Managing and using materials information to enable effective product design
The engineering, economic and environmental performance of materials has a fundamental impact on how products perform.
The challenges faced by the designers of medical devices and refrigerators are diverse, and the problems posed by aerospace engines and computer products also stretch their designers in different ways. But there is one common factor across the wide spectrum of manufactured goods and appliances—they are all made from materials.
The engineering, economic and environmental performance of materials has a fundamental impact on how products perform, on customer satisfaction, and on the manufacturer’s profitability and liability exposure. The right materials information is important for designers. Effective materials information management enables companies to ensure designers can access that information in a consistent, traceable, and controlled manner. More and more enterprises are recognizing the value of materials information management in product design and throughout the whole product lifecycle.
Materials: lagging behind in the digitalization process
Capturing and managing materials information is inherently difficult. A material may be defined by several hundred properties, many highly specialized in their nature and how they are measured and recorded. Many properties have their own individual lifecycles, evolving with new test results, in-service information or analyses, or external factors such as legislation or price volatility.
This information is complex, specialist, and typically distributed across teams dealing with testing, research, quality assurance, and design. The data can be scattered around an organization—in spreadsheets, databases, and hard-copy format, across departments, and sometimes across continents. Effective materials information management requires collation from these multiple, ever-changing sources.
The answer surely lies in ensuring this information is captured digitally and linked intelligently, establishing a single, consistent, traceable ‘gold source’ of materials data for the organization. This must be made accessible in a controlled manner to anyone that needs it—ideally, in the context of tools that help them to apply it. Many business processes have been digitalized in this manner—think of the systems that manage our personal finances, or, in the engineering context, the CAD and PLM software that handles product geometry and the wider product description. Materials information has lagged behind—but it’s catching up.
Best practice materials information management
Leading the charge is the Material Data Management Consortium (MDMC)—a unique collaborative project with members including Boeing, Honeywell, GE, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and Rolls-Royce. Formed in 2002, it diagnosed the materials information challenges explored above, and it guides the development of a system to meet these challenges. It identified the importance of the materials information lifecycle—the need to capture materials data, analyze it to create useful information, deploy that information in a controlled manner, and maintain it as new data is captured.
MDMC members have helped to develop a system aligned with industry needs, and put it into practice. Airbus Helicopters faced the problem of ‘islands of data’ at sites across multiple locations and countries. It created one single materials data source, with access control to ensure users only see data for which they are authorized. Benefits include traceability, protection of intellectual property, and auditing of design data. It also reduces risk by preventing ‘private storage’ of data by designers, and there is multi-site harmonization.
The MDMC has a focus on the aerospace, defense, and energy sectors, but the application of these techniques is increasing across all sectors. Ethicon Surgical Care identified that “managing materials and materials information will be critical to our future.” It saw that supply interruptions could disrupt its ability to make products, the explosion of materials regulations could affect its ability to sell them, and that the right materials choices were critical to customer satisfaction. Ethicon created one expert materials team to focus on addressing these challenges and, critically, adopted a software solution that pools together the information the team needs to respond to materials-related requests. The company’s Jackie Anim said, “the benefits of this current practice are very obvious. It reduces redundancies...minimizes time-to-market by reducing our response time and promoting self-reliance, and reduces risks and mistakes as well as overall costs.”
Applying materials information management to design
So materials information management is a maturing technology. But what about its application to support design? We will consider three factors of particular relevance:
- Ensuring consistency in material definitions
- Establishing a list of preferred materials
- Integration with product design and simulation workflows.
Materials problems in product design often stem from something as simple as inconsistent definitions. Engineers or designers might use different names to refer to the same material, or may connect the same name with slightly different property data. General Motors implemented an enterprise project to manage materials information in a system used by engineers, purchasing staff, and lawyers. GM’s Denise Massa said, “We want them to all be using the same version of the steel so we have less rework, better products, no product recalls, and fewer warranty issues.” A business case to analyze the direct and indirect benefits of the project has demonstrated its value.
This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that, when considering materials in a product context, the definition of ‘a material’ evolves as it progresses from design to manufacturing. For example, Figure 3 shows this evolution from conceptual design, where a material may be referred to as ‘strong stiff plastic,’ to the end of the process where the material specified for procurement is a specific grade. Any system managing materials information needs to understand and connect these different descriptions, and apply them at the right point in the process.
Preferred materials list
The optimal choice for an application may not be the best choice for the enterprise; for example, if it conflicts with objectives such as rationalizing the number of material suppliers. Many companies guide designers with a list of ‘preferred materials’ based on criteria including commonality, ease of procurement, pricing, and current use in existing product applications. We have worked on projects that enable preferred lists to be identified within the wider company database and exposed within CAD, so designers choose from a ‘palette’ of materials aligned with company strategy. If the designer can’t find a material that meets their needs, they take an existing specification, identify properties they want changed, and trigger a request to their materials team to investigate this option and modify the preferred list.
The fact that the data provided to designers is drawn from the company’s ‘single source of the materials truth’ avoids quality and consistency problems, and inefficiencies, that typically occur when design teams look for materials data through unstructured internet searches, hard copy technical data sheets, or using values from previous designs.
Lockheed Martin developed a preferred materials list for all its designers within its CAD system. They are provided with vetted, consistent information and this eliminates the use of uncontrolled, undocumented data. Lockheed Martin’s Renae Rippere said the “best return on investment was the time savings” made by engineers searching for materials property data.
Integration with design and simulation
Simulation is an increasingly standard component of the product development process. Investment in simulation can be substantial, but this is undermined if materials data and models that are input are inaccurate. Even simple analytics on product designs, such as computing their weight, requires the right materials data. Integrating design and simulation with good materials information management ensures consistent use of approved, traceable materials data, enterprise-wide, allowing users to assign materials properties to parts in a CAD model to enable accurate mass roll-ups, or to import validated materials models for use in CAE.
Molex recognized it did not have a “single source of the truth” because its specifications data and the data for CAE were in disconnected databases. It implemented a new system to manage materials data for CAE and other applications, including the roll-out to 1,400 engineers. Molex’s Brett Rickett said this has “taken out a lot of inefficient work activities in the product engineering community.”
PSA Peugeot Citroën uses materials information technology to deliver reliable, traceable materials data for input to simulation and analysis, and so does Jaguar Land Rover. “CAE tools are demanding a more rigorous, complete set of materials data,” said the company’s Andrew Haggie. “There is a need to have a single, consistent, and reliable source of data. It needs to be accessible for the various end-users, and it needs to be the right information in the right format for stakeholders and customers to use.”
The case studies above all come from successful projects using the GRANTA MI materials information management software system. More companies now recognize the benefits of well-managed materials data, integrated with their business processes. It helps to ensure that innovative product designers across a broad range of applications have the most up-to-date, accurate materials information.
The digitalization of materials is catching up with other business processes—and the experience in these other sectors suggests this trend can only continue, enabling enterprises to make better decisions across material classes and to develop the solutions they need to gain a competitive edge.