Product development Things designers and developers should be looking out for in 2023

From Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Monika Zwettler

There are three major challenges that need to be mastered in 2023: securing supply chains, achieving climate neutrality and countering the shortage of skilled workers. Find out how these hurdles affect the product creation process and thus designers and developers, and which technologies support them in overcoming them.

Developing technical products that are complex, resource-efficient and ready for digitalisation in short innovation cycles — that's not child's play.
Developing technical products that are complex, resource-efficient and ready for digitalisation in short innovation cycles — that's not child's play.
(Source: Autodesk)

2022 really did throw a spanner in the works — although the biggest problem was no longer the Corona pandemic. The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine has brought many new problems to light apart from great human suffering, including of course our dependence on fossil fuels and thus the energy crisis, disrupted supply chains and the fragility of global supply chains, and rising inflation.

The current challenges and their consequences

The challenge of sustainability:

  • There is a growing demand from society for environmentally friendly products, across all phases of the product life cycle, from development to production, operation and recycling. In addition, directives and regulations are increasing the pressure on companies. “The focus on sustainability has come to stay and where just a short time ago the spotlight was on cost and time savings, now sustainability metrics are something companies are additionally pursuing,” says Dr Darko Sucic, Senior Director, Industry Consulting at Dassault Systèmes.
  • Prof. Dieter Krause, Head of the Institute for Product Development and Design Technology (PKT) at the Technical University of Hamburg and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Wigep — Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Produktentwicklung (Scientific Society for Product Development), is also clear: “Due to the socially defining issue of climate change, a central task of product developers is certainly not only in the new year 2023 but in the longer term to achieve climate neutrality with the products of tomorrow.” In this context, it is important to start by gaining an understanding of what climate neutrality translates to in product development: which materials, which semi-finished products, which production processes, which new technologies and which utilisation concepts of the products to be developed are climate-neutral and sustainable under which boundary conditions?

Approaches and optimisation options are numerous, as will be illustrated below.

The supply chain challenge:

  • Recent years have taught us that supply chains can collapse abruptly for a variety of unpredictable reasons, leading to supply bottlenecks that cannot be overcome. The ongoing difficulties of many companies to procure materials or components in sufficient quantities illustrates the fragility of many global supply chains. In an emergency, replacements must be procured quickly, which should not lead to any major changes in the product, or preferably none at all. "The products must be future-proof or resilient to unforeseeable events," says Prof. Krause.

New technologies such as Additive Manufacturing offer solutions to these challenges, more on this later.

The challenge of skilled labour shortages:

  • Many companies in Europe lack qualified personnel - according to Statista, a total of 781,086 vacancies were registered only in Germany in December 2022. The shortage of skilled workers is considered by most companies to be the greatest business risk of the future; after all, the lack of suitable skilled workers can lead to operational standstill. The STEM sector in particular is important in this context and here, according to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln), a replacement demand in Germany of 274,000 STEM specialists is indicated for the year 2024. Brian Thompson, Division Vice President and General Manager CAD Segment, PTC, reported forecasts that there will be a shortage of millions of engineers worldwide by 2030.
  • Prof. Krause at TUHH also noticed this development: “The shortage of skilled workers or engineers became visible and tangible for me at the end of 2022. After the winter semester was held completely in attendance again, the number of participants in the different lectures from the different semesters dropped dramatically.”

Here, too, digital technologies can at least mitigate the consequences somewhat.

How digital technologies support the product development process

But as we all know, in every challenge there also lies an opportunity: "New technologies in particular offer the potential to make companies more resilient to external influences and business models more successful in the long term," Dr Darko Sucic, Senior Director, Industry Consulting at Dassault Systèmes, is certain.

Peter Scheller, PreSales Account Development, PreSales Team — Engineering, Siemens Digital Industries Software Germany, also sees the challenges as opportunities for innovation and change, especially in view of the advances in digital technologies:

Digitisation offers businesses a path to the future today by improving the ability of different departments to collaborate and gain valuable information, expanding data collection and analysis capabilities and enabling businesses to manage diverse global supply chains.
  • The cloud and the platform principle:
    The past few years have demonstrated impressively that the location where we work should play a subordinate role. The Corona pandemic changed many things, a paradigm shift took place that led to the so-called New Work. This was and is accompanied by the need to ensure that all team members always have access to the right information. The cloud and digital ecosystems enable exactly this. “Unlike proprietary file formats of exclusive software applications that tend to hinder collaboration due to poor interoperability, lack of links, clutter and high storage requirements, information in an open cloud ecosystem is free, easy and mostly accessible in real time. Every team member has access to exactly the data they need at any time,” explains Jan Niestrath, Industry Manager Manufacturing at Autodesk. He refers to Harvard professor Dr. Linda A. Hill, who recently argued: “Innovation is not the product of individual genius, but of collective genius.”
  • Cloud solutions support being able to process and share the increasing amounts of data. At the same time, cloud platforms also fulfil the role of single source of truth, ensuring seamless data continuity. “Employees from specialist departments such as logistics or marketing can thus be involved at an early stage of development. At the same time, knowledge gained from the manufacturing process flows back into development so that designers can continuously optimise products,” says Dr Sucic.
  • Digital thread and model-based development:
    Another trend driven by digitalisation is model-based development. As Thompson recognises among PTC customers, companies are realising the benefits of this approach by expanding the use of CAD models throughout the enterprise: “The goal is to increase efficiency and eliminate errors by creating a digital thread between functions and throughout the enterprise.” The digital thread creates a closed loop between the digital and physical worlds to connect products, people, processes and places. When implemented across an entire value chain, there are no more media breaks between the different tools in the product lifecycle. Thus, the digital thread creates consistency, promotes collaboration and breaks down data silos.

    In a model-based product development process, 3D models are digitally enriched with important information during their creation, but also along the product life cycle. At Siemens Digital Industries Software, this is one of the most important trends for 2023. For Scheller, it is clear: “The product creation process will rely more and more on comprehensively described, digital 3D models and the importance of additional descriptive documents such as the 2D drawing will diminish.” Changes in standards through the introduction of the ISO GPS standard are also driving the use of 3D models and ensuring better interlinking of the entire CAx processes. According to Scheller, this brings even more advantages: “Through these model-based product creation processes, all necessary information becomes immediately accessible, even for globally distributed development teams, and thus forms the basis for optimising product sustainability and stabilising supply chains”.

    Prof. Krause expands this aspect to include another trend in the field of research: “Model-based development, especially with SysML-based approaches, makes it possible to store all information - i.e. not just the geometric and technological product information — in a model, so that all important information, starting with the list of requirements, through functional information to solution and parts information, is available in a system, linked as desired.” Even though the systems are not yet particularly user-friendly, it is still worthwhile to get to grips with them in good time because there is a lot of potential behind them.
  • Simulation and digital twin: There is a growing awareness that simulation plays an essential role in the product development process. It helps to shorten development times, a large solution space can be considered quickly and easily, and new ideas can be implemented quickly. This is especially true when simulation is used not only by experts for validation, but also by designers and developers at an early stage, as so-called live or real-time simulation makes possible.

    PTC, in collaboration with simulation expert Ansys, has also integrated a solution into Creo that allows designers to quickly try out new ideas, and Thompson expects continued momentum for simulation-driven design. “Rather than using simulation technology primarily at the end of the design process, we expect to see continued expansion by designers and engineers throughout the process,” Thompson explains. This, he says, strategically positions simulation at the earliest practical point in the product development process, allowing companies to produce higher quality designs and better control costs. “It also enables more innovation as companies can explore many more potential designs using digital testing.”

    Scheller calls this an “idea machine for product developers” and also expects the use of simulation tools at a very early stage to become increasingly important. “In this way, customer requirements can be tested with the digital twins at a very early stage,” says Scheller. This is because the basis of the digital or virtual twins is simulation, which is made possible by the model-based approach. “Virtual twins are establishing themselves as a standard in modern manufacturing companies and are being used across all industries,” Dr Sucic also says. “Products are no longer viewed only from the perspective of manufacturing, but with the help of a detailed real image along their entire product life cycle - from the first sketch of an idea, through manufacturing and use, to recycling. From the data obtained in this way, insights can be drawn for future products.” For him, the special charm of the virtual twins: “Seemingly unthinkable approaches or concepts can be tried out. There are hardly any limits in the virtual world.”

Live or real-time simulation in particular offers great potential for product development.
Live or real-time simulation in particular offers great potential for product development.
(Source: PTC)

  • Visualisation with VR and AR and the Metaverse:
    The consistent use of development data opens yet another door: from visualisations with VR and AR to interaction with digital and virtual content to the metaverse. According to a Bitkom study conducted on behalf of Autodesk, 28 percent of the companies surveyed are already using virtual and augmented reality applications to make design processes even more tangible, for example. “Increasingly, the technologies are also being used to let customers participate more in the development processes. Some companies are even further along in the digital transformation and are basing entirely new business models on the potential of digital technologies,” Niestrath notes and also has a best practice ready: the X-ray system manufacturer Visi-Consult is increasingly relying on services in the subscription model instead of physical product offerings. On the basis of digital twins, AI and cloud technology, customers can access X-ray procedures and image interpretation without having to invest in their own cost-intensive X-ray systems — for Niestrath “a business model approach that is unique in Germany and impressively shows where digital transformation will lead in the future”.
  • Manufacturing:
    The digital transformation is advancing not only on the design and product development side, but also in manufacturing and beyond, reports Niestrath. “Under the heading of intelligent manufacturing, Industry 4.0 technologies such as AI, virtual reality, additive manufacturing, big data, IoT computing or CNC machining continue to bear fruit: Intelligent robots, networked machines and cyber-physical systems design production processes for maximum efficiency and prevent potential failures through data-driven self-diagnostic mechanisms.”

    This increasing networking of intelligent machines and the associated collection and evaluation of data continue to provide a significant boost to automation, predicts Dr Sucic and emphasises: “The biggest advantage is that manufacturing data is not lost, but ultimately flows back into the development process. In this way, a much deeper understanding of products and their use — regardless of the area of application — can be developed.”
The biggest advantage is that manufacturing data ultimately flows back into the development process.

Dr. Sucic

This is how engineering is automated

  • Automation of routine tasks with AI and ML — In the coming years, especially those industrial companies that master design and construction automation will have a competitive advantage, Niestrath is convinced. The principle: “Instead of developers and designers wasting a lot of time modelling and configuring standard parts, this activity can also be handed over to digital technologies and artificial intelligence in the future. Work steps that used to take hours or days can thus be implemented within a few seconds and designers are given significantly more freedom to concentrate on more demanding and innovative activities.”
  • Automated to the optimal design with AI and ML — Generative design, often also referred to as generative design, is a design process in product development in which different design or construction variants inspired by nature's design approach are automatically explored. Designers and developers first formulate the design goal. The computer then suggests variants based on ML algorithms, from which the designer finally selects his favourite and can develop it further. The software thus searches for the best solution for a design task in a given design space. This is made possible by cloud computing. “By shifting the focus from geometry creation to better defining the problem, generative technology allows engineers to focus on what they do best — designing,” says Thompson.
  • AI-powered operator guidance — Another application of AI and ML in design is to support designers within their applications, explains Scheller. “All of this is making systems more and more of a smart assistant for the product designer, so they can focus on solving their tasks, and in the right context of their task, they can be offered the necessary set of commands by the system and operate them easily.”
  • Low-code platforms: Due to the major challenges in product development, Dr Moritz Maier, co-founder and co-managing director of Synera, is clear: “The manual development of a component in non-networked engineering tools is not efficient enough and will be replaced by a digital mapping of the product development process in low-code platforms like Synera.” The role of the engineer will thus move away from designer or calculator to algorithm developer. Instead of designing the component manually in a time-consuming manner over and over again, the process that describes the actual design of the component is modelled in the form of a workflow. This workflow is then able to automatically design any component variants with up to 90 percent time savings, reports Dr. Maier.

Additive Manufacturing enables resilient supply chains, increased sustainability and innovative solutions

The benefits of Additive Manufacturing are obvious: it allows companies to develop designs that are not feasible with other manufacturing technologies. Over the past decade, Thompson says this potential has led many companies to experiment with Additive Manufacturing and achieve amazing results.

Additive manufacturing makes many things possible that simply could not be manufactured before. In combination with generative design, organic-looking forms are created that are often lighter and at the same time more stable than their conventional counterpart.
Additive manufacturing makes many things possible that simply could not be manufactured before. In combination with generative design, organic-looking forms are created that are often lighter and at the same time more stable than their conventional counterpart.
(Source: PTC)

He gives an example: "Advanced Engineering Solutions optimised the design for a helicopter's replacement heat exchanger. Using lattice structures that could only be produced using additive technology, the heat exchanger was designed and manufactured to be half the size of the original while providing four times the cooling capacity." This use case, he says, is the kind of innovation that is driving more and more customers to integrate additive manufacturing design tools directly into their design process.

In addition, Additive Manufacturing scores points in terms of supply chain security and sustainability by manufacturing as locally as possible.

Complexity management reduces effort

Another important research topic in 2023 for Prof. Krause is complexity management with the aim of better controlling, reducing or, in the best case, avoiding complexity. Complexity in relation to product development is understood as the increase in (different or the same) elements and their relationships to each other, put simply.

Products must be future-proof or resilient to unforeseen events.

Prof. Krause

“This means, for example, the integration of different disciplines in addition to the so-called cyber-physical mechatronic systems, which start with sensor-integrating machine elements and complicated products and systems that exchange data and information with the manufacturer, user or user groups,” explains Prof. Krause. In order to develop these complicated products and systems, new tools are needed in product development. And against the backdrop of fragile supply chains, this is an important issue, he says. “The products have to be future-robust or resilient to unpredictable events. Achieving this is helped by modular product architectures that limit the impact to one module if possible and therefore make it easier to replace,” explains Prof. Krause.


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