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3 ways the cloud will change manufacturing

When we founded Arena in 2000, it was uncommon (unique, even) to deliver PLM, and manufacturing software in general, as a cloud application. In fact, our main integration challenge was configuring our cloud BOM and change management system, Arena BOMControl, to work with the on-premise EDA, MCAD, and ERP systems that our customers were also using.

But as all forms of enterprise software migrate to the cloud and new cloud-based tools emerge, I’ve begun to see new integration opportunities and developed a broader perspective on what the cloud can do for manufacturing.

Salesforce, for example, has demonstrated how sales teams can benefit from cloud-integrated customer relationship management (CRM) tools, and Netsuite and SAP have similarly improved financial processes with cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools. But manufacturers don’t (yet) have an optimized set of cloud-based tools to communicate product information with stakeholders around the world.

Instead, the majority of product data is still largely communicated through ad hoc tools like email and spreadsheets or individual on-premise solutions—tools that were never designed to support the reality of modern, distributed manufacturing. But the cloud opens the door for the development of tools that can naturally support the secure real-time, cross-enterprise flow of product information.

I see three immediate opportunities for the cloud to improve development and manufacturing, which I’ll speak to below.

How the cloud will improve manufacturing

#1: Streamline the process of product data exchange

One of the most fundamental steps in the manufacturing process is the exchange of build packages—which include product data like a bill of materials (BOM), production drawings, assembly instructions, raw material specifications, and compliance information—between original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers. As of today, there is no tool that enables the management of build packages outside a PLM system (except Arena Exchange.)

Without the cloud, OEMs usually fall back on what I call a ‘fire and forget’ method of data sharing. In other words, build packages are shared via email and spreadsheets and can quickly become lost or difficult to track. They might get confused with outdated versions or lost in distracting inbox noise.

By assembling and sharing build packages in the cloud, engineers can move data from one cloud system to another with very few touches to the actual data, and also keep the data in one central location for easy access. I see dedicated cloud manufacturing systems removing much of the tediousness and clutter from the exchange of product data.

#2: Simplify component shopping while prototyping

Acquiring the parts that go into a prototype is a time and resource-intensive process that involves a series of disconnected, manual tasks. Engineers can spend hours scouring the web for component data like availability, pricing, and compliance status from various distributor and manufacturer websites, only to re-type the information into a third location, usually a spreadsheet. And then, the engineer (or his/her colleague in purchasing) types the same information, yet again, into every supplier’s order entry system.

The cloud offers the opportunity to facilitate the direct ordering of components from cloud-based product data. When component shopping is consolidated into a simpler and more cohesive process, engineers will spend less time purchasing and more time focusing on their design.

#3: Facilitate design information exchange between multiple engineering modeling and analysis tools

A little farther down the road, we may begin to see the cloud improve the modeling and analysis of parts and subassemblies. For example, when mechanical engineers are designing a part, they often need to run a variety of simulations such as thermal analyses and stress and strain tests. Today, this is mostly done with expensive on-site, installed-for-your-use tools that don’t easily communicate data with each other and often require extensive CAD and technical support to install and maintain.

With the cloud, we can now see the path to widespread pay-as-you-go simulation tools that rely on cloud-enabled CAD systems to facilitate smooth information exchange.

How do you see the cloud impacting the future of manufacturing? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.