How the ‘digital thread’ can optimize manufacturing

What can your garage door opener teach you about Industry 4.0? Look at it this way, says Jeffrey Schipper, Global Segmentation Manager at Proto Labs (Maple Plain, MN), a supplier of rapid injection molding, machining and 3D printing services to the medical device and other sectors. “The garage door opener is an awesome tool—when it’s raining you don’t have to get out of the car to close the door,” says Schipper. “But if your kids leave after you do, you have to ask yourself if they shut the door. Now, I can get on my smartphone and verify that they closed the door at 7:10, and caught their bus.”

Essentially the same thing happens in manufacturing as you go through your operations, explains Schipper. “Did X happen when it was supposed to happen? Do you know where the operations are at?” That visibility in real time from any location is what Industry 4.0 brings to manufacturing.

“There is a general awareness among manufacturers of what Industry 4.0 is,” says Schipper, but there is a lack of clarity on how it adds value. He plans to shed some light on that during a presentation at Expoplast in Montréal this month. “Digital Manufacturing: Accelerating Product Development and Reducing Risk,” scheduled at Center Stage at 2 PM on Nov. 30, is one of several educational sessions at the two-day Expoplast event that runs through Dec. 1 at the Palais des Congrès.

The most comprehensive advanced manufacturing event in Québec, Expoplast will showcase injection molding machines and other plastics processing systems, materials and additives, rapid prototyping services and equipment, and much more in Montréal on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2016. Register to attend now!

The digital thread—data captured by an array of sensors and the Industrial Internet of Things that string together machines, parts, manufacturing operations, the supply chain and predictive maintenance—aligned with the technology-first approach championed by Proto Labs “automate non-recoverable engineering charges that are a hindrance for low-volume production and prototyping using CNC machining and injection molding,” according to Schipper. “OK, so an injection molded part is going to be the production part, but how am I going to get the part fast and test it early with its properties? There’s 3D printing, an incredible, growing technology, and there are applications where it is used because no better options exist,” says Schipper. But a real, competitively priced molded part will always get the vote of engineers, he adds. “They can gate the part the same way they would in production, use the same manufacturing process, do drop tests in the same fashion, and so on. You can get a lot more meaningful information early in the process.”

By offering an array of technologies, Proto Labs provides manufacturers with transparency, specifically on costs, associated with each technology, says Schipper. “It’s all about what the customer needs from his part.” During his presentation at Expoplast, he will show how a technology-first approach benefited a real-world medical application.

Proto Labs
Click on PDF icon to view enlarged slide: PDF iconschipper-slide.pdf

“I have a slide that shows the cost of producing a part for a surgical device using selective laser sintering, stereolithography, machining and molding technologies,” says Schipper. “When you see the image, it will be blatantly obvious that injection molding will be used for high-volume production. However, depending on what the manufacturer is trying to accomplish with the part and what could be accomplished with the next part he makes, the graph can inform that decision based on time and cost. It will clarify where the manufacturer will get the most value,” explains Schipper.

“In this case, machining five parts is cheaper than making a mold, for example, but when you get to, say, 20 parts, injection molding could be the way to go,” says Schipper. “It may take a couple of days longer, but when you do the math, it evens out. It’s all about what you are trying to accomplish and then determining the most appropriate method.”

A technology-first approach supported by the digital thread levels the playing field for manufacturing processes that otherwise may not be considered because of preconceived notions of required time and money, says Schipper.

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