Empowering Agile Manufacturing: The Role of Integrations in Uniting Design and Production

Almost everyone is familiar with the old saying “two heads are better than one” by British author C.S. Lewis. But what people may not know is the full quote by Lewis, the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” that adds: “…not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The bottom line in the world of manufacturing is getting products designed, produced and to market as efficiently and as timely as possible. One of the typical challenges in this process is bridging the gap between the design engineering stage and in getting product data and specifications understood, accounted for and transformed into an end product.

Far too often, disjointed data, processes and systems create confusion and delays in manufacturing. That’s because design engineers, who are a vital part of bringing a product to market rely largely on Product Lifecycle Management software. Whereas, manufacturing engineers spend the majority of their time using Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) to bring the product vision to life.

Where it gets murky is what takes place once production begins, and this is especially applicable to complex assemblies with BOMs that can contain tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of parts. Inevitably, unforeseen changes arise at the production stage that must be addressed on the factory floor. Parts may be replaced, a different tool may be substituted for what was planned, or steps may happen in a different sequence than was originally intended. It is here where communication breakdowns are most common. Why? Because those changes need to be communicated back to design engineers and reflected in the final as-built BOM. Legacy solutions have struggled to connect the dots in this way.  

The new generation of SaaS manufacturing operations management solutions have put C.S. Lewis’ old saying into practice, working in the same direction to close the divide between engineering and manufacturing using APIs (Application Programming Interface).

An API is a set of rules and protocols that allows different software applications to communicate with each other. Think of it as a bridge that enables various software systems to share information and functionality seamlessly. To put it simply, an API acts as a translator between two applications, enabling them to understand and work with each other efficiently.

The integration between cloud-native PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) solutions like Arena and Duro, and First Resonance’s ION Factory Operating System digitally connect engineers and production teams, helping them work more collaboratively within the same datasets.

A shift away from all-in-one software

What used to be a very centralized, monolithic approach in bringing digital technology into the factory has been shifting as manufacturers (like the industries before them) get serious about migrating from on-premise solutions to cloud software. With more and more manufacturing solutions available in the cloud, the ease of integrating them are helping organizations solve problems more efficiently than ever before. 

In the past, manufacturers sought out platforms that included a full suite of tools ideally built to work together without integration work. As a result, they settled for tools that didn’t meet their full set of requirements because they were committed to the same vendor for their entire tech stack. Today’s SaaS providers see things very differently. They build their manufacturing software products with the specific objective of being able to integrate with other vendors’ solutions. 

This has been like the unbundling of the traditional ISA-95 stack to define the interface between control functions and other enterprise functions. For different layers to interact, it would have to be within the monolithic provider suite – going all in with one software provider. Now we are seeing that there is a much nimbler way to create solutions that is beginning to unfold.

Open the door to an interchangeable factory

The philosophical belief by most SaaS companies is that products are more powerful  when they are part of a greater whole and therefore should be compatible right out of the box. In the past, it was a very expensive and timely endeavor to try to integrate products from different vendors, which prevented modernization for companies that didn’t have the budget or appetite for operational disruption. 

Companies had to enlist the services of a third-party partner or consultant to define the business processes and requirements, followed by custom development work. This could typically be very costly, cumbersome, and involved in-house IT resources with other priorities. Now, most modern solutions offer APIs so that engineers and operators can focus on using the software instead of worrying about how to configure or integrate it.

This interchangeability between technologies that power the factory is one of the most profound changes that will allow factories to be more agile as unimagined ML and AI solutions are introduced. The ease of swapping technologies in and out without disrupting production makes this model inherently scalable. As your business requirements change, you can update your software ecosystem by integrating additional tools and services, ensuring continuous alignment with your operational needs. As a result, productivity which had waned over the past decade, is going to fuel efficiency as companies customize their tech stacks to match their unique factory workflows.

The importance of API-first manufacturing solutions 

Despite the growing popularity of API-driven efficiencies, not all manufacturing software was developed with a native API. If a potential vendor says that they have an API coming soon, that is a big red flag. You want to look for an interface that offers an API by default, not just something that is added after the fact to stay competitive. 

The API-first approach emphasizes the importance of APIs from the very start of the software development process. In this method, APIs are considered the fundamental building blocks of the software. API-first organizations create and prioritize APIs before developing other parts of the code, rather than adding them as an afterthought.

Creating a loop of collaboration

A robust integration between a PLM and modern MES or Factory Operating System can allow manufacturers to:

  • Integrate design specifications directly into their manufacturing workflow
  • Ensure that technicians always have access to the latest Bill of Materials
  • Proactively prevent manufacturing issues to optimize efficiency and reduce rework
  • Instill confidence in shop floor teams to know they are proceeding with the latest, correct parts
  • Automate the flow of information from the factory back to the design engineering team on defective parts, substitutions, and more

Welcome to a world of agile workflow

Companies that can take in-manufacturing, live data and send it back to design without requiring double-entry or using disconnected communication channels can iterate more rapidly than many of their counterparts, increasing their competitive advantage. Space X is the epitome of that and the result has been continual iteration.

Meanwhile, in traditional manufacturing organizations, if there is any problem in the process, manufacturers move ahead and live with it until the next product cycle. Conversely, with a PLM<>MES/Factory OS integration, there is an immediate feedback loop enabling an agile workflow where improvements happen the moment a flaw is realized, rather than the next time around, ultimately leading to faster creativity, higher quality products, and shorter innovation cycles.