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Are Digital Tools the Future of Manufacturing Innovation?

Posted By Paul Tate, October 29, 2013 at 9:34 AM, in Category: The Innovation Enterprise

When Booz & Company published its latest Global Innovation 1000 rankings last week, one thing was abundantly clear: digital tools are now beginning to radically transform the entire innovation process.

Subtitled Navigating the Digital Future, the new study highlights the impact of new digital enablers on innovation and shows how companies are “using digital tools and processes to improve speed, decrease cost, enhance quality, reduce complexity, and sharpen insight into customer and market needs to improve their innovation efforts.”

Most importantly, Booz and Company found that these new tools are now delivering a real competitive edge: “Respondents whose companies made significant use of these digital enablers were much more likely to report that they outperformed competitors financially than were those who employed enablers more moderately,” say the authors.

Global R&D executives surveyed as part of the Booz study reported that their companies are now allocating an average of 8.1 percent of their R&D budgets to digital tools. These are beginning to influence every stage of the innovation life cycle, from collecting and analyzing customer insights, to generating and vetting new ideas, to designing and manufacturing new products, to tracking a product’s success once launched.

Such tools range from simulation and 3D printing - which the study also ranked as the most effective tool as part of the ideation phase of the innovation process - to market and customer insight enablers such as usage monitoring sensors, online discussion platforms, and big data analytics.

“We found that companies have a real opportunity,” stressed the report’s authors, “perhaps even an imperative, to rethink their digital tool kit. Indeed, we are seeing the first signs of a digital revolution that will transform how innovation is done.” 

A prime example of this emerged earlier in the month when Lockheed Martin showcased the way it is now applying new digital tools in its own innovation processes. During a tour of its Littleton, Colorado facility, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of production, Dennis Little, showed how the company has introduced what it calls its Digital Tapestry strategy -- a next-generation, Model Based Engineering (MBE) tool that integrates design and manufacturing into a single process by harnessing new techniques such as virtual reality and 3D printing.

The approach takes CAD design to a new level by providing a digital virtual environment called the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL), where designers wearing virtual reality visors and gloves can virtually manipulate parts or entire machines to see how they fit and operate together. Using CHIL simulation capabilities, hardware designs and manufacturing processes can be fine tuned in the virtual world before production or development begins. This allows engineers and technicians to validate, test, and understand products and processes early in program development, when the cost, risk, and time associated with making modifications are low. 

As the design engineers alter the designs or positioning of parts, the system automatically produces a constant stream of updated specifications. These can then be seamlessly transitioned to the factory floor by using the digital model to drive automated fabrication, increasingly using new technologies such as 3D printing. Lockheed Martin is already using 3D printing techniques to manufacture final parts for the F-35 fighter plane, and is now moving the technology into more general manufacturing at its Space Systems Company to print titanium satellite parts. 

“Our Digital Tapestry of production brings digital design to every stage of the production process for a fluid product development cycle,” explained Little at the event. "From 3D virtual pathfinding simulations to 3D printing, we are using innovative digital technology to streamline the manufacturing process for lower cycle times and reduced costs for our customers.”

The Booz report reflects this new wave of digital benefit, but adds that the technology alone will not be enough to drive future success. “Companies taking calculated risks when investing in digital tools are starting to see the benefits and are pulling ahead of competitors,” noted John Potter, managing partner of Booz & Company in London in a company statement. “To gain competitive advantage, this approach needs to feed into the organizational DNA of a company ensuring that they hire staff who are willing to learn and invest in new tools and processes in the digital sphere and that a culture of innovation is encouraged across the business production cycle.”

But “make no mistake,” concluded the Booz report, “digitization will change innovation, and companies should act now to avoid being left behind.”

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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