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Supporting Manufacturers Through the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Tsunami

By: Nigel Francis, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director, LIFT

Connecting Materials, Processes, Systems and Talent to Drive Into the Future

There is no question that manufacturing drives all macro economies – both here in the United States and around the world.768 432 SMX blog LIFT.jpg

And with that much reliance on one major economic sector, we can confidently say that as manufacturing goes, so goes national security.

It is also clear that the speed at which technology is moving is outpacing many manufacturers, forcing OEMs to invest more and more heavily in tech-heavy 21st Century software and more agile hardware in order to keep up, and, in turn, leaving small and medium-sized manufacturers in the 1900s.

That speed is increasing every day and is showing no sign of slowing down.

The bottom line is: There is a tsunami of change going on in manufacturing today. It is here and it is right now – it is not tomorrow, it is not next week it is not next month. It is now.

Understanding this potential manufacturing economy-induced national security problem, the Department of Defense invested in establishing several national manufacturing innovation institutes over the last decade, including LIFT’s founding as a public-private partnership between government, industry and academia in Detroit in 2014.

Originally focused mainly on materials research, LIFT has grown to embrace and drive rapid implementation of new materials, new manufacturing processes and new manufacturing systems across the nation through technology and talent development, with a keen eye on supporting the small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) make that transition.

Connecting Materials, Processes and Systems

The idea of “smarter manufacturing’ – connecting materials, processes, and systems holistically is the special sauce that defines the future of national economic security and resiliency. When stepping back and looking on a global scale, it is clear the next industrial and economic powerhouse will be the country or region that masters smarter manufacturing first – and we need it to be the United States.

For both small and large manufacturers, it is incredibly important to take that holistic view of the connection between materials, processes and systems. If you are only operating in one of these verticals, you are, by definition, suboptimized and will not reach the peak level of continuous improvement that is available to you.

With large companies already moving in that direction, LIFT, a membership-based nonprofit 501(c)3, is incredibly focused on supporting SMMs throughout the nation make this transition, because they are the foundation and enabler of our larger manufacturing corporations. Among its membership, LIFT counts many single-person companies from across the nation. These small “mom and pop shops” are critical to the manufacturing ecosystem because they make big companies move faster, better and cheaper, which is exactly what this nation needs.

Oftentimes, SMMs lack the financial resources, time and people to transition from 20th century manufacturing to 21st century “smarter manufacturing.” Like most other small companies, which make up the bulk of the U.S. economy overall, SMMs are focused on their day-to-day work of supplying parts to OEMs and paychecks to millions of Americans.

What is “Smarter Manufacturing”?

Smarter manufacturing is not just “Industry 4.0.” The big companies are already there and if you are in a small company, you need to know Industry 4.0, but you also need to know what a digital twin is, and you also need to know about distributed manufacturing and, most importantly, what can impact your specific situation positively and how all the elements fit together and provide the return on investment that you are looking for.

The digital twin, for example, is so critical to the SMM community because it drives connectivity with their large company customers and their own workforce. The digital twin drives agility, flexibility, efficiency, first time quality and powers distributed manufacturing and supply chain resiliency. For example, with the digital twin, you can use the internet to transfer digital files to the physical machine located anywhere across the country and much, much more. Connecting the digital twin to the physical twin for feedback and cross-connectivity between them provides manufacturers the ability to improve from their design and their manufacturing near real time. Now, introduce the concept of integrated computational materials engineering (ICME) and you have the potential to make product based simulations near real time “in the manufacturing loop” and then our manufacturing output becomes intensely optimized and faster, better and cheaper.

As their large customers are racing ahead, investing in smarter manufacturing, many small companies are left scratching their heads asking how they can move toward smarter manufacturing. That is exactly where LIFT can help. As a nonprofit institute, we offer system-wide capabilities, not just single-point solutions. We understand materials, manufacturing processes and systems and, more importantly, use them daily ourselves in our work.

In our Detroit facility, we are not only a smarter manufacturing showcase, but we are also a sandbox for manufacturers to come experiment and prototype with the support of our experts and the help of our national ecosystem. Within the same facility we are also walking the talk by conducting our own LIFT projects and have seen them improved upon daily by the astute application of smarter manufacturing methods and techniques. We are an integrator of the best of the best in terms on materials, processes and systems for advanced manufacturing.

The LIFT showcase and sandbox is made up of over $50 million in cutting edge manufacturing equipment available for testing and prototyping, along with the design and engineering expertise of LIFT and its ecosystem. Including new and innovative processes like wire-arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), cold-spray and incremental sheet forming (ISF), our facility is driving smarter manufacturing into the industry and helping manufacturers carry their concepts from design, through optimization, to commercialization.

Concurrently, we are using our Detroit Learning Lab to develop new tools and new venues to support national talent programs, including new curricula, to ensure the manufacturing workforce of the future has the knowledge skills and abilities to successfully work in the smarter manufacturing future.

The need to move to smarter manufacturing is here at the intersection of advanced and future manufacturing. By bringing materials, processes, systems and talent together under one roof at LIFT, we can drive American manufacturing into the future, re-position the U.S. as the global leader in manufacturing and enhance our national security.

Take a look at our website and virtual tour and get ready to “LIFT off” with us.