Magic of digital manufacturing

SINGAPORE is buzzing with start-up companies. It is now home to over 55,000 start-ups compared to about 24,000 10 years ago. Start-ups create new jobs. Start-ups and traditional small-and medium-sized companies form the bulk of employment in Singapore. Start-up culture is likely to endure given the experience-seeking and risk-taking mindset of Net generation graduates, supportive family members and friends, and proactive innovation and entrepreneurship efforts of Singapore.

Demonstrating prototypes of innovative products is necessary for the success of start-up companies. They thrive by mass-customisation of innovative products and services for diverse customers. Start-ups are often constrained by the lack of required infrastructure and investments.

They see the emerging digital manufacturing as a boon. Moreover the digital manufacturing field itself is fertile ground for new innovations and technology start-ups.

The much publicised 3D printing is an example of digital manufacturing. According to Wikipedia 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process in which successive layers of material are formed under computer control to create a three dimensional object.

These objects are produced from a 3D digital model or other electronic data source.

Start-up companies employ 3D printing creatively. On the horizon is 3D printing of doughnuts, pizzas, quiches, brownies, etc. For example, start-ups like 3D Systems ChefJet lays fine-grain sugar into desired shapes, while Natural Foods' Choc Edge dispenses chocolate into wonderful fine patterns, and Foodini is working on a wide array of dishes using fresh ingredients. Food lovers of Singapore can look forward to 3D printed foods in the near future!

Digital manufacturing is a broader concept of manufacturing innovation in which the digital and material advancements enable the company to conceive products in a desired style and quantity in times scales shorter than the conventional methods while efficiently managing the entire product life cycle.

It is about defining manufacturing processes, and managing manufacturing process information via full digital product definition. It encompasses visualisation, manufacturing simulation, ergonomic and human factor analyses, a holistic view of product and process design, and product design sensitive to the process constraints and capabilities. To put it simply digital manufacturing is customised manufacturing enabled by innovations in digital technologies, materials and designs.

Digital manufacturing is also gaining acceptance among traditional businesses in consumer goods, fashion, packaging, transportation, automobile, aerospace, machine tools and healthcare sectors as they see advantages over the conventional manufacturing methods. They see the opportunities for innovations in full supply chain of the product from product design, production planning, product life-cycle management, worker safety, etc. Efforts are aimed at speedy creation and time to market via predictive simulation for the potential outcomes, flexible and integrative designs, operational effectiveness, and enhancement of products' quality and reliability.

Digital manufacturing caters for production on demand in pre-determined quantities, and better control over production cost and product quality.

This helps in reduction of processing steps and material waste, and efficient use of resources such as materials, water and energy. Well-known global companies such as DaimlerChrysler, Rolls-Royce, Toyota, Delphi, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are leveraging digital manufacturing to increase production throughput, reduce lead times, lower capital and operating costs, better use of facilities, improved product quality and customised innovations specific to the markets.

It is conceivable that in the future a wide range of products will be developed virtually, and customised manufacturing will be in vogue. They are enabled by easy-to-use digital interfaces and Internet to design, simulate, plan and execute production from anywhere and at anytime.

There will be open source software and hardware platforms to collaborate creation and production of sustainable products. They will be powered by big data analytics, high performance cloud computing, and life cycle assessment based design of sustainable products. In other words creating, designing and manufacturing sustainable products at speeds beyond imagination!

Singapore plans R&D investments over five-year cycles. It is anticipated that the next five-year plan under Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 will have emphasis on digital manufacturing to facilitate high value add businesses, innovation-led entrepreneurship, economic growth, and address societal challenges. The Mechanical Engineering department at the National University of Singapore has formed a team to scope out digital manufacturing areas of importance and relevance to Singapore while leveraging existing competitive advantages.

The NUS Digital Manufacturing team is partnering Dassault Systems, a French company which is a pioneer in this field. An international conference is being planned in the first quarter of 2016 to share knowledge and best practices. The more complex a product and its manufacturing operations are, the more valuable is digital manufacturing. Although the benefits of digital manufacturing are significant, it is in its early stages and more innovations are needed for its development and use.

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