Hexagon’s race to the Smart Factory

Jul 17, 2019 | Hot Topics

What if you could reimagine your product design and manufacturing processes? Start from scratch, rather than have to deal with legacy thinking, work processes and tools? Come up with new ways of working in all areas of your business?

That’s what Hexagon wants us all to do: imagine a Smart Factory where design, simulation, machining/making and validation are all connected. Each step generates and consumes data, with the ultimate goal of a closed-loop feedback system that aims to ensure that all designs are manufacturable. That all manufactured items meet quality standards. That the manufacturing line is designed to be as energy and material efficient as possible. And that the data on the line’s quality and efficiency is fed back into the design of the next product iteration.

Sound like a pipe dream? Perhaps, but Hexagon believes it’s putting together the pieces to help its clients move incrementally closer to this vision.

Hexagon gave us a glimpse into this on the HxGN LIVE show floor last month in Las Vegas, using an automobile hood bracket as an example. The part was designed in CATIA and then manufactured out of titanium on a 3D printer. Spoiler: Someone hadn’t done their homework and the part sagged during fabrication where the weight of the metal pulled it out of shape. A Hexagon metrology scanner measured the part and comparing the as-is to the as-designed, finding the problem. A Smart Factory app built on Hexagon’s Xalt IoT platform notified a human and made a slight tweak to the printer to ensure that the next part would be made differently to avoid the problem, thus closing the loop between design and manufacturing quality.

Read this quickly and you’re left with more questions that answers: How does the app know what to adjust? What if the flaw is so minor as to be OK? Do we need to take springback into account? Who makes car parts out of titanium, anyway? Ignore all of that—it was a demonstration!

The strategic concept holds: as soon as we know we have a problem, we should act. Humans need to be alerted to the problem so they can figure out a fix. If we can pre-program the fix, we can shorten the time to a solution. And if we can identify the root causes of the problem, perhaps we can prevent it.

Central to Hexagon’s value proposition in the mechanical manufacturing world (we’ll get to process in a subsequent post) is simulation in all its forms: traditional CAE, manufacturing process simulation, scenario building and so on. A key part of that vision was fulfilled when Hexagon acquired MSC Software in 2017.

Many people still think of MSC as synonymous with Nastran, the solver, and Patran, the pre- and post-processor. Maybe a little Adams for the multi body dynamics enthusiasts. The portfolio today is a lot broader and includes linear, nonlinear, CFD, controls, materials, forming, fatigue and many more solvers, along with data management, workflow and other solutions, as shown in the slide I cribbed from MSC’s keynote presentation. (Missing is AMendate, acquired after HxGN LIVE.)

MSC packages everything in flavors that appeal to experts, novices and the in-between, and sells via direct and indirect channels. And, increasingly, Hexagon is using these solvers as the cornerstones of solution sets that address specific problems, such as autonomous vehicle development and additive manufacturing.

During his keynote, MSC CEO Paolo Guglielmini’s pointed out that MSC is working to improve each individual product and to support what he and his bosses at Hexagon consider essential initiatives like the Smart Factory. This slide, also from his keynote, give the highlights:

His overall thesis: to reach the end-goal of a smart factory, design must be smarter at each step—whether of the product, its production process or its eventual support after sales. Mr. Guglielmini says that MSC and Hexagon want to extend the tools that engineers use, to give them as much info as possible to inform each design choice. And that extends beyond MSC’s legacy of replacing bend-and-break testing with virtual methods. From his slide, you can see that physics is definitely part of the equation, but that other aspects like design-to-manufacture, costing and compliance also factor in.

Speaking to each element in the slide above, from the upper right,

Mr. Guglielmini feels that a red-light/green-light worse-better simulation result isn’t sufficient. Users expect as accurate a simulation result as possible, as quickly as is reasonable. MSC continues to invest in building out (or acquiring) solvers with high accuracy.

Too, the world doesn’t work in only one physical dimension; the MSC CoSim Engine couples different solvers in a multi-physics framework. The first release connects models in Adams, Marc and scFLOW (CFD). Out any day now is Apex Framework, a front end that will allow chained simulations for all solvers, and coming is a second initiative that will allow true co-simulation, where multiple solvers to talk to one another i time-step increments

But it’s all pointless if the tools are too difficult to use. MSC continues to focus on improving usability and productivity across its products.

And, before you ask, MSC is also connecting MSC Apex to Adams, Marc and Actran, in addition to Nastran

Design to manufacture” is central to the Smart Factory concept, and something MSC believes sets it apart from other CAE suppliers. Tied to the next bubble, about costing, the combo of material definition via MaterialCenter, Hexagon Forming Technologies (FTI) sheetmetal costing and MSC Simufact’s costing for other production processes, leads Hexagon to believe that it can close the pre-production loops in the Smart Factory concept. MSC calls this “simulation at the point of design“— making design choices that take into account costing, manufacturability, and other criteria that haven’t typically been part of the simulation task.

The sustainability bubble ties back to the main theme of HxGN LIVE and to Hexagon CEO Ola Rollén’s keynote. From MSC’s more specific perspective, this gets back to material choices and trade-offs, and to know how a particular item is sourced. To that end, MSC is working with iPoint GmbH to incorporate materials management and compliance solutions and with Purdue University for optimizing composite hybrid mold manufacturing.

The end-goal with all of this is improved productivity. Not just in the simulation group, as used to be the case, but in an enterprise setting. Mr. Guglielmini spoke of AI-powered simulations that will take into account prior results to accelerate current simulations and using/creating more reduced order modeling techniques so users can more quickly focus in on only the most relevant scenarios and design options, to speed up the simulations

Faster CAE, earlier CAE, better decisions that take into account more types of information — all leading to more informed decisions.

The bottom line? It’s true: we gather and then squander far too much data. We’re beyond mechanizing routine tasks, and can now take that automation to another level by connecting and using all of the tools available to us. If we know that the titanium hood never does work out, given our production capability, how can we fix it? Can we change to another material? A different production process or 3D printer? What are the cost, quality and regulatory or sustainability implications of any of these alternatives?

Simulation will always be an important mechanism for closing the loop between intention and reality. MSC continues to focus on its core but is expanding that to new use cases and technology types. The question is, are its customers ready? I’m not sure they are, but they will have to get ready quickly or risk losing to more agile competitors who are (or almost are) there.

One last thing: I don’t know why I never internalized this before HxGN LIVE, but Hexagon is a manufacturer. They make metrology devices and are building a new factory in Hongdao, China that will be a proof-point for their Smart Factory vision. (Its construction is being executed via Hexagon’s enterprise construction solution, HxGN SMART Build). I am told that Hongdao will be a Smart Factory showcase, demonstrating how data-driven closed-loops lead to better metrics across the board. It’s scheduled to open in something like 9 months and I’m looking forward to seeing Hexagon’s Smart Factory in action.

Note: Hexagon graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The cover image is courtesy of Hexagon’s photo team.