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How Design Software Will Shape Manufacturing's Future

Powerful design tools and techniques such as 3-D printing enable manufacturers to be more nimble, says Autodesk’s manufacturing boss.
July 28, 2011

Autodesk, a multinational software company based in San Rafael, California, makes 3-D design software used by everyone from automotive manufacturing giants to Hollywood studios. Now it is betting that those digital tools will have an increasingly powerful role in what happens on factory floors, enabling manufacturers to embrace more flexible strategies that deliver more customized products.

3-D printing: A 3-D printer squirted out each of the 200 plastic parts in this 10-foot-long turbo-prop engine, demonstrating a technology that could soon be used for more than just prototyping.

Buzz Kross, who heads the company’s manufacturing industry group, says the manufacturers he works with see an opportunity in new technology at a time when they sense that the boom in outsourcing to China has run its course. “There have always been companies that differentiate based on their ability to manufacture most efficiently, and others based on design and invention—it’s the difference between GM and Tesla,” says Kross. “Now a lot of manufacturers are leaning more to the design model.”

Kross says that rising costs in China’s maturing economy and high-profile problems with out-sourced  components, like those that plagued Boeing’s 787, are making the model of high-volume, low-cost outsourced production less economically attractive. The result is that a wider range of companies are considering adopting a more flexible, premium approach to manufacturing that has previously been limited to a relatively small niche. Kross is trying to help that trend along with software such as Inventor, which provides a way to digitally prototype and test mechanical designs, and Streamline, which enables engineers, designers, and managers to collaborate on a design. Both are intended to speed the journey from digital drawing board to factory floor.

“You don’t need to center everything on making millions of the same thing at the absolute cheapest price anymore,” says Kross. He cites the growing popularity of a model known as ETO (engineer to order), in which businesses buying from manufacturers order by referring to a list of general rules, not a catalogue and price list. For each order, a manufacturer makes and assembles a product very specific to the customer’s needs. That approach also cuts costs, because raw materials and parts don’t have to be held in stock; rather, they can be purchased to match the latest order. And the customized products can command a higher price than a conventionally made one, Kross says: “These companies capture a larger share of the customer’s wallet this way.”

That style of manufacturing makes the design process—and design software—much more central. Kross says that 3-D printing technology will blur the line between design and manufacturing still further.

“Everybody’s already embracing it for prototyping,” says Kross. “You can already print moving components and subassemblies that don’t need any assembly. That’s incredibly useful, whether you make pumps or power trains or chairs.” Nike, an Autodesk customer, prototypes shoes by using a printer to squirt out materials that have more or less compressibility, depending on how bouncy and flexible each part of the sole is meant to be.

The next step is for 3-D printing to become a manufacturing method rather than solely a prototyping tool, says Kross. Small companies are already trying this, but it won’t be long before large manufacturers follow suit. “Think about when you buy a Dell computer and they let you choose all the different components,” Kross says. “3-D printing for manufacturing will allow you to have that, but with nearly infinite options.”

This process may cost manufacturers more than production at a more conventional or offshore factory. But as with the ETO approach, more customized products fetch higher prices, says Kross. Jewelry, furniture, and consumer electronics are all areas that could benefit from the new techniques, he says. “People don’t like it when they have the same thing as everything else and will pay more to get exactly what they choose.”

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