How Digitization Will Drive Future Manufacturing Success

DMDII: For the Common Good

Software writers and even video-game players long have been able to collaborate on “open-source” web platforms that have made their digital products better, and more thoroughly vetted, more quickly. Now one of the first pilot projects of the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute—a “digital manufacturing commons”—aims at helping American manufacturers do something similar.

GE is leading the pilot that will build a “digital thread” on an open-source platform that GE scientists demonstrated a few years ago and “truly will democratize access to the tools of manufacturing innovation for companies, universities, institutes and entrepreneurs big and small,” says Joseph Salvo, manager of the complex systems engineering lab at GE Global Research.
Or, as another GE Global Research executive, Christine Furstoss, said at a conference in Detroit, the commons is “like massive multi-player online gaming meeting the real world of manufacturing.”

“The DMDII will democratize access to the tools of manufacturing innovation.”

William King, chief technology officer of the institute, says that the idea of the web-based “community” is to “give people a place where they can put the data and a way to have digital collaboration across the life cycle of a product.

“So we’re looking for tech-savvy manufacturing leaders to come and participate as alpha customers,” he says. “And it won’t cost you anything.”

Developing Digital Threads

Two examples—one surprising, the other probably not so—illustrate what digital-manufacturing advocates mean when they talk about how “digital threads” can revolutionize American manufacturing.

Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” promotion is actually a perfect example. Launched in 2014, under this campaign Coke printed individual names on its 20-ounce bottles, from “Erin” to “John,” as well as other bonding monikers such as “family.” Sales took off, giving the brand its first significant volume bump in years. So Atlanta-based beverage giant Coca-Cola expanded the program this year to thousands more names.

What does that have to do with manufacturing? “This is an innovation that came from Coke’s manufacturing people and moved the needle,” explained William King, chief technology officer for the DMDII. “They needed to have digital capabilities, agility, robotics and all kinds of information technology to make that kind of mass customization happen.”

A more typical example of the magic of the digital thread comes from Local Motors. Earlier this year, this Phoenix-based startup demonstrated live 3D printing of the polymer body of a working car prototype, based entirely on a digital blueprint, to rapt audiences ranging from President Obama to journalists at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Local Motors’ designs “are crowdsourced from an online community,” McKinsey consultants noted recently. It “can build a new model from scratch in a year, far [shorter] than the industry average of six years.”