How Digitization Will Drive Future Manufacturing Success

A Midsize Makover

Big manufacturers and the federal government are the founding forces behind the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), but mid-market companies are its future. That’s how institute principals view things, anyway. “We really want to get a lot of small and medium-sized businesses involved,” says William King, chief technology officer of the DMDII. “That’s really where we’re going to move the needle. That’s where the job creation is going to be. That’s where the wealth creation is going to be, more than in the biggest manufacturing OEMs.”

Some mid-market companies already know how they want the institute to help them. AskPower, for instance, is an Aurora, Illinois-based maker of terminal lugs, electrical splices and other fasteners and connectors for the booming telecommunications-infrastructure industry and other verticals, with sales of tens of millions of dollars a year.

CEO Steve Kase believes it may be existential for suppliers like AskPower to leverage DMDII’s help in tapping into the “digital thread” within their customers’ supply chains. “The same kinds of consolidation that we have seen at the top of the [telecom] market, where there used to be 15 competitors and now there are just two or three, now is also happening at the component level of small and medium-sized manufacturers,” Kase says. Buttressing these suppliers “is totally critical, because it’s one thing to have the front end of the supply chain—the major manufacturers like GE—geeked up for digital manufacturing, but what if there are no suppliers to play with them?”

“If you dig into the companies that are in the ecosystems of the big manufacturers, they are smaller outfits with fewer digital experts.”

Specifically, AskPower wants DMDII’s guidance in bolstering the company’s digital chops in both product development and process improvements in designing, costing, manufacturing and replicating its components—and ensuring that in every step along the way AskPower is as completely integrated as possible with customers’ digital environments. “One area is: How can we connect our products to the customers’ assembly process and demonstrate that simulation, because normally our simulation is about how we make the part?” Kase says.

AskPower has been investing heavily in capabilities to simulate the final assemblies of its customers in three dimensions so that its own product designers understand exactly how the company’s components are expected to fit and perform in concert with everything else. If the final product is a grounding cable for a telecom-transmission tower, for example, AskPower understands “the cable [the customer is] using, the lightning-protection aspects of the tower, the electronics they’re trying to preserve at the bottom of the tower and what the installation process is on the tower,” Kase explains. “What we want to be able to do is simulate for our customer how our product will fit into its system. That’s something [DMDII] will help us with.”

In the process arena, AskPower is looking to the institute to help it link the company’s computer-aided design capabilities more effectively with its computer-aided manufacturing capabilities by ensuring that the supplier is in complete digital synchronization with what customers require.

“We want to understand where our product fits into their system, design it in their system, test it for manufacturability and run it through a simulation on manufacturing software,” Kase explains. “We also want to be able to template our materials and processes to come up with a digital cross-lead system that enables us to quote with confidence.”

DMDII’s King said that AskPower’s notions of how the institute can help the company are right on point. Unfortunately, he says, the numbers of mid-market manufacturers that don’t address or don’t even recognize their digital predicament are legion.

“If you dig into the companies that are in the ecosystems of the big manufacturers, they are smaller outfits with fewer digital experts, and the ones they do have will be focused on day-to-day, tactical kinds of things—and probably not keeping up with the latest digital technology,” King says. “So as we’re putting together our portfolio of pilot projects, we’re doing our best to include both big OEMs and mid-size and small manufacturers because the links between them is where the value is created in the manufacturing-value chain.”