Digital Designs: Unblocking the Path to Innovation

In light of the many economic and supply chain pressures current affecting them, engineering companies have been turning to new approaches such as additive manufacturing and digital twinning to reduce costs and increase productivity and service levels.  However, beneath the surface of those many transformative technologies lurks a challenge, one that has long eluded even the most seasoned professionals: a lack of high-quality digital designs.

While the designs of new items and products nowadays are increasingly produced using digital tools, in many industry sectors – particularly those which employ long lifecycle equipment, from aerospace & defence, through manufacturing and rail, to oil & gas – firms do not have access to the designs of most of the parts they employ in their tooling and spares.

In most such cases, those designs were never included when they purchased the parts.  If the parts are obsolete, the suppliers do not hold the designs or quite possible are not even in business.  Where they do exist, the drawings tend to be paper-based and found to be in anything but a pristine condition, with damage and wear obfuscating the information.  Even where designs are in electronic forms, they have errors, omissions and are less than truly representative of the actual parts.

This lack of accurate digital designs creates bottlenecks, directly hampering efforts to employ digital solutions.  Without them, companies cannot assess for which parts there is a business case to employ additive manufacturing, for example, much less actually make them with that approach.  They cannot optimize designs, consolidate assemblies to simplify their build, or optimize their topology to remove weight while retaining their performance.  Digital designs are essential for advanced analytics, such as digital simulation and twinning to identify failure modes and to optimize maintenance.

The impact of inadequate digital designs echoes across industries, stifling productivity, increasing operational costs and hindering digital transformation.  Simply employing digital designs presents several inherent advantages:

  • Better accuracy than traditional paper-based designs, leading to improved product quality and reliability.
  • Faster and easier modification, reducing the time it takes to develop new products. For existing items, issues such as wear can more easily be captured and represented.
  • Allow easier sharing with other engineers and manufacturers, facilitating collaboration and improving the overall product development processes.
  • Reduced costs, both in storage of the actual designs but also through more effective design and supply chain mitigation approaches.

Technology’s advance and the call for efficiency underscore the urgency to address this challenge.  Where designs are simply non-existent, laser scanning captures the physical essence of components in meticulous detail.  Material analysis then scrutinizes the properties underpinning functionality, with additional engineering support providing insight into the internal structures of items.

For paper-based designs, scanning technologies can digitize the drawings singly or in bulk, with automated analysis then ensuring the quality of the designs during the process.  Artificial intelligence (AI) tools have already emerged to assist with this, scanning, analysing and correcting designs at speed and with precision, accelerating the digitization process and minimizing human error.

Many companies involved in digital ecosystems, such as in additive manufacturing and digital twinning, now provide such services to address the digitization challenge, integrating the resultant design data into their workflows.  For instance, the end-to-end digital manufacturing provider DiManEx rapidly scanned the paper-based drawing for over 60,000 items in a rail company’s materials catalogue, applying its AI algorithm to seamlessly assess and, if necessary, correct the files then automatically assessing whether the items were suitable to be produced using additive manufacturing.

Even with those approaches, the scale of the problem can be enormous: companies can employ many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of parts in its materials catalogues.  For example, the European rail company Deutsche Bahn manages some 600,000 store-keeping units (SKUs), and an assessment of the UK Ministry of Defence found that it has half a billion SKUs in its parts and equipment database.

In the face of that, digitization efforts must be prioritized, focusing on the most critical and urgent items first, with processes to then sort and tackle the other designs on an ongoing basis, tranche by tranche.  Certainly, the cost of digitization needs to be considered and included in the overall business cases, and suitable budgetary provision made for the task.

The future of engineering is digital, and the time to tackle this issue is now.  By embracing the power of digital designs, companies can unlock the full potential of their digital transformation.

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