Future Product Lifecycle and Digital Networks

Future Product Lifecycle and Digital Networks


Integration is an important element of manufacturing. Time ago, the meaning of integration was to build a manufacturing factory which created virtually everything needed for manufacturing at the same place. Rouge River Plant by Ford Motors was one of them. Finished in 1928 it became the largest integrated factory in the world. Henry Ford’s dream was to organize a factory combining precision manufacturing with standardized and interchangeable parts and a clear division of labor. Here is quote from Robinson Library article.

The largest industrial complex in the world at the time, the complex would eventually include a steel mill, glass factory, and automobile assembly line. Virtually everything required to build and assemble a Model T was manufactured on the premises. The final assembly line was transferred from Highland Park in 1927. In 1930, the Rogue River Plant covered 6,952,484 square feet and employed 81,000 men.

Fast forward almost 100 years. Manufacturing is different. Integrated plants are history now. Global manufacturing and supply chain is a reality of today’s world. In my presentation at COFES 2015 earlier this year, I’ve been discussing data networks as a new way to support a complexity of manufacturing environment. The picture below shows suppliers of new BMW 3 series.


Each product is a system.The growing complexity of manufacturing environment and products creates the demand for new product lifecycle architectures. These architectures will be able to support management of multidisciplinary product data (mechanical, electronic, software) and will operate as a global distributed data network.

I’ve been thinking about a role of networks in the future of manufacturing and product lifecycle. I’ve been reading Edge article – Digital Reality A Conversation with Neil Gershenfeld [1.23.15]. It is a bit long, but I would recommend it to anybody working on engineering and manufacturing technologies these days. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT Center of Bits and Atoms gives you a perspective of future rethinking of manufacturing.

Engineering and manufacturing processes will be digitally integrated, but physically distributed.In this digital future, we will be able to ship data to make manufacturing local. Here is the passage which explains that:

To rewind now, you can send something to Shenzhen and mass manufacture it. There’s a more interesting thing you can do, which is you go to market by shipping data and you produce it on demand locally, and so you produce it all around the world. There’s a parallel with HP and inkjet printing. HP’s inkjet division is in Corvallis, Oregon because they had to hide from Palo Alto because they were told that inkjet printing would never scale, it would never be fast enough. But their point was a lot of printers producing beautiful pages slowly scales if all the pages are different. In the same sense it scales to fabricate globally by doing it locally, not by shipping the products but shipping the data.

But this is not a final stop if apply a complete product lifecycle paradigm to that. In the world of Ford-T product left the factory and never came back. We have some elements of recycling today in manufacturing. Here is a glimpse of the future:

If you take this alignment between mainframes, minicomputers, hobbyist computers, PCs, the research tools we’re using are like the mainframes, the fab labs are the minicomputers. They’re being used to do the equivalent of invent the Internet. The next step is we’re doing a lot of work on machines that make machines. You don’t go to a fab lab to get access to the machine; you go to the fab lab to make the machine. To do that we’ve had to rip up CAD-CAM, machine control, motion control, all the ways you make stuff, to make machines that make machines. That’s the next step. Over the next maybe five years we’ll be transitioning from buying machines to using machines to make machines. Self-reproducing machines. But they still have consumables like the motors, and they still cut or squirt. Then the interesting transition comes when we go from cutting or printing to assembling and disassembling, to moving to discretely assembled materials. And that’s when you do tabletop chip fab or make airplanes.

What is my conclusion? Majority of manufacturing today is point-to-point. We can define things, design and engineer them, plan the production and make things at the end. There are lot of hype of internet of things today. To me the most important element of IoT and PLM convergence is how we connect them together into digital network in the way that each element virtual or digital will be able to define the network and empower it. Similar to internet, it will grow into a network that won’t require a central control – a departure from point-to-point manufacturing in the future of product lifecycle. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


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