Manufacturers jump on digital prototyping

Time to market reduced but communication barriers remain

Manufacturing may not be the most tech-savvy, industry but the new trend of digital prototyping is cutting the cost of design and streamlining the entire product development process.

Canberra-based manufacturer of specialist robots for law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations Australian Robotics began moving its design process to digital prototyping two years ago to speed up its product development cycle.

The company's technical director and head of research and development, Rod Kinnish, said the old way of building a model and testing it to "see what happens" was expensive and taking too long.

Kinnish said digital prototyping has saved a lot of time in capturing the design concept, modelling that concept to see if it will work, and performing stress analysis to see when parts will fail.

"The final structural analysis is still done physically but everything else is purely digital," Kinnish said. "The last two times we have gone from digital prototype to manufacture with 100 percent success and we are very happy."

In addition to product designs, assembly manuals, electrical diagrams and wiring is done electronically.

Autodesk's Inventor software won a selection process and Kinnish said the ROI has been at least five times over the cost.

"If a final product costs $100, to build a prototype would cost $300 to $500 each and you may do three before you get it right," he said. "We go straight to the manufactured item, but if we had to make a change it would be insignificant."

Australian Robotics manufactures its products locally and Kinnish said is often requested to supply designs in DXF format which is a sign of the sector's maturing grasp of IT.

Kinnish, who previously worked in information security at the Department of Defence, said the technology also helps sales as it can be used to show customers a real-time analysis on computer and get sign-off without building anything.

"Go with digital prototyping, if we don't we will go backwards," he said. "It saves so much time and energy and it's good for the environment because there is not as much waste."

Kinnish said the only time "things get coked up" is when the manufacturing process abstracts from the digital design process and the two don't work together, but the likelihood of something going wrong goes down to human error or miscommunication.

The digital prototyping era will also usher in a new level of information management for manufacturers, which Kinnish described as a "significant problem" because the digital models become as valuable as a production prototype.

"We have to make sure they are backed up and managed, so there has been some overheads in establishing processes and procedure for the digital world," he said. "We use a client server architecture and stand-alone, so if we need to rapidly move to something else we can. We have just gone through a relocation and realized the IT infrastructure was too fixed so we re-architected it."

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