How Can A Digital Thread Change Your Company?

June 4, 2019
Companies that are changing the way we think of design, engineering, and reality.

Having a full digital thread isn’t very limiting. There are actuators that do the work that are now featuring sensors, feedback, and flexible operations such as variable speed motors and advanced drives. This information is still often fed to PLCs, which is evolving into industrial computers and PCs that are stronger on software.

Advance software and technology such as 5G starts conversations about what data should be processed locally on the edge, at the PLC, sent to the Cloud, or processed at all. Some data doesn’t need to be noted unless it exceeds limits. However, by not processing it users might be missing out on larger datasets that would make new AI systems more accurate.

Why You Aren’t Using Advanced Technology

I stopped into a Siemen’s conference in Germany to hear, “How many people in here are using all these new Smart Manufacturing, AI, and advanced technologies?” No one raised a hand. This is because while we are seeing the manufacturing advancements of the future, the average manufacturing machine in operation is about 30 years old. Where do you start?

There is a big push to move digital. Designing, testing, and troubleshooting before investing time in hardware, labor, and machine time can greatly cut cost and save time. This trend is so strong that The Pan-Industrial Revolution by Richard D’Aveni, published in 2018, wrote about the move to software and connected super companies, and consortiums. The book read, “[Siemens] employs more than 17,500 software engineers working on platform tools, apps, websites, and other digital data manipulation systems. That number is more than many software firms.” some companies are shifting to become the new tech and software giants that D’Aveni believes will bring on a global shift in the worlds manufacturing and economies.  

Siemens Press Conference

I met with companies that weren’t just using software for simulation and digital twins but were creating worlds that accurately represent reality.

SurfLoch CEO and founder Thomas J. Lochtefeld

While designing the controls for SurfLoch, Lochtefeld found some software simulations just didn’t match reality once the system was built. Today, using Siemens, he is able to operate at speeds and control parameters that are allowing him to go further than just waves. Lochtefeld is working on customizing the waves themselves.

By customizing the waves Lochtefeld has added a unique value to his product. An avid surfer himself, Lochtefeld believes surfing should be in the Olympics. However, competitions can be tough. Sometimes the winner is just the person that caught the right wave; other times the weather might not be cooperating. By being able to achieve repeatability and customizability, while being able to surf anywhere at any time, Lochtefeld might have taken a step torward seeing his goal of making surfing an Olympic sport.

HackRod CEO, Co-Founder, and Creative Director Mike “Mouse” McCoy

There were many other stories of amazing companies bringing new technology to market because of powerful software. An avid rider myself, as well as a STEM supporter, McCoy immediately grabbed my attention. He said the hot rod era was a time where people tinkered in garages trying to make the fastest, coolest-looking cars that are admired to this day. Companies often tried to tap into this trend trying to find ways to align their cars with these popular pieces of machinery and art. Today, companies still want to tap into what the market sees as cool, but often fall short.

McCoy did an excellent job of explaining that the backyard engineer was moving into video games. While this might seem like common knowledge, how HackRod uses Autonomo to go from a game to the garage was inspiring. If people spend hours customizing a Wii character, or race car on a videogame, why not have those attributes be connected to real-world data? By democratizing engineering software and dressing it up like a videogame, users can design a vehicle and see how it effects the actual performance in real-time. Since the videogame is using real industrial software, once users have designed the ultimate Saturday night special, it could be possible to send it to a manufacturing shop to be built in real life.

This could also open the door to online communities of regular people designing individually or in teams for what might be a new crowdsourcing type of engineering. For example, E-Nable used a simple online platform to design affordable prosthetics that could be downloaded and printed anywhere in the world. I asked the founder how he came up with all the designs and engineering and he answered, “I didn’t design anything. This was all done by random people working together in our online community.”

HackRod is obviously on a different level, but software is making it possible for anyone to learn, design, and ship those design to be built anywhere in the world. McCoy says that burning carbon to ship vehicles and parts around the world is a waste of resources. Technology exists where it is possible to send someone a vehicle over the internet to be built locally anywhere in the world.

As technology progresses we could see incredibly flexible shops being e-mailed virtual packages that contain anything from household appliances to vehicles to be built locally. This does bring up a question of intellectual property (IP), but some companies are already figuring out how to protect themselves. The start of this could be considered iTunes and streaming content. Later as 3D printing became available, security expanded to tangible goods, protecting designs on large, secure platforms. Finally, with blockchain technology today it is possible to protect digital IP through a decentralized, distributed, and public digital ledger.

There are still questions that people might be concerned with. For example, if we import less, how will we make up the revenue from tariffs? Would a government find a way to put a tariff on foreign digital designs?

I was really impressed with how HackRod follows many technical trends that demonstrate what the future of education, design, and manufacturing will become.

AUTOParkit President Christopher Alan

Describing the company as an automation company in a building company, AutoParkit is a fully autonomous parking solution that can double the density in parking garages. Using simulation software is essential to Alan, as each building is different. With real-world data it is possible to track how many cars can be moved in and out of the garage, so an accurate return on investment can be calculated before breaking ground on a project.

With real-world data simulation, it is possible to figure out if it is necessary to move the cars in and out of the garage faster, or whether you need to build a 350- instead of a 300-car parking unit garage to see the revenue to make the project worth the developer’s investment. In one example, Alan said a traditional garage would have needed to have been built 30 feet under grade. With a water table at 21 ft, there were obvious concerns. However, by building a solution digitally, AutoParkit determined that it was possible to make an automated garage that would only need to be 15 ft under grade, eliminating concerns of the water table. As a former construction worker and commissioning engineer, the number that I focused on the most was when Alan says, “Plant simulation and debugging digitally lets us take care of 80% of the commission before we even get on-site.”

As the population continues to grow, and personal vehicles remain one of the main modes of transportation, solutions to use real estate and resources as efficiently as possible will be needed to sustain densely populated areas.

Simulations that accurately show what will happen digitally before investing in resources will make better decisions. Artificial Intelligence, generative design, and other advanced features can ensure the best digital design will be the best real-world design. The first step is going to be using digital tools to design, simulate, and test digitally before moving into the analog world. This will make sure you are setup with the right machines, data, and tools to ensure you are going to ease pain points and achieve desired results.

About the Author

Jeff Kerns | Technology Editor

Studying mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), he worked in the Polymer Research Lab. Utilizing RIT’s co-op program Jeff worked for two aerospace companies focusing on drafting, quality, and manufacturing for aerospace fasteners and metallurgy. He also studied abroad living in Dubrovnik, Croatia. After college, he became a commissioning engineer, traveling the world working on precision rotary equipment. Then he attended a few masters courses at the local college, and helped an automation company build equipment.

Growing up in Lancaster County, PA he always liked to tinker, build, and invent. He is ecstatic to be at Machine Design Magazine in New York City and looks forward to producing valuable information in the mechanical industry. 

Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Sponsored Recommendations

The entire spectrum of drive technology

June 5, 2024
Read exciting stories about all aspects of maxon drive technology in our magazine.


May 15, 2024
Production equipment is expensive and needs to be protected against input abnormalities such as voltage, current, frequency, and phase to stay online and in operation for the ...

Solenoid Valve Mechanics: Understanding Force Balance Equations

May 13, 2024
When evaluating a solenoid valve for a particular application, it is important to ensure that the valve can both remain in state and transition between its de-energized and fully...

Solenoid Valve Basics: What They Are, What They Do, and How They Work

May 13, 2024
A solenoid valve is an electromechanical device used to control the flow of a liquid or gas. It is comprised of two features: a solenoid and a valve. The solenoid is an electric...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Machine Design, create an account today!