Rhiannon Gallagher, Chief Social Scientist at Action Engineering talked to Duane Hess, Chief Project Officer at Action Engineering about supply chain resilience, the pandemic, and MBD.
Rhiannon: Tell me about when you first started seeing the potential for MBD in the face of the pandemic challenges?
Duane: It was an Italian company that did 3D printing. There was a shortage of some personal protective equipment, I think it was face shields, and this company quickly pivoted, got a 3D model of the pieces they needed, talked to all their friends that had 3D printing facilities, and started massively printing all these PPE pieces. It was very inspiring because it wasn’t their normal business. Since they had the capabilities, they were able to pivot to a different product that was in demand and get it out the door quickly where a paper-based manufacturer would have had to do all sorts of things to get production out the door to meet that demand.
Rhiannon: It also seems like there has been pivoting in terms of who’s making supplies?
Duane: After seeing a major hurricane hit the East Coast, my thought was that if a supplier has a product that can be 3D-printed, they are no longer beholden to one manufacturer. Any manufacturer that has the capability to 3D-print and can meet your standards is an option. Now you have distributed manufacturing, not specific to one location. If an event like a hurricane, a massive snowstorm, or any type of weather-related unpredictable type stuff happens, it may disrupt your normal supply chain, but you can pivot to different manufacturers and say, “Hey, can you now manufacture our product?” It makes your supply chain much more resilient. Obviously, you have to work out logistics around transportation to your customers or to your warehouse or wherever, but that’s a much more tenable position to be in than “our sole source supplier is in Virginia, a hurricane just hit and now we have to wait two weeks for them to get rebooted.”
Rhiannon: Are the resilience benefits only for 3D printed products, or is the case just stronger there?
Duane: I think the case is stronger there because all your assets are digital, they’re easier to transmit and transport. But even with traditional manufacturing, if your engineering data is digital and model-based, it’s much easier to get that information to a supplier that can have the capability to turn it back around. 3D printing is the sexy side of it, but if you have your full 5 axis CNC machine, anybody who has that capability can make your part. It’s now just a matter of connecting those manufacturers and the customers. That’s where MBD definitely helps with the supply chain. If you’re still in the 2D drawing world, it is much more difficult to do because you have to find a supplier who’s willing to take your 2D drawing, convert it to a 3D model and feed it into their machine, and that creates a lag in the system. You’re not as flexible to pivot to a new supplier when there’s a supply chain disruption or when there’s an ecological event of some type.
Rhiannon: What about the folks trying distributed manufacturing? Shipping whole factories around in shipping containers?
Duane: Yeah. GE did something like that, they had a couple of prototype shipping containers, essentially lights-out production facilities. It was a pilot program, but it proved out that you can have these things and you can truck them into where your demand is. If your demand is high in one area, you truck in your shipping container, drop it there, manufacture it, and you cut down on all that supply chain slack. You don’t have to truck all the raw materials into a city, manufacture it, ship that to another city, assemble it and then ship it to your customer, you can all do that right in one spot, so it really shortens everything.
Rhiannon: What is your take on the perception that ‘the supply chain isn’t ready’ for MBD, because that comes up a lot.
Duane: I think the supply chain is more ready than larger and slower-moving companies think they are. The supply chain has been using 3D models for years. They’ve been using IGES models, they’ve been using STEP models, they’ve been using all these different 3D models to derive their CNC code. There’s a lot of relatively unmanaged derivative information being made, and it can be kind of a telephone game where we’re lucky anything fits together. They have a model they’ve created and they’re deriving this code from it, and they’re doing these other things from it, and a lot of it’s not verified or validated. By implementing MBD farther up the food chain we can make the process a whole lot more robust.
Rhiannon: What are other ways that MBD can support resilience?
Duane: A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about the Port of Los Angeles and how clogged it was. That’s inherent with Lean Manufacturing processes because you cut out all of that waste, all of the material that’s in transit or waiting, all those queues that act as a buffer. With caution and with MBD, you take the slack out of the system. So your engineering team gives the MBD to their procurement department, who can transmit that to the manufacturer much quicker. The manufacturer can run the MBD through simulations and get much more accurate on their analysis, as well as getting more accurate on the materials that they need. So maybe they don’t need quite as large of a billet or maybe they can use some off-cuts from a previous project and get a little bit more efficient that way. And if they can directly consume the MBD, that helps cut down the lag time while a human interprets a drawing and creates the NC code.
I think the pandemic has illustrated quite effectively that digital is the way to go because now you aren’t tied to a specific location, you don’t need to have engineers in the office along with their blueprints. You can have the 3D CAD file with the engineer wherever the engineer is. If you take that to a supplier, it creates a lot more competition because the manufacturers that can take that digital content are a little bit more interchangeable, which is a good thing from the engineering standpoint.
I’m not sure all manufacturers are going to like that, because it can become a whole lot more competitive, it opens up a little bit broader competition. It may open things up to a larger pool of manufacturers. But as we know, they may or may not be MBD, so I think those that are MBD will have a competitive advantage over those that are not.
Rhiannon: It seems like a lot was learned in the pandemic, right?
Duane: Yeah, I think there was a lot of fear-driven change in a positive way because manufacturers and companies, in general, realized they couldn’t continue with the same paradigm they’ve been using for many years, they had to shift literally overnight. In the blink of an eye, they had to go from being on-site in-person to being remote and digital. And you can’t go digital without MBD, you have to be model-based, you have to have the modern GD & T, you have to have your semantic annotations, you need all that information to come across from the product definition into the manufacturing definition.
Rhiannon: What else do you think of when you think about manufacturing resilience?
Duane: Well, when I think of resilience, I’m thinking of the ability for a company to absorb a shock, an impact of some type, and the pandemic was that shock for literally the entire manufacturing sector and the entire employment sector. There weren’t very many businesses that weren’t affected by it, and those that were able to better absorb the shock and pivot to new technology, new processes, new ways of doing business, are the ones that survived. The pandemic is basically the business equivalent of the asteroid coming in and wiping out the ecosystem.
Rhiannon: Yes, companies that were brittle going in couldn’t bounce.
Duane: Yeah, and so with Lean Manufacturing, you’re talking trying to save fractions of a penny in some cases. Any time you can eke something like that out, you’re getting better profit, but as you do that, your system becomes more and more brittle. It lacks the flexibility of other systems. I think of the whole analogy of the oak tree. It is very stout, very strong, but it doesn’t handle the wind very well, it’ll snap when there’s pushback. Whereas the willow tree is a whole lot more flexible, it’s not as strong, but when the gust of wind comes through it’ll bend and won’t snap. You need to have a certain amount of flexibility built-in, you need to have a certain amount of buffering built into your system, and I think Model-Based Definition can provide that.