”

CP: We started looking at, well, how are other countries or regions approaching (digital manufacturing)? We always knew there were differences, but (we found) that they were better at defining it and raising awareness of it.

GH: Communities (elsewhere) have done a better job defining what this is. In the small to medium manufacturing world, there is a lack of understanding and awareness of what digital manufacturing is and why they need to go try and do it. What I found interesting from our research of other countries was they had identified there was a problem, but also government and industry stepped in and started working on solutions at a macro scale. Once they identified it, they did something about it.

PS: What are your goals for this new digital manufacturing resource at NIST.gov?

GH: I spent 20 years in manufacturing before I came here. The larger companies have resources that can go out and investigate, what are the best options for us as a company, and we'll put a couple of engineers on that; we have some acquisition people; and they’ll go off and figure out what the best thing is and then come back and report on, "This is the software we need; this is the training we're going to have to have." Small to medium guys don't have that. So they end up doing this research in the evening between the time they've eaten dinner and they're putting the kids to bed. And now they have to figure out something called digital manufacturing or model-based enterprise, and they start getting into it and start to realize, there is no one answer out there. It's confusing; there's all kinds of issues associated with it. And then (if I'm a small manufacturer) I start looking at: "You're going to ask me to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars of my profit to go try to get this, to build infrastructure and capability within my factory? You know, I'm 55 years old and I've got 70 employees and my kids don't want my business. I'm not going to put $200,000 into this." We have this dynamic happening over and over all over the country. We have to figure out a way to help them understand how to do this and understand the benefits of this. One of the areas we've been focused on is getting the right message out there to help these guys figure out where the return on investment is in this and how it can benefit their company and make their life actually easier.

CP: When you look at the whole picture of digital manufacturing, that's a huge, complex undertaking. But there are small steps you can take. You can start very simply with a couple of basic sensors on a machine and start to get data that helps you improve preventive maintenance and move to predictive maintenance. One of the things we see that's a big challenge for small to medium size companies is they don't have basic software tools like an MES or an ERP. I think getting those in place can be a good starting point, and now you're starting to see a lot of cloud offerings for those types of tools. The cost and risk have come down significantly. It's such a big issue that countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom are subsidizing the cost for small and medium companies to buy those solutions just as a means to help them adopt more quickly.

PS: For small to midsize manufacturers dipping their toes in the water of digital, what other advice would you offer?

GH: A lot of companies are hesitant to attempt change on their critical activities, and therefore they attempt to transition to something, a new technology, on some of their secondary activities. And then they get frustrated because they don't see a benefit from it in their bottom line. If you're improving something that's not on the critical path, you're not going to see improvement on the bottom line. Companies have to be willing to tackle the big problems—the big problems that are really causing them to have increased costs, longer lead times, quality issues, or else you're never going to see a return on investment.