Collaborative Manufacturing as a Service in the Cloud

Editor’s note: This article is by David Breitgand, a team lead at IBM Research – Haifa

In the middle of Australian cotton harvest, each day of picking amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs. When a critical $900 water pump breaks down, this could mean a 20 percent loss of the crop due to dry spindles. What options does the farmer have when the local dealership doesn't have any pumps in stock? 

This is where Software Defined Manufacturing (SDM) in the Cloud offers a simple, elegant solution. The dealership turns to the services of the cloud manufacturing community to identify an optimal manufacturer for the broken pump parts. The digital model is sent to the community member that can produce the custom part via 3D printing. The pump part is then produced to order and shipped to the farmer.

This is just one example of how new platforms are combining digital manufacturing like 3D printing with cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT). Although it may sound like a futuristic scenario, scientists at IBM Research in Haifa, Israel are already working to make this vision a reality

Our research, aimed at the B2B sector, combines digital manufacturing with the Internet of Things and cloud to bring about new benefits. The goal is to build a cloud based platform that will connect small and large factories in a cloud and offer tenants all the advantages of the entire infrastructure. Smart middleware will optimize where and when manufacturing should take place. Beyond that, control centers can automate the entire process to coordinate discrete manufacturing at optimum efficiency.

Using the system, member businesses will benefit from infinitely variable manufacturing resources programmed to work together. By connecting “smart factories” to the cloud, participants who formerly had access to only one 3D printing process will be able to automatically outsource to other members that use any of the other processes or materials available.

Made to order with 3D printing

Small volume, “made to order” items that used to be prohibitively expensive are already within financial reach. A 2012 report "Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation" by McKinsey & Company suggests that about 10 percent of all Western manufacturing enterprises will move from a "made-to-stock" to a "made-to-individual" model by 2020, with 3D printing playing the pivotal role in in this transition.

About 25 basic technologies for additive manufacturing exist today, covering a wide range of materials and physical processes. Among the processes are extrusion, injection, lamination, laser sintering, electron beaming, and light processing. And the materials range from plastic, pure metals, and metal alloys to concrete. The variety of technologies and the speed at which they evolve make it impractical to have all of them in-house. Collaboration across enterprises in the cloud, where each enterprise has some technology expertise, makes its use much more efficient for all parties involved.

Say, for example, there is a small textile factory in Ireland, where the factory engineer wants to experiment to improve the efficiency of a legacy weaving machine. Normally, it would take weeks of modelling to create a prototype. But if the factory is a member of the SDM cloud-based community, CAD experts in India can provide prototypes for the trials and these can be manufactured on a local 3D printer within a week. Once the correct design is selected, the factory can use the same SDM cloud community to locate an appropriate tool grade steel printer in Europe, and have the parts produced and shipped within days – all at minimal cost. 

A new era for manufacturing

The new face of manufacturing is defined by a confluence of long-standing trends in manufacturing and information technologies, including: universal connectivity, cloud computing delivery models, smart digital manufacturing machines, and plant automation. Together these are bringing about a digital revolution in manufacturing.

As network bandwidth becomes more accessible and affordable, manufacturing capabilities for machines, plants, and enterprises are interconnecting to form a global grid of manufacturing resources. These resources can be consumed "as a service" through their virtualized interfaces on the cloud.

As the manufacturing machines themselves become smarter with technologies such as additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), universal manufacturing facilities become feasible. Now that printers can switch between objects they produce almost instantaneously, the setup time due to retooling becomes very small in contrast to traditional production lines. This introduces agility and versatility that never before existed, allowing faster response to market demands.

In short, the new face of manufacturing is a globally interconnected grid of smart manufacturing machines and cloud based business processes. These software defined value networks can manufacture anything, anywhere, by sending a digital model for the object to the appropriate network member. And our system design architecture is nearing completion and we expect to have a prototype ready for live demonstration in the coming months.

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