Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Thursday, February 27, 2020
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Innovation: The Assembly Line of the 21st Century 

Human history is marked with crucial innovations: moments that resulted in change so significant that they forever altered the way we live our lives. Manufacturing stands on the precipice of a new innovation with as much potential as the assembly line – a 21st century game-changer with the potential to position the US as the dominant power in a new economy: a vibrant, advanced economy for a technological society.

Maverick manufacturing executive Damon Darlin once said, "Nothing is more important than innovation. The minute we stop innovating, we die."

Indeed, human history is marked with crucial innovations: moments that resulted in change so significant that they forever altered the way we live our lives. How long did Iron Age cultures survive after the invention of steel? How many books and newspapers were hand copied after Gutenberg unveiled movable type? One hundred years ago, Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line, ushering in the era of mass production. It is no exaggeration to say that mass production was as revolutionary as steel or the printing press. Without it, the 20th century would have been very different indeed.

It is critical to not only maintain, but accelerate our innovative manufacturing capabilities. Innovation is a strategic must, as Darlin said, those who don't will die. Today, manufacturing stands on the precipice of a new innovation with as much potential as the assembly line — a 21st century game-changer with the potential to position the US as the dominant power in a new economy: a vibrant, advanced economy for a technological society. An economy that takes the best of manufacturing (the foundation of any industrialized nation's competitiveness) and knowledge (the human capital and education without which a nation cannot succeed) and blends them. An economy unlike any of the past — one that drives advanced capabilities and improved education in time with the warp-speed growth of new technology. The knowledge/manufacturing economy leverages the two greatest strengths any nation can have — production and brains — and brings them together, creating a vibrant new model for an evolving world.

The assembly line was the game-changer that made the 20th century possible. And the game-changer that lies beyond it, the one that will make the 21st century possible, is digital manufacturing.

If that term conjures images of CAD objects rotating on desktop computers, or third-party software optimizing CNC programs, you're not thinking big enough. Digital manufacturing is not just some new tool that makes production easier. It will redefine what it means to produce.

Leveraging these tools is not just doing what we do today more quickly and at a lower cost. Rather, it is about transforming what we do, and in the process discovering revolutionary products and the means to manufacture them. Imagine design to manufacturing times slashed by 95 percent. Automobiles that weigh half as much as today's, but are ten times safer in a collision. A world where product prototyping and testing are done entirely inside ultra-powerful computer simulations, with a level of accuracy far above that of real-world testing, yet at a fraction of the cost. Whereas CAD provides designs, digital manufacturing provides answers — in some cases, answers to questions you didn't even think to ask.

Hindsight reveals the numerous preconditions that enabled the innovation of the assembly line. Yet it was Ford's foresight that empowered him to capitalize. Today we can see existing preconditions for this next game-changing innovation:

  • A wealth of innovative ideas captive within the US manufacturing supply base.
  • High-performance computing (HPC) is one of America's greatest competitive strengths.
  • Accurate, high-speed simulation and prediction will do away with antiquated processes and slash time to market.

Combined, these juggernauts put the US in a unique position of strength to maintain an edge in R&D, pursue high-payoff opportunities that would be too risky without modeling and simulation, and speed innovative new products to the global marketplace. With the assembly line, Ford realized an enormous untapped market. With digital manufacturing, an innovation that enables innovation, we can impact the entirety of US manufacturing with social and economic benefits far beyond those of mass production.

HPC FieldBut to make it happen, US manufacturing must overcome the barriers to adoption and get ahead in the race. A Council on Competitiveness study makes it clear that international firms are more aggressive in applying HPC and digital manufacturing than domestic ones, and more willing to push these technologies through their supply chains. Unless US suppliers can affordably leverage predictive simulation-based design and manufacturing tools to solve their problems and explore the wealth of innovative possibilities, the entire US manufacturing base will be at risk to overseas competitors.

The new tool for manufacturing innovation exists in the digital domain, examining, simulating, and processing trillions of data points, then returning valid prognostic results in a matter of hours, not years. Forget prototyping and material testing — with predictive simulation, every material, design, eventuality and variable is analyzed, cross-analyzed, and assessed for potential outcomes.

The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and its allies have already committed to breaking through the barriers to adoption that have held US manufacturing back from utilization of this technology. The revolution is already underway, but we have only seen the beginning of its potential. Someday soon, any attempt to innovate, or design, or manufacture without this tool will be the equivalent of an office that doggedly sticks to manual typewriters when all other companies have high-end PCs, email, and word processing. The most successful innovators are the ones who use innovative tools, and digital manufacturing is a tool that will make even the assembly line seem dated by comparison.

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