Digital manufacturing technology in South Africa

...Published 2013-10-22

by Hermias C.N. Hendrikse, ESTEQ

 South African production companies can be more competitive in the global market. By utilizing the latest Digital Manufacturing (DM) software technologies, this is possible.  Within the Digital Manufacturing landscape, the following areas are discussed in this article; assembly planning and validation, robotics and automation planning, and plant design and optimisation.

What is digital manufacturing?

 “Digital manufacturing (DM) is the use of an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, three-dimensional (3D) visualization, analytics and various collaboration tools to create product and manufacturing process definitions simultaneously.” [1]

Essentially, DM is the concept of validating any proposed action in a virtual environment before it is implemented physically. This allows for all possible scenarios to be analysed and the optimum solution selected before any capital investment is made. Digital Manufacturing supports the principle of “measure twice, cut once” in which any action is only taken if there is a high level of certainty and confidence that it is the best option.

Why is digital manufacturing needed?

 With today’s constant increase in demand for new products and variants as well as the requirement to speed up production time while minimising resource requirements and reduced product development time, it is vital to implement a new production system or facility correctly and accurately the first time. If a production environment is already in place, there is an obvious need to optimize off-line virtually without causing any disturbances within the system. DM makes it possible to master the complexity of entire systems and optimise them accurately and efficiently.

With the ever-changing production environment, there is an increasing use of industrial robots across many industries ranging from the traditional automotive industry to specialist robots being developed to carry out medical procedures. Fig. 1 illustrates how large the variations of uses for robotics are with many of them not even falling into a specific category. Entrepreneurs are finding new and fascinating applications for which robotics can be used. For example, a five-axis CNC machine is extremely expensive and is limited to the size of component that can be worked with. A robot-arm with a tool tip can machine a very large range of parts and it has six degrees of freedom, meaning that more intricate machining is now possible. Some examples of alternative uses for robotics are illustrated in Fig.2.
DM technology is required to handle this large variation of applications and to quickly develop new scenarios and improve on them simultaneously.

Worldwide-annual-supply copy

Fig. 1: Worldwide annual supply of industrial robots [2]


Fig. 2: Alternative uses for robotics [3]

 Automation vs Manual labour

 It is particularly true for South Africa, as for many other parts of the world, that there is constant pressure to be more productive for the same resources available in order to compete effectively on the global stage.  On the other hand, South Africa recently has been plagued by unsustainable labour cost pressures from a workforce considered one of the least productive globally. It is also true that the cost of automation becoming more and more affordable and this trend will most likely continue into the foreseeable future. World-class competitive production is likely to be a mix of skilled labour where practical and automation, w

here the task, complexity, volume or quality demands it.

A common misconception exists that automation will completely replace manual labour. The reality is that yes, robotics and automation could carry out high volume, repetitive and complex tasks, but this just means that the labour force must be evolved to take on ancillary higher skilled activity in support of automation. Workers could be trained to service or even program the robots, thus attaining a higher skill level and ultimately having a better paying job. Another factor to consider is that when automation is properly and successfully implemented, it will result in increased throughput which will eventually lead to more job creation for supporting and other skilled functions

 Typical fields where digital manufacturing software is used

Assembly planning and validation

There are DM technologies available to aid in process design, assembly sequence optimisation, ergonomic simulation, work-instruction and optimisation as well as system balancing. These technologies are specifically developed to take all factors and typical scenarios into consideration in order to quickly solve complex issues faced daily in a production environment. These technologies are not solely developed for an automated environment but also can have a very specific focus on health and safety. A recen

t term in the field of DM and ergonomics is ‘Industrial Gaming’. Using standard and available technologies such as the Kinect® motion controller from Microsoft®, some technologies can analyse human movement in real time to allow process to be defined minimising the risks associated to the production workers required movements. Examples are lower back strain and repetitive motion injuries associated with a specific movement.

Robotics and automation planning

Traditionally DM technologies have been focused on robotics with tools used for automation and productivity, event-based simulation, offline programming and virtual commissioning. Of late though, DM solutions in these fields are mature technologies and can now be based on an integrated product and process development environment managing this data which is then linked to other business systems such as ERP (Enterprise Resources Planning) and MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems). The DM Solutions afford companies the ability to simultaneously innovate and validate product and process concepts in a virtual, integrated environment of factory simulation and data management. Not only does it simulate the product in its manufacturing environment but also the design and validation processes surrounding the manufacturing including the human interaction. [3]

Plant Design and Optimisation

A term industrial engineers are very familiar with is discrete-event-simulation (DES) in which the process flow and logic of a factory is built and analysed. The technology available in this field creates factory models faster by using pre-defined objects and hierarchal modeling to ensure that the layout , material flow and throughput is optimal before production ramp up. These simulation models are then used to analyse factory logistics through virtual factory design and visualization. This leads to simulation-based business decisions using ‘what if’ scenarios for ongoing optimisation and cost reduction which in turn allows for investment decisions to be made long before the real system exists.

Originally DES tools were used as pure prod

uction simulation but today it is used for warehousing, transport and logistics, shipbuilding, mining and even optimizing brewing processes and ports among the various examples. The technology does not only focus on automation but considers the human factor with built in tools allowing modeling of workers with their shifts, skillsets and even walking distances being modeled and simulated.

Using DM technologies to compete globally

Many international automotive OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturer) in particular have already established a requirement to use DM planning before any new or existing vehicle programme is implemented. They usually have internationally standardised software and templates across their global operation and the same technologies are then used at a local level. This allows a res-use of knowledge across the organization and their supply chain. If more companies can start using the DM technology locally, they could become more competitive globally due to their compliance with global OEM’s.

It should be noted that simply using advanced technology does not guarantee improving production or increasing profit. Professionals still need to have the conceptual knowledge of the environment as well as an in-depth understanding of how the technology can be used effectively. Introducing the concepts and tools in our educational system ranging from basic to specialised levels would definitely have an impact o

n how South Africa remains competitive into the future.

South Africa is still relatively new to DM technology utilisation when compared to countries in Western Europe and the rest of the developed world but we have the potential to be globally competitive. Imagine what could be done through leveraging ever-improving digital manufacturing technology.


[1] SIEMENS PLM, “Digital Manufacturing,” SIEMENS PLM, 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 08 2013].
[2] IFR Statistical Department, “World Robotics 2012 Industrial Robots,” International Federation of Robotics, 2012.
[3] A. Greenberg, Tecnomatix Robotics, Pretoria : Siemens PLM, 2013.

Contact Hermias Hendrikse, ESTEQ, Tel (012) 809-9500,

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