The secret to gaining competitive edge is reducing the time spent modelling design solutions and using digital prototyping instead, says Andrew Anagnost

Just as you do not become a first-class engineer merely by owning a top-of-the-range calculator, you cannot guarantee best-in-class manufacturing just by using 3D solid modelling tools. Industry research firm

Aberdeen Group

made this clear in its recent study of top-performing manufacturers,

The Digital Product Development Benchmark


The report cites best-in-class manufacturers' ability to meet revenue, cost, launch date and quality targets for over 91 per cent of their products. These firms were up to 22 per cent more likely to use a single digital prototype at every phase of development. And by building one less physical prototype, they gained a 14-week edge on time to market, saving up to £500,000, depending on product complexity.

What is their secret? The study reveals you cannot put the difference between top and average performers down to 3D design alone. Solid modelling is just one aspect of a wider method called digital prototyping, a practice that is becoming key to the quest for competitive edge.

Aberdeen found best-in-class firms are more likely to use digital instead of paper-based communications between engineering and manufacturing. They create a digital pipeline that lets information flow in both directions through all phases of design and production.

When this information can be accessed electronically, teams are confident they have the latest information and can use it as soon as it is available. This multi-directional flow also helps create a closed-loop cycle of efficiency: Aberdeen points out that production insights help to assess the manufacturability of a design at its earliest stages.

Conventions in the three phases of manufacturing — ideation, engineering and manufacturing — create obstacles to the digital pipeline. However, clearing these bottlenecks leaves the way open for digital prototyping.

Much of the design conception is done on white boards and paper — formats that are not compatible with the spreadsheet, word processing or other applications that capture the information that precedes form and substance. Industrial designers often turn to clay models to experience their ideas as well.

Then comes the graft of converting this analogue information into data that can be used to create the product's structure and systems. When styling and visualisation is done digitally, the data may or may not be used by engineering applications in later development. However, through choices that ensure software interoperability or some other means of integration, manufacturers can unlock the flow of information between ideation and engineering.

This digital pipeline supports the best practices that Aberdeen found prevalent among top-performing manufacturers. Specifically, best-in-class manufacturers tend to document engineering deliverables electronically and early on, making them 'portable' across divisions. They also tend to gauge a product's manufacturability before actual design, when modifications do not require formal change orders.

For product engineers, the conventional path from concept to design for production is also challenging. For years they have been asked to address functional problems with applications that represent geometry. Often, they solve these with one set of tools then work with computer-aided design (CAD) software specialists to translate their solutions into geometry.

The research suggests the best manufacturers equip their engineers with applications that do not require them to adapt their problem-solving to suit their tools. Rather, they use software that automates creation of models, then test designs throughout development. Top performers were four times as likely to use design models for manufacturing documentation, and also more likely to forego creation of engineering drawings entirely.

They also used electronic notification to alert stakeholders in the production process when information was available, complementing multi-directional communication and helping to streamline tasks in each phase, such as materials ordering and change orders.

Once design drawings make it to the manufacturing phase, production teams often rely on email or paper-based communication to clarify questions with design teams, and use physical prototypes for insight as well. Capturing more information digitally opens a pipeline that is further enhanced by software tools for data management in the manufacturing phase.

Aberdeen found best-in-class manufacturers had a higher rate of design re-use, which helped them meet product deadlines. And the advanced tools used by their mechanical and electrical engineers for functional simulation — in addition to 3D solid models — provided more resources for answering manufacturing teams' questions.

So why is digital prototyping the exception, rather than the norm? Aberdeen's Chad Jackson says best-in-class manufacturers may not even use 3D solid modelling in all aspects of design, but are using digital simulation. Their practices flout conventional wisdom that 3D CAD software is the major obstacle to advanced product development techniques.

Most solid modelling software focuses on 3D geometry — just one aspect of a digital prototype, and not necessarily one product engineer's need to solve functional problems. In contrast, cutting-edge applications that simulate functional 3D designs can complement and contribute to a digital pipeline, helping bridge the disconnects between ideation, engineering and manufacturing; carrying insights from one stage to the next; and reducing dependence on physical prototyping in search of design-phase answers. That's an equation that adds up to the efficiency that Aberdeen says is best-in-class.

Andrew Anagnost, is vice-president, CAD/CAE Products, Manufacturing Solutions, Autodesk