Until the advent of the PC, computing power was the domain of large companies that could afford massive mainframe computers. A similar dynamic is at work today, where entrepreneurs and small and medium-size enterprises can’t tap the latest technology because of cost. Larger companies all around the world are remaking themselves in a digital transformation, and the technology that enables this should be made available to their junior partners as well.
This is critical for today’s worldwide supply chains, which, along with globalization and e-commerce, have emerged as one of the most core and critical competencies in the modern world. A global supply chain now spans the planet, with suppliers that produce needed parts, components and subassemblies providing them to product manufacturers for assembly into their finished goods.
These larger manufacturers have invested heavily in digital transformation — like digital simulation, to prove things out beforehand by modeling a digital replica — and enterprise-wide digital makeovers are sweeping across industry after industry globally. Yet many organizations in their supply chains lack the resources to become full partners in these digital ecosystems.
I chose the word “democracy” to suggest that all participants in an industrial supply chain should have “equal” access to this important technology. This access would bring benefits not only to the supply chain member but also to the larger manufacturer, as the small firms would now have the tools to innovate performance and cost gains in their particular corners of the supply chain.
Right now, the benefits to the haves greatly disadvantage the have-nots. Using tools like digital simulation, the haves are able to explore the possibilities of a wide variety of manufacturing materials and processes without having to develop the real manufacturing system. This means that more alternatives can be considered — and more risk reduced — before the decisions are made to invest in the physical assets necessary to execute an optimal manufacturing strategy.
Small and medium-size businesses have been the have-nots, relying on the trial-and-error methods of the past — because the requisite investments in new simulation platforms, and supporting personnel fluent in the digital enterprise, are substantial, and beyond their means.
Purdue University is tackling this problem with a “virtual factory hub,” which will make advanced modeling and simulation tools available via a simple web browser and cloud services platform. This browser-based system with cloud computing will put the power of digital tools into the hands of engineers at smaller and medium-size companies — no matter their location or computer assets — so they can simulate different manufacturing strategies to predict how each will perform in actual use, in such industries as automotive, aerospace, and clean energy.
Our Composites Virtual Factory Hub at the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is investigating browser- and cloud-based delivery of “digital twins” — simulated, digital duplicates of manufacturing processes like additive manufacturing (3D printing), molding, and forming, which have been tailored for these high-tech combinatorial materials. Others are trying something similar in different sectors — for example, nanoHUB.org hosts simulation tools for nanoscale technology research, education and collaboration.
One of the biggest issues in business today is how to bring supply chain members into the larger digital enterprise, to close the loop on the complete digital transformation that is required for modernization and competitiveness. The democratization of innovative technologies like digital simulation will be a giant step forward toward achieving that aim.
by R. Byron Pipes, John L. Bray Distinguished Professor of Engineering; Member of the National Academy of Engineering; Executive Director of the Composites Manufacturing Simulation Center, Purdue University