Save the Planet and Your Bottom Line With Connected Design and Manufacturing

by Stephen Hooper
- Feb 15 2018 - 6 min read
connected manufacturing

Autodesk Vice President, Sustainability Lynelle Cameron coauthored this article.

As a manufacturer, you’re well aware how fast things change. And you know that disruption is accelerating due to ongoing trends in consumer demands, technology advancements, and workforce transitions. But have you considered the potential impacts—both financial and environmental—of connecting your design and manufacturing processes?

The confluence of current manufacturing trends can spell chaos or opportunity. To make the most of these shifts, manufacturers need to reexamine their means of production and delivery. These disruptions, if properly leveraged, can be good for both business and the environment. But there’s work to be done in three primary areas:

1. Manufacturers need to make more things. The global population is expected to reach a staggering 10 billion by 2050, with half of those people in the middle class. This means many more people with expendable income demanding more products to suit their urbanized lifestyles. Keeping up with this demand is challenging, as is managing the tremendous user data it generates, which is expected to reach 600 zetabytes by 2020.

crowded city street

2. Manufacturers need to use technology to make things better. Hardware and software technologies are getting more sophisticated. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are enabling product designers to leverage mountains of customer data to innovate faster. Production is seeing more connected hardware with the industrial Internet of Things and new automated techniques. Together, these advanced technologies are yielding higher levels of product quality, variance, and performance.

3. Manufacturers need to make things with less of a negative impact on the planet. The manufacturing sector is responsible for 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the United States, about a fifth of the country’s total emissions and about the same portion of global emissions. Sixty percent of the world’s 8.3 billion tons of plastic is now in landfills or in the natural environment. There are currently 1,345 Superfund sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List. These are the unintended consequences of responding to market growth and change during the past 100 years.

To make more things, make those things better, and make them with less of a negative impact will require manufacturers to use the data they are creating to better anticipate changing customer needs, act on those changes, and more tightly link their design and manufacturing processes.

The Opportunity Ahead

A connected design and manufacturing process is critical because it links formerly disparate operations to reveal hidden value. Sustainable design and engineering practitioners emphasize the importance of systems thinking and evaluating products’ impacts early and often in the design process. The rationale for systems thinking and connectedness is to find unlikely opportunities hidden across the entire process and capitalize on those opportunities before they become cost prohibitive. The best way to facilitate systems thinking is by understanding all parts of the system and connecting data from every part of the design-to-make process.

For example, by connecting fabrication processes to design, implications of advanced manufacturing techniques—such as hybrid additive and subtractive processes—can uncover potential design options or constraints that would not have otherwise been explored. And machine learning can be leveraged to link these processes. The software can use fabrication data to generate new designs that optimize for complex design goals and tradeoffs, such as maximizing part sustainability, ensuring regulatory compliance on material choice, and controlling costs from production.

Airbus bionic partition design options
Using generative design, Airbus evaluated myriad design options based on specific design goals. Courtesy Airbus.

An early example of connecting end-to-end processes is Airbus’s bionic design of lighter-weight cabin partitions for its airplanes. Airbus reduced the weight of its bulky partitions by connecting fabrication and design with data and machine learning through generative design, a process that considers design goals and constraints to generate myriad design options. Airbus generated more than 10,000 design options with the goal of reducing weight while maintaining structural integrity and safety. In the end, by virtue of thinking about fabrication early in the design process, Airbus was able to reduce the weight of its partition by 45 percent. With $1.3 billion spent on fuel annually, every ounce responsibly shaved off planes means significant positive impact for both the bottom line and the planet.

An important emerging trend that will be accelerated by connecting end-to-end processes with data is circularity. Circularity is the concept of “upcycling” resources repeatedly by connecting supply chain and resource streams to the end-of-life of products. Extracting and processing raw materials is costly and subject to swings in commodity prices, creates large volumes of waste, and degrades local environments. The extraction and production of virgin aluminum alone accounts for 1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Pair this with the growing amount of electronic waste, expected to reach 50 million tons annually by 2018, and the problem becomes clear.

Recently, Apple pledged to use only renewable or recycled material. One key way Apple will attain this is by connecting customer product takeback and end-of-use products to the start of the supply chain—with a robot, named Liam, that can disassemble an iPhone in only 11 seconds (or approximately 1.2 million iPhones per year). Those disassembled components are then recycled and remanufactured to create new iPhones, mitigating the need to process new raw materials. Identifying and validating these opportunities requires connecting processes end-to-end by sharing and making sense of data effectively, akin to connecting PLM to disassembly machinery to design systems. Apple could even take lessons extracted from use and disassembly and apply them to redesigns for enhanced durability, reduced takeback speed, and quicker disassembly by its Liam robots.

Future workflows hold a promise well beyond that of the Airbus or Apple examples. New design and manufacturing capabilities, brought on by the explosion of data in manufacturing and combined with machine learning and AI, will soon enable manufacturing at the push of a button. The key to attaining push-button manufacturing lies in delivering insights from across the entire workflow; uncovering unlikely solution sets; and connecting supply chain, design, manufacturing, product use, and product end of life in innovative, highly optimized ways. Airbus connected design and manufacturing processes. Apple connected waste streams with material streams. Neither would have been possible in a traditional linear process or without advanced technology.

The Influence of Government

Although technology is evolving quickly, there are other pressing reasons to start connecting your processes and data now to make more, better, with less. Government initiatives have long been striving to curtail the environmental impacts from manufacturing, such as the European Union’s mandates around recycling and toxicity and the historic Paris Agreement. While many countries focus on energy suppliers and transportation for reductions, China explicitly identifies resource and energy-efficiency measures that have implications for manufacturers.

One in three consumers prefers to buy from more sustainable brands.

These governmental trends are also influencing market demand in everything from personal electronics to automobiles to household goods. Recent studies have shown that one in three consumers prefers to buy from more sustainable brands, and almost three out four millennials will pay more for sustainable options.

Companies are taking notice. Walmart recently announced that it will eliminate a gigaton of carbon dioxide from its supply chain by working with its manufacturing partners, necessitating the connection of processes and data across companies. Auto manufacturers are competing to go all-electric, requiring them to redesign cars from the ground up and apply a systems approach to their overall processes.

Increasing the performance, customization, and quality of products and improving processes will enable you to compete and survive. And making the right decisions about the things you make and how you make them will enable you to achieve more with less of a negative impact on people and the environment. The opportunity to take advantage of connected workflows and make more, better, with less is here.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2018 issue of the Manufacturing Leadership Journal. Excerpted with permission.

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