Six trends in Digital Product Development

Guest author Ralf Steck describes the key ingredients of successful digitalization in the manufacturing industry

Published 01/27/2023 | updated 02/14/2024

The PLM world is replete with changes and innovations. You are probably aware of most of these, and no doubt you have implemented some of them in your business. But because our world is so dynamic today, we can never really stop moving. To give you some food for thought during your next planning steps, we asked PLM author Ralf Steck for a weighted overview of current opportunities and activity fields. The product is this guest contribution which might be subtitled “Step by Step Towards the Digital Future”.

Six trends in Digital Product Development
Ralf Steck

Guest Author

Ralf Steck

Ralf Steck is a freelance technology journalist specializing in CAD/CAM, IT and mechanical engineering

Now, that 2023 has started, let's look to the future: What will occupy our minds, what will be the mega-topics of 2023? Looking at the PLM sphere, we can discern several overarching themes that will affect us in the near future.

As Mark Twain once quipped, predictions are difficult, especially when they concern the future. But what can we do other than interpolate current trends into the future and derive predictions from this exercise? Of course, our forecasts cannot take all potentially disruptive developments into account – such as Covid, the war in Ukraine or any variety of technical innovations like the smartphone. But even the more readily foreseeable developments offer us plenty of food for thought on what things might look like in the near future.

At the end of the day, it’s a single megatrend that pulls all the other ones along: The ever more wide-ranging digitalization of products, processes and businesses. Digitalization comes with preconditions, e.g. model based definition (MBD) or the digital twin, but it also offers us opportunities that would not exist without it, e.g. platform architectures, distributed work schemes or supply chain tracking.

And at first glance, this is why many businesses find it so difficult to make digitalization a reality – many technologies build upon each other and on data from peripheral processes. That presents IT managers with the dilemma of not being able to introduce functions which would actually be beneficial – because they lack basic data and/or because processes are not yet digital. But if we take a closer look, we can almost always find “low-hanging fruit” that can be harvested easily and which show the users how valuable digitalization actually is.

1. At the office, anywhere – working in the Cloud

For most businesses and employees, the Covid lockdowns and the associated introduction of remote work were the first contact with Cloud technology. But even before the pandemic – and thereafter – there were and will be good arguments for shifting data and applications to the Cloud. Foremost is the independence from locations and devices which lets us work from anywhere. Many employees view working from home positively, and we can expect it to remain an integral part of our working world.

Not least, remote working solutions save commuting and thereby energy. Ideally, they allow businesses to reduce office space and to use the remaining premises more efficiently. In times of soaring gas and power prices, this is a good way to achieve near-term cost benefits.

Applications shifted to the Cloud run on high-performance devices in remote computing centers, while the users’ workstations no longer have to satisfy any major requirements. Data is stored safely in the Cloud, and if the software runs fully in the Cloud, the need for local installation and updating is eliminated. This drastically cuts costs for IT equipment and administration. Rental license options or pay-per-use schemes are available to cushion the initial license costs.

Even across distributed locations, staff can now work in close collaboration – at all times and with access to the latest data. Complex, vulnerable synchronization processes are a thing of the past. In some cases, a company may decide to operate such a Cloud in its own data center, but outsourcing has a distinct advantage: Established Cloud providers have a staff of security specialists who are aware of the latest threats and know how to protect the installation accordingly.

2. The 3D model as the basis for everything – MBD

Digitalization needs machine-readable, digitally available data. A 2D drawing – even in PDF format – is the opposite of that. A 2D representation must be translated into a three-dimensional object in the viewer’s head – in 3D CAD, that object is available from the outset.

Yet many businesses keep a wealth of PMI information hidden in 2D format – geometric dimensions & tolerances, manufacturing requirements and so on. This means that all this data is unavailable to downstream digital processes. Model based definition (MBD) allows to append all this information to the 3D model and thereby makes it digitally accessible.

For engineers, switching to MBD doesn’t mean any additional effort – they define the required additional information directly within the 3D model rather than in 2D drawings. In fact, they save time because they no longer need to manually derive 2D representations and may indeed be able to automate the process. Data now becomes available for use in many downstream processes, from purchasing to manufacturing to logistics. This makes MBD a prime example of a low-hanging fruit – very little effort is needed to introduce it, but it has highly positive effects on the overall process.

3. Democratizing simulation – MODSIM for engineers

Design-related simulation lets engineers test their products in the virtual world before they ever build a prototype. Many software suites provide features for generating templates that contain all boundary conditions and other presets, or make them available as parameters which can be adjusted by the engineers as needed. They can run simulations, even complex ones, without having to understand the finer details of their simulation system.

This eases the workload on the simulation engineers, who can instead devote more time to new product development and approval simulation, now often required by the regulatory authorities. The approach, dubbed MODSIM – a combination of the words “modeling” and “simulation” – also benefits from the Cloud, because complex calculations can be conducted using the almost unlimited computing power of the Cloud and results become available very quickly. MODSIM is not a technology but rather a methodology that uses and integrates the functions of the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, particularly CATIA and SIMULIA.

4. Where it all comes together – The digital twin

We’re starting to see the larger picture: The trends we have described so far all build on and mutually support each other. The result is the digital twin, a digital representation of a product whose real-world behavior can be predicted by way of simulation models.

All business processes can benefit from this digital, machine-readable information. For example, simulation experts no longer need to examine the materials, corner radii and surface qualities relevant to a product to be able to analyze notch crack limits – the digital twin already contains this information, and the simulation software can extract the required boundary conditions directly from the model. This not only saves work, it also prevents transmission errors.

The data is readily available for use by all business units in which product data is part of the process – purchasing can use it to generate supplier specifications, marketing can rely on it for product rendering, manufacturing needs it for production planning, and it helps logistics with packaging design. Sales can leverage the digital twin for virtual demonstrations of the product, and aftermarket service can use it as a basis for maintenance and upgrade work.

The digital twin is also useful for training purposes, and it can even help us predict the future – by speeding up the simulation, we can gain a time-lapse impression of how the product behaves and wears in the long term.

5. Platforms – The digital twin’s operating system

The digital twin feeds on the free flow of information – information that can be processed and augmented by all business units, using tools appropriate to their specific requirements. For example, quality managers need access to the product geometry, but unlike the engineers they don’t need editing functions – they only want to be able to take measurements.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform reflects these differences in requirements by way of roles. Each role describes an activity and the associated tools. Staff members may be allocated one or more roles, along with precisely the tools required to perform them. The platform also ensures that the data is always made available in the format the respective user needs. A logistics staffer needs the 3D model of a steel casing to define the packaging, while an NC programmer may want to export a DXF file of the unrolled steel sheet to be able to program the laser cutting cell.

That’s why I like to call platforms like 3DEXPERIENCE the “digital twin’s operating system” – though operating system plus applications would actually be a more accurate analogy. In any case, the platform is responsible for generating, gathering and transporting data, and for correlating data sets with each other. The platform incrementally infuses the digital twin with substance, to the point where it becomes a truly realistic representation of the physical product.

Not least, this makes the platform a source of innovation, digital business processes and thereby new business models that would not be feasible without an end-to-end data core.

6. IoT – The feedback loop for products

In many of these digital business models, what is being sold is not so much the physical product but rather its added value. For instance, a compressor manufacturer may no longer focus primarily on selling the actual compressors, but rather a certain compressed air flow rate with precisely defined quality criteria. To invoice this service and keep it available 24/7, the manufacturer needs real-time data from the on-site compressors – data delivered straight from the machines via the Internet of Things (IoT). Such processes can generate huge volumes of data. To keep them manageable, processes for consolidating, monitoring and interpreting the data therefore have to be automated.

And then the insights gained from the data have to reach the right people. This might be a service technician who receives an alert that a component will fail in the near future and should therefore be replaced proactively. The engineering unit might be informed that a certain component within a certain assembly has an excessive failure rate and needs to be redesigned. Such distribution of information is another of the responsibilities of platforms like 3DEXPERIENCE.
Digital future, here we come!

Digitalization is progressing by leaps and bounds, and with it the challenges but also the opportunities that come with it. To overcome the former and seize the latter, your business needs a roadmap, a well-considered plan tailored to the requirements and specifics of your company and synchronized with the tools available to you. With this as your guide, you can plan and take the first steps toward your digital future – from simple but effective one-off projects to complex digital business processes.