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What is "Digital Manufacturing?"

It’s manufacturing that takes advantage of data, simulations, and computing on a much greater scale than ever before. In Digital Manufacturing, anything you can do virtually, you should do virtually. It’s faster, cheaper, easier, and more reliable.

You can think of it as a new evolution of production. The last such evolution occurred in the early 1900s, when most industrial societies replaced Craft Manufacturing (building things one at a time, usually by hand) with Mass Production (building many of the same thing simultaneously).

Check the About page for more info on Digital Manufacturing.

How do all the terms and acronyms (prediction, MS&A, etc.) fit into Digital Manufacturing?

Digital Manufacturing is the big picture, everything else makes it possible – either tools or concepts that make up the whole. On its own, Digital Manufacturing is an idea, an umbrella that covers a huge array of stuff.

Of all the acronyms and terms you’ve heard, the most common is probably Modeling, Simulation, and Analysis, or MS&A. For some reason people often say MS&A when they mean Digital Manufacturing, probably because MS&A represents a huge spectrum of tools itself. They’re not technically the same – Digital Manufacturing is broader – but you might hear them used interchangeably.

What is "Modeling, Simulation, and Analysis?"

MS&A is a catch-all term for tools that simulate physical effects in a digital environment rather than in the real world. Basically it comes down to the following:

  • It’s often a combination of software and hardware
  • It runs simulations on computer models such as CAD diagrams
  • The more information a model contains – dimensions, shape, weight, composition, etc. – the more precise the simulation will be
  • Once the simulation is complete (usually many times), it takes all the outcomes and examines them for statistical events of interest
  • It may then recommend some change to the model, to encourage or prevent a possible outcome.

MS&A can simulate anything it has parameters for: the movement of gasses, liquids, or heat; how much strain something can take before it breaks; what happens when an object strikes another at a certain angle and velocity; trends in large systems such as the weather or stock market.

How accurate are computer simulations compared to real-world testing?

If the right data goes into a simulation, then its findings are just as reliable and accurate as real-world experiments. It’s also a lot cheaper no matter what. Modeling and simulation works more efficiently and gives back equally trustworthy results.

Traditional methods are only considered wonderful because they’ve been around for a long time, and because we’re conditioned to prefer things we can touch. It’s human nature: if you can’t touch it, it’s not “real.” But today’s MS&A can mimic real world conditions with near-total accuracy. And working in the virtual world is much more affordable than working in the physical one.

How does this technology differ from Computer-Aided Design (CAD)?

Digital Manufacturing software does look like CAD software, and shares some of the same terms. But they are NOT the same.

CAD is a design tool. It creates digital models that define something’s parameters: the shape, dimensions, components, and materials that make up a part, for example. What CAD can’t do is optimize those models, or simulate physical actions on them, or assess whether the model is ideal for its purpose. That’s the realm of Computer Aided Engineering, or CAE… which for our purposes is basically the same thing as Digital Manufacturing processes.

Activities like MS&A require models, of course. They need something to optimize against. So in a way, you can’t get to CAE without CAD; you can’t optimize without designing first.

I've heard the term "High Performance Computing" (HPC), which makes me nervous. Do I need that? How much does a setup like that cost?

You do not need it, which makes life much easier.

As to how much it costs, it’s like asking how much a car costs – a car’s price depends on what you want. A modest HPC system will set you back maybe $5,000-$10,000, and it’ll probably be about four or five times more powerful than a really good desktop PC. Some of the really epic supercomputer clusters found at national labs and universities cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and are ridiculously fast.

If you take one thing away from this, take away the promise that nobody needs to buy their own HPC system to do Digital Manufacturing. You can if you want to, but it is not a prerequisite.

Those epic supercomputers? They sit around doing nothing from time to time. When you can perform hundreds of billions of operations a second you tend to get your work done quickly. Their owners are happy to rent out idle time for manufacturers like you – just send them the files, their HPC chomps through it, and you pay only for the computing power you use. And there are still other alternatives that make it possible for companies of any means to access the kind of HPC power that was once limited to the uber-rich.

Would Digital Manufacturing be useful for companies that only build to print?

Yes! If a firm does build to print, then modeling and simulation can provide a big competitive advantage: quality control through virtualized testing, improvement of workflows and manufacturing cell layout, trend analysis to reduce costs in raw materials.

A build to print operation wouldn’t use it the same way a product design outfit would, but it could definitely be beneficial.

How much expertise is required to use these tools?

Some of them are quite complicated, which can be a big barrier to entry. A complicated simulation package does require some expertise, not just to use, but to interpret the results. On the other hand, user-friendliness is a much higher priority today than it was with the earliest Digital Manufacturing tools. Many software developers have comprehensive training programs to make adoption easier, and the Grid itself is a conduit to a huge (and growing) library of training that covers everything from basic stuff to advanced physics modeling.

Will I have to buy new equipment or hire new people?

Not necessarily. If you’re just dipping your foot into Digital Manufacturing (which we recommend, because it’s big and complex, and jumping in headfirst is unnecessary), then the cost in terms of people and hardware should be zero. The Grid is set up to provide subscription bundles, temporary licenses, even access to consultants, engineers, trainers, and other experts who can work within your existing infrastructure.

Long-term, major adoptions probably assume some level of investment. But by that time it’ll be an investment that makes good business sense. Hiring a couple new people, buying some software licenses, or even investing in an in-house HPC cluster might make sense if there’s going to be a significant return on that investment. The cost only becomes a problem when there’s no evident payback.

One of our goals with the Grid Initiative is to reduce or eliminate the up front cost, so manufacturers can focus on the benefits first.

What is the Grid trying to sell me?

Not a thing.

No, seriously, what is the Grid trying to sell me?

Once it all gets rolled out, the Grid will have a marketplace where you can invest in software, processing power, training and expertise. But that doesn’t mean the Grid is just a sales tool, or at least, it’s not intended as some profit-minded e-Commerce monster.

The Grid Initiative is a collaboration. Hopefully, it’s owned by everybody, because the only way it will work is if everybody, or almost everybody, gets aboard. It’s managed by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a nonprofit founded to provide solutions that benefit North American industry. But the decisions are steered by the Digital Manufacturing Strategic Interest Group, and that’s open to everybody – you, me, software vendors, computer manufacturers, whoever. Competitors sit side by side on it, that’s part of the point. No one interest dominates.

So yes, money can change hands on the Grid (eventually, it’s still young), but we see it not as selling this stuff so much as making it as easy as humanly possible for manufacturers to get access to it.

I've seen a ton of references to "small" and "medium" manufacturers (SMMs) on this site. What does that mean?

Technically, an SMM is any manufacturer that employs fewer than 500 people. Presumably the “small” is because they’re smaller than big manufacturers. Which kind of like saying the Milky Way galaxy is small compared to the local supercluster.

We use the term because it’s what everyone knows, but it’s neither flattering nor fair. SMMs are anything but small. They’re colossal. People tend to picture the huge OEMs when they think of manufacturing. But SMMs do 80% of the R&D and employ twice as many people. The whole global economy depends on “small” manufacturing, but – unlike the OEMs – these companies don’t operate with much margin for error. They have to do the most with the least, they have to run thinner and leaner every year, and so it’s tougher for them to adopt new tools on a large scale. Which is the real reason why Digital Manufacturing, which has been around for a long time now, hasn’t already been widely adopted.

Our objective with the Grid is to make the barriers as low as possible, make it as friendly and affordable and on-your-terms as we possibly can, because those “small” manufacturers are impossibly huge. When they win everyone wins.


What's the point of Grid pilot projects?

Every day we realize how much we’ve bitten off with this project. Reinventing the whole of manufacturing is actually a pretty big task. And while we’re pretty sure that the vision is generally right, the Grid is actually for the small and medium manufacturers, not for us. So we’re asking some of them to kick the tires.

For now, we have funding for somewhere between eight and fifteen pilots. We’re hand-picking SMMs and asking them to come up with some engineering or manufacturing challenge, maybe something that’s stymied them before. Beyond that, we ask for some of their time. In return, they get to feed their chosen problem to Digital Manufacturing and see firsthand how it all works – cost-free (or, if the challenge happens to be beyond a certain funding scope, hugely subsidized).

This will accomplish many things:

  • SMMs will get some hands-on Digital Manufacturing experience
  • We’ll get feedback on the earliest iterations of the Grid
  • Software vendors will see the potential of the untapped SMM market
  • Hardware vendors will get used to pay-for-power pricing models
  • The project results will make great case studies

Pilots aren’t meant to be realistic “what it’s like” projects. It’s a very intense collaboration, kind of like stress-testing an engine to see what its true capabilities are.

You can learn more about pilots by looking at this brochure (PDF), or checking the R&D section.

I want in!

Okay, that’s not a question, but I’ll allow it.

If you want in, we want you in! Spots are going fast for pilots, but we’ll (hopefully) be doing lots more. If you want in, first read over the materials – this brochure and then this candidate interview, and finally this process information. Once you’ve done that, think about what’s involved and make sure you’re willing:

  • You need to come up with a good challenge to solve
  • It will be a lot of work, and require a fair amount of effort
  • One or more of your people will have to devote some of their time to it
  • Your participation is key throughout, so no slacking
  • You’ll be available for events, meetings, and forum discussions
  • You’ll let us use your logo, name, and similar assets in our messaging
  • You might be asked to allow NCMS camera crews into your facility (we’ll clear all shots with you)
  • Assumption of some costs may be required if the scope changes
  • Accept that there are always risks in something like this
  • You have to follow NCMS community standards

In exchange for your commitment, you’ll get a one-in-a-million opportunity. Not just the Digital Manufacturing experience, but access to the vast NCMS collaborative network, contact with potential clients, other R&D projects, national publicity, VIP showings, customized training and more.

Sound fun? Contact Danielle Jones, our Business Development Manager, at (734) 995-0496.

What if the pilot doesn't work and we're not able to solve the challenge?

It will still be a good learning experience. Solving the engineering challenge is obviously an big priority, but it’s not the only priority – and no one’s being graded on it. Your feedback from hands-on experience with the Grid and MS&A tools are just as important. You’ll be using the earliest versions of the technology, guiding its development from infancy. Everything from ease of use to interface design to thoughts on the colors we use will be helpful to us.

How do I pick our task?

It’s pretty flexible. Generally we want you to look for an engineering, manufacturing, design, or workflow problem that you’d like to solve. Ideal tasks are data-intensive (because Digital Manufacturing feeds on data), and self-contained so we can control the scope. A clear desired outcome is also helpful. If you happen to have some task or problem that you’ve struggled with but been unable to defeat using your available tools, that would be nice, since Digital Manufacturing opens up a whole new array of tools for you to try.

You won’t be doing it in a vacuum. NCMS program managers and business consultants will be on hand, and as soon as we have a general idea of the project, we’ll start sourcing software/hardware support, and they can help too.


What's an anchor project?

Major R&D activities with significant funding and wide participation. They can last years and involve dozens of organizations, from mega-OEMs to tech firms on the bleeding edge. They’re called anchors because they hold everything else down. It’s a specialty of NCMS to manage these activities, and our process to do it has won over two dozen international awards. That collaborative management model is important, because you’ll often see direct competitors working together on an anchor project. Someone has to be the neutral arbiter, the protector of IP, and the one who makes sure all the participants play nice.

Anchor projects can have sweeping impact. Whole sectors of technology or process might be changed by their results. Chances are, you use products every single day that are improved, or made possible, by the results of an NCMS anchor project.

Can I get in on one?

Often you can. Sometimes they’re not open to new participants, but if you have reason to believe there’s something you can contribute, by all means let us know.

The best way to hear about new anchor projects and even propose your own is to be a member of NCMS. Check out the website at for more information.

Where does the funding come from?

A variety of different places. Some of it is public or government money, some may be grants. Everyone who participates has to contribute “in-kind,” too – time, money, etc. That’s one of the reasons NCMS projects can be so desirable to government agencies. In fact, many projects require a 2:1 industry/government cost share.

Today’s reality is that there’s less and less free government money to embark on big R&D programs, so companies that join NCMS thinking it’s just a conduit to free money are often disappointed. Often a considerable investment is required of organizations that participate in anchor projects, not to mention considerable risk. But the potential outcomes of sea-change innovation can dramatically outweigh the investment.


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Danielle Jones
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(734) 995-0496

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