Manufacturing Leadership Council members recently took a virtual tour around MxD’s Innovation Center in Chicago to learn how to integrate digital manufacturing technologies using existing legacy equipment in ways that can help increase agility without breaking the bank or getting buried in a data landslide.

MxD’s nearly 100,000-square-foot Innovation Center in Chicago is a neutral space for manufacturing experimentation and demonstration housing millions of dollars in consigned and purchased equipment that its 300 partners, including companies such as Siemens and Autodesk, use to conduct research and implement projects ranging from augmented reality to advanced simulation techniques. To date, it has invested about $100 million in 60 projects on behalf of manufacturers of all sizes and stages in their digital journeys.

MxD (Manufacturing x Digital), is a six-year-old nonprofit that works in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and is one of a network of 16 advanced manufacturing institutes around the country. Its goal is to improve U.S. competitiveness in the manufacturing sector through innovative R&D projects, workshops, and testbeds in the areas of predictive analytics and maintenance, agile and resilient supply chains, cybersecurity, digital fingerprinting, augmented reality, and digital twins.

It’s where manufacturers go to forge their future.

The MLC’s virtual tour included six stops. Because MxD usually hosts live tours and meetings at the center, the first stop outlined some of the health and safety measures MxD has implemented, including touchless thermometer checks, automated doors, masks, physical distancing cues, one-way entrances and exits, sneeze guards, hand sanitizer stations, updated air circulation, and UV-sanitized safety glasses. All measures are in compliance with the CDC and Illinois Department of Health guidance. All visitors and other stakeholders are told about the policies ahead of time.

The other five stops showcased examples of how MxD brings hard-to-visualize applications to reality in a factory setting. It has several testbeds throughout its 22,000-square-foot factory floor that are used for proof-of-concept testing of new technologies, integration and testing of existing technologies, and for educating and demonstrating various digital manufacturing concepts.

In one example, tour participants virtually walked through the process MxD uses to produce small souvenir tokens it gives to facility visitors, using its discrete manufacturing testbed, which uses typical factory equipment, to show how it integrates data collection systems and closed-loop analytics to continually improve its processes.

MxD commonly showcases products from several service providers as well as open-source products to provide a range of perspectives. Participants were also shown how MxD’s test beds integrate older analog equipment into digital systems, using a simple, inexpensive proximity sensor to sense whether the token is oriented correctly. Designed and built-in house, this unit cost less than $600, including all the mechanics, electronics, and control system.

Instead of using a plug-and-play commercial system, MxD also had one of its summer interns design and build the washing station used to rinse the coolant from the CNC process to help foster a better understanding of the higher tech skills tomorrow’s workers will need.

Another stop on the tour walked participants through a visual digital retrofit project MxD is doing in partnership with the University of Cincinnati and several MxD members. The goal is to convert analog information from older equipment into digital information that can be communicated over IoT networks and used in a variety of digital manufacturing operations. The project demonstrated how manufacturers can accomplish this without having to make large capital investments in new equipment by using vision-recognition hardware and software.

The project uses an inexpensive web cam to non-invasively record and digitize data from a simple analog air-pressure gauge – an approach that can be used for other pieces of legacy equipment — with the results fed to a PC which processes the visual information and displays the output on a monitor, including the real-time digital conversion. The PC then sends the information to the IoT network for alerts, analytics, or other digital use cases. This project was developed in partnership with Opportunity Works, a program to help young adults in the Chicago area by placing them as interns in local businesses to learn skills in manufacturing, IT, and supply chain. In this case, they learned how to use 3D printers to fabricate the fixtures in house and helped install the hardware in the factory for testing.

Another virtual stop on the tour showcased how manufacturers can get the benefit of digital technology while continuing to use legacy equipment, such as a type of manual milling machine that’s been in use since the 1930s. MxD undertook the project with Georgia Tech and several MxD members to inexpensively retrofit this type of machine with digital sensors. This specific use case identifies when machines are in operation by installing an industrial current sensor on the power leads to the spindle motor to monitor the current load and communicate the sensor’s output. A $19 microcontroller, simple enough to be programmed by a high school intern, was also used in the project. The total cost for the sensor, panel controller, and power supply was less than $150.

During the following discussion and Q&A session, facilitators and panelists emphasized a few key learnings from the MxD experience:

  • The goal isn’t always about gathering as much data as possible, but more about ensuring you collect relevant data that will address gaps and problem areas in the process.
  • Not everyone needs an advanced degree or a lot of training to make innovation happen. If the interns and high school and community college students MxD works with can adapt to the needs of digital manufacturing, it’s a good indication that you can educate and upskill your existing workforce to handle the digital transformation.
  • The cloud is the big equalizer, enabling everyone to collaborate remotely regardless of location, as has been seen in practice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Don’t try to eat the digital elephant all in one bite. Start small and demonstrate the ROI. Once others see the value of what you’re doing, you will start gaining internal advocates who will champion new digital ideas by building on those early successes.
  • Be transparent. Make sure that folks in the company know what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and how it’s going to help them, and the company, move forward.

Footnote: Further details: mxdusa.org