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Taking the LEAP

Information technology is critical to the future of manufacturing. The EU LinkedDesign project aims to help manufacturers harness and use information.
By Dimistris Kiritsis
Mar 09, 2017

Without a doubt, manufacturing remains vitally important for the world economy. It is estimated that before the latest economic crisis in the European Union, the manufacturing sector contributed some 17.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and accounted for some 22 million jobs. When you combine manufacturing with sectors that are directly related to it, such as transportation, the contribution to the GDP is estimated to be about 47 percent.

The economic crisis of 2008 hit the manufacturing industry hard. Output decreased by around 20 percent. At the same time, global competition has increased dramatically. This has put a lot of pressure on manufacturers. Moreover, we are seeing new trends and paradigms, such as sustainable manufacturing and mass customization. Consequently, the manufacturing industry is facing significant structural changes.

The key enabler for coping with these changes will be information and computer technologies (ICT), due to their strong impact on innovation and productivity. The current ICT landscape in manufacturing is characterized by scattered data formats, tools and processes dedicated to different phases in the product lifecycle.

For example, in the concept phase of a product, companies typically use common tools, such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Later on, companies turn to specialized software, such as computer-aided design solutions, product lifecylce management, enterprise resource planning systems and so on.

Moreover, the flow of information is closely aligned to the product lifecycle—that is, information from the design phase goes into the manufacturing phase. But data flows in the opposite direction as well. User feedback is often incorporated into a product's design. At present, a manufacturer's understanding of a user's needs can be enriched with live "field" data generated by so-called product embedded information devices (PEID), such as sensors and radio frequency identification transponders.

Due to the diversity of tools and data formats, many manufacturers are struggling to cope. For example, both the trend toward mass customization and the demand for increased sustainability require a tight integration of the design, manufacturing and usage phases of a product, which is currently not in place.

The rise of Web 2.0 leads to precious information, manifested in Web 2.0 channels such as blogs and forums, created directly by prospective or existing users of a given product. But this sort of information is far from having any real impact on a product's design or manufacturing phase.

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