How mechanical engineers can benefit from digitalisation

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How mechanical engineers can benefit from digitalisation 

There’s no avoiding digitalisation – even in mechanical and factory equipment engineering. It takes a holistic approach to boost efficiency in production processes and workflows. Yet many managers are still unaware of the opportunities that digital work processes open up in mechanical engineering. This is due to companies, particularly SMEs, considering progressive digitalisation more as a threat than a chance to stay competitive in the long run. Results from the latest item study, which examines digitalisation trends in the mechanical engineering sector, confirms this. Frank Piller, professor of technology and innovation management at RWTH Aachen University, is of the same opinion. He is certain that those who are too afraid to define or invent new processes and try things out will eventually disappear from the market.

Which changes go hand in hand with digitalisation in mechanical engineering? The latest study conducted by item, the market leader in building kit systems for industrial applications, pinpoints current and future challenges in the sector and outlines potential approaches. Various information material was analysed for this study and a survey was carried out online. The respondents work in companies of different sizes and occupy positions of responsibility in business management, procurement and engineering. In addition to this, experts answered questions on the future of mechanical engineering and shared their views on how digitalisation will evolve.

Efficient workflows thanks to digitalisation

The use of 3D data and CAD is now part and parcel of engineering work, but digitalisation is so much more than that. Networking engineers and their projects, for instance, boosts efficiency and optimises processes. Workflows are less prone to errors as information is available across different working areas, meaning data no longer needs to be entered more than once. This is made possible by the automatic import of parts lists and CAM data, for example. Specialist tools such as the Engineeringtool from item and configurators also facilitate and improve workflows by automatically transmitting data and simplifying complicated tasks. Standard tasks, meanwhile, can be completed more quickly than in conventional CAD environments and recurrent tasks are eliminated. This saves valuable time, boosts efficiency in the workplace and even means that simple engineering tasks can be passed on to other employees, freeing up engineers to focus on more complicated jobs.

Outsourcing complex engineering tasks

Engineering departments have continuously shrunk over the past few years, with some being completely disbanded. Capturing data digitally means it is available around the clock to multiple users. As a result, external specialists can be more heavily involved in time-consuming engineering tasks. The right tools and comprehensive archives of components that can be used to create a fully configured unit are key to optimising working processes. At the same time, networking amongst staff is becoming increasingly important. Employees need to work as a team, often across different countries. “The engineers of today are expanding their repertoire of skills. New job profiles are emerging,” comments Frank Piller, professor of technology and innovation management at RWTH Aachen University. “Mechanics, electronics and IT are becoming increasingly intertwined and engineers are turning into generalists. They are also taking care of coordination tasks and adopting the role of a project manager in certain areas. After all, digitalisation can help to integrate other departments and areas, such as production and after-sales service, into engineers’ workflows.”

Stringent requirements and numerous concerns

Ensuring engineering projects are carried out and implemented to the highest possible standards requires more than just making data available at all times and across multiple departments. This information needs to be correctly interpreted and utilised. “Employees need to develop an understanding of what data and algorithms can be used for,” says Piller. “There has to be a change in mindset. Digitalisation is already well-advanced in our homes, but there is still some catching up to do in the workplace.” Companies need to get into gear. Whilst entry-level employees, who have grown up in a digitalised world, often have no trepidation about digitalisation strategies, other staff harbour concerns that need to be addressed in suitable workshops and training courses. Changing established processes usually goes hand-in-hand with introducing new software and hardware. Employees are much more accepting of such changes when they are supported from start to finish. As digitalisation advances, offers become more comparable and communication between business partners less personal. Just under 90 percent of study participants cited this as another reason for their reservations vis-à-vis digitalisation.

Changes for individual employees and the entire company

Although some companies have already adopted an initial digitalisation strategy, only 9.2 percent of the companies surveyed by item stated they have implemented a strategy of this kind to date. Given the unique combinations of sector, company size and specific market conditions that are at play, identifying standardised transformation processes seems impossible. All the same, digitalisation is gradually pushing forward in certain areas. Piller expects to see business relations and cost structures change: “Digitalised mechanical engineering is leading to innovative business models. For example, new fixed-term contracts for machines and special operating models are on the horizon. This is where customers just pay a rental fee for a set period, but the machine itself remains the property of the manufacturer.” The permanent availability of data is paving the way for predictive maintenance, with servicing operations easier to plan, machine anomalies detected early on and downtimes reduced to the bare minimum.

Looking ahead

Digitalisation doesn’t take care of itself – it requires companies to make a deliberate strategic decision. “We are currently still right at the start of implementing digitalisation strategies in the mechanical engineering sector,” emphasises Piller. “We need to establish a trial-and-error culture if we want to come up with smart solutions for the future.” Mechanical engineers can offer their customers tried-and-tested solutions for digitally networked production with ease thanks to platforms such as ADAMOS (ADAptive Manufacturing Open Solutions). This alliance of reputable industrial and software businesses is constantly developing new Internet of Things applications. The advantage is that the solutions and corresponding services are available to all members from a single source. Precompetitive research is also being conducted in industry associations, with ADAMOS members jointly developing a basic concept that every company can use for its own purposes and develop to suit its needs. This is how synergies work. The companies network with suitable collaboration partners, thereby boosting their competitiveness. There are immense opportunities for SMEs in particular, due to their structures and flat hierarchies. Executives should lay the groundwork at an early stage and hold on to tech-savvy employees, who will play a key role. “Employees need to be at the heart of all processes and changes,” believes Piller, adding: “In the age of Industry 4.0, trial and error should be strongly encouraged as a misplaced respect for digitalisation won’t lead anywhere.”

The study "What will mechanical engineering look like in the future" is available for download at https://digital-engineering.de/?cnt=cnt1.

Length: 7.750 characters including spaces

Date: 07 August 2019

Image 1: Prof. Dr. Frank Piller, Professor for Technology and Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University.

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