How Digitization Will Drive Future Manufacturing Success

But in crossing the “valley of death,” American manufacturing has much to learn from others. In Germany, for example, the Fraunhofer Society does research for both the public and private sectors, examining early-stage ideas, determining if they can be affordably scaled up and then readying the best ones nearly to the point of commercial launch. There are 67 locations spread throughout Germany, each focusing on different fields, from an applied polymer research facility in Potsdam to a laser-technology redoubt in Aachen.

DMDII wants to accomplish something similar for digitization of manufacturing in America, but there are three obstacles. The first is that manufacturing today remains largely a “pencil-and-paper industry” outside of the very biggest companies, King says. The second is that designers and “makers” continue to be separated, in part because of inefficient structural legacies and also partly because U.S. manufacturers have outsourced and offshored so much engineering and production. The third challenge in the U.S. is an acute shortage of workers who are skilled and capable enough to work in today’s advanced-manufacturing environment.

Digitization can help solve each of these problems to varying but great degrees, King says, which is the raison d’étre for DMDII. In fact, the institute calculated that a digital revolution could create almost $500 billion a year in total value among only the 41 companies that are funding the institute—and they’re among the most digitally savvy manufacturers in the world. Such gains would come from accelerating R&D, improving production operations and many other areas. “This is a staggering opportunity,” King says.

“In crossing the “valley of death,” American manufacturing has much to learn from others.”

To take advantage, the institute’s overarching goal is to create a “digital thread” of data that is generated across the lifecycle of a manufactured product, enabling a seamless flow of information among all functions and members of a supply chain. The organization of the Goose Island facility itself illustrates this objective, including a “collaboration space” to stage teamwork and a technology-demonstration facility stocked with robots, 3D printers and other digital equipment.

Three of DMDII’s first pilots also point to this approach. One is testing how to aggregate images of products and processes that are generated by “wearable” computers donned by factory-floor workers, learn from the results and use them to train the workforce. A second project feeds data from factory sensors into “visualization tools” that can be analyzed for improvements at each level of an operation, from individual worker to plant manager. A third pilot is creating an open-source software project called a “manufacturing commons” in a project led by General Electric.

Like Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE, other supporting companies are buzzing around DMDII expectantly. Aurora, Illinois-based Illinois Tool Works, for instance, is particularly interested in how the institute might be able to help it harness intelligent machines and advanced analytics to “open new opportunities across our businesses,” Pivonka says. Its participation helps put Norwalk, Connecticut-based Xerox “on the cusp of significant disruption and the tectonic shift brought by digitization,” said PARC’s Kurtoglu.

This is the kind of enthusiasm about DMDII that will be crucial to success in its mission of creating a digital thread that easily connects manufacturers, big to small, across the supply chain. “It’s about advanced technologies and rapid innovation, and how do we get these digital tools in the hands of lots of people,” King says, “so that American manufacturing looks a lot more like the way the software industry has been democratized over the last decade.”


Driving Digital Manufacturing
The DMDII aims to help mid-market enterprises harness the power of digitization

Pilot Projects and Test Initiatives
Two dozen pilot programs will test new methods and concepts in the Midwest

Creating a Common Thread
Creating a “digital manufacturing commons” lets all participants in a manufacturing supply chain collaborate with maximum transparency and efficiency