Industry 4.0

Interoperable Design: An Additive Perspective on Industry 4.0

A Stratasys Strategic Consulting series capturing an additive perspective on industry 4.0.

blueprintCan anybody remember actually touching a genuine blueprint? That feeling of fear as you walked down the hallway to the drafting office with yet another change request weighing heavily on your mind? You gently push open the door and there she was, the dragon, the head draftswomen and her army of copy girls. None of them look up as she snarls, “What? You want to make another revision?!”

Thank God, we’re actually too young to have gone through this. But we’ve also experienced the more modern horror stories: entire companies getting ripped to pieces by an external quality control auditor as they sweep through the shop floor making all sorts of findings that have the possibility to shut down entire plants. Why? Because all the manufacturing documents and drawings were paper based. Out of date. Superseded. Production wasn’t even able to implement simple document control practices.

But was this really the fault of normal production workers? Or is something much larger going on? The state of play in many engineering companies today with highly complex manufacturing environments induces a downward cone of uncertainty along with its supply chain, this is a problem.


You might have guessed it, the topic of part two of our look into industry 4.0 from an additive perspective, is on the topic of model-based enterprise (MBE).

To display just how convoluted MBE is, take a look at this formal definition:

A fully integrated and collaborative environment founded on 3D product definition detailed and shared across the enterprise; to enable rapid, seamless, and affordable deployment of products from concept to disposal.

Ever finish reading something and then have to read it again because it was really confusing? We feel the same.

Several years ago, NIST and a few U.S. DoD groups came together to establish model-based enterprise, or MBE, which is defined more simply as:

…a process of reusing the 3D CAD model by all of the downstream customers verses recreating or re-entering the data it contains. This model contains all of the information needed to define the product in an annotated and organized manner in order to be read and the information automatically extracted by non-CAD users, thus replacing a traditional drawing.

MBE is an overarching term, a continuum. It’s used to create, connect and fully track all the relevant information needed for a part in its life cycle (e.g. manufacturing instructions, drawings, specifications, tolerances, toolpaths, end of life disposal instructions, etc.). In one place, readable and editable by all.

A capability index has been introduced to better define where various manufacturing environments are in their MBE journey.

MBE Capability Index

Based on our background and research, the full adoption of MBE Level 6 seems to be in its infancy:

  • Level 0-1 (Laggards): Many lower requirement manufacturing environments that are early in their CAD adoption
  • Level 2-4 (Majority): Higher requirement manufacturing environments that must issue compliance certificates with production parts
  • Level 5-6 (Innovators):  A very small group of OEMs that produce very complicated systems with many sub-tier suppliers and customers

The Technical Approach

The AM industry has the opportunity lead manufacturing into Industry 4.0. An important first step to that leadership is adopting MBE to standardize design data being processed by all AM machines. Lucky enough, this work has already begun with many CAD and PLM companies.

We’ll look at our approach to MBE through the categories of platform, process, and product:


  • PLATFORMAs a platform for MBE, a standard tech data package that’s fully digital allows for users to build their own applications, processes, and parts via CAD – these building blocks are created using model-based definition (MBD).
  • PROCESSFor an MBE architecture to be fully realized, a process for MBE must be established. This is a concurrent set of activities that interact with each other to achieve MBE as a result – this process of linking the entire supply chain & customer base to share and communicate all design and performance data ensures interoperability.
  • PRODUCTThe product of the MBE architecture is the creation and subsequent updating of a digital thread throughout a single part’s lifecycle.

Platform: Model-Based Definition

nist-ams-100-1-mbe-3d-drawingThe adoption of AM for production parts has begun to take off, and now understanding that conventional design freedoms AM has provided the product design process, through the use of the .stl file format, isn’t adequate when building production parts. Ensuring that AM machines understand the tolerances issued in CAD is of the utmost importance for AM to meet the requirements of manufacturers. As with MBE being the answer to AM’s move from analog to digital for the interoperability of data, MBD enables AM to use CAD data to translate design decisions into machine control, instead of using an overly simplified .stl file format.

Looking at today’s manufacturing and design environments, most engineers use CAD as a design platform to fulfill their form and fit intent. A 2D drawing package (mostly thru drawing notes and callouts) then communicates their design’s functional intent. A small set of advanced manufacturing environments are beginning to rethink how they can utilize a 3D CAD interface to fully convey a designer’s intent, calling it model-based definition. Without MBD, situations like the quality audit failure we discussed earlier happens. Drawings get lost and nobody knows what they’re doing.

Right now, MBD is focused on standardizing CAD and the relevant product & manufacturing information (3D PMI and its associated metadata). Releasing it via a digital interface will help enable an important group of people to do their jobs: the operations team (production workers, technicians, planners, purchasing, manufacturing engineers, etc.).

Process: Supply Chain & Customer Data Integration

Now that we’ve expressed the need to move towards a standardized method of releasing a designer’s actual intent to their own factory floor. Let’s take it one step further.

In order for AM to deliver on it’s distributed manufacturing potential, a component built anywhere in the world must match its original designer’s intent when communicated in a digital format. One way to make that possible is through a real-time link to the supply chain and customer base throughout the product design process. This connects AM’s past success in prototyping, the near-term potential in tooling, and long-term vision for production parts together using an MBD interoperable master dataset.

For an MBD approach to realize its full potential within the MBE architecture, it must connect the factory floor back to the designers, customer, and supply chain using an interdisciplinary engineering approach. Overall, a large friction point MBE hopes to solve is the issue companies have integrating sub-tier suppliers into their PLM environments.

When a certain component needs to be changed, either from a request by the customer, OEM, or supplier, that information needs to be properly communicated and approved by everyone involved. Right now that communication is done by a messy mixture of emails, notices, engineering change requests, and 2D drawing markups.

Product: Digital Thread

The process and platform described earlier together create what some have termed a digital thread for each component. This is our product for MBE.

Connected and updated data in a digital thread allows engineers the ability to better utilize AM’s design freedom within their desired end state. This connected data enables the creation of a digital twin, a representative computer simulation of a particular part operating in the physical world. We’ll fully cover this digital twin concept in a later post, but in essence results from CAM, CAE, FMEA, etc. feedback into the design space to guide better designs. From our point of view, once an MBD approach is widely adopted, this fusion of simulation, manufacturing, and design is where AM really begins to make its mark towards Industry 4.0.

digital thread refers to the communication framework that allows a connected data flow and integrated view of the asset’s data throughout its lifecycle, across traditionally siloed functional perspectives. The digital thread concept raises the bar for delivering “the right information to the right place at the right time.”

A true digital thread is a holy grail for AM, allowing all design data to flow downstream to the component suppliers and upstream to the customers using CAD and PLM. This data is stored in one place, readable and editable by all and aids in the imminent move towards distributed manufacturing. This work to connect design for AM and various AM machines is currently underway, led by the world’s largest aerospace company.

Elements of data security will inevitably need to be addressed with a digital thread, especially along the lines of design control, (specific machine and operator approvals for a specified number of parts, etc.) and will be the topic of a later post on intelligent machine process control.


There are certain large hurdles for MBE to really take off, including the AM industry’s use of .stl files, proprietary file formats, etc. In order to make that leap, the AM industry needs to move from analog to digital. MBE is pushing to modernize engineering via the storage of product designs and data digitally. AM must give engineers a true MBE in order to realize the full potential of AM machines & material. Hopefully, this makes an order of magnitude improvement in the way the world manufactures production parts.

Let’s face it: the way we manage our product data is not adequate for the interconnected and fast-paced opportunity that lies ahead, with or without AM. We are just starting to understand how difficult the change to MBE will be on manufacturers. With AM still in its (relative) infancy with a bright future ahead, it may just be up to AM to finally bring MBE into the mainstream.

This piece was jointly written by Dave Hayden & Andrew Hanson. The authors would like to thank Chris Holshouser, Clint Newell, and Matt Stage for their ongoing support of this blog series.

Additional Resources

Looking for a tangible example of what a level 3 MBE capability index looks like? Click the picture of the lightweight 3D MBD PDF for some examples. You will need to open these outside of your browser to activate the 3D content.


3D PDF Examples

MIL-STD-31000A: Dept. of Defense Standard Practice – Technical Data Packages

MIL-STD-3046: Dept. of Defense Interim Standard Practice – Configuration Management

ASME Y14.41: Digital Product Definition Data Practices

ISO 14306: Industrial Automation Systems and Integration — JT File Format Specification for 3D Visualization

How Model-Based Definition Can Fix Your CAD Models

U.S. Army ManTech Net-Centric Model Based Enterprise (MBE) Phase II Assessment

Dave Hayden

Consultant, Stratasys Strategic Consulting

Dave has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Sheffield, where he gained exposure to both high speed sintering and laser sintering technologies. He now works as a consultant providing technical insight into the broad range of projects we undertake. Dave has a passion for helping companies realize digital manufacturing strategies and takes a keen interest in the development of industry 4.0. As a CAD wizard he is also involved in producing AM parts for our clients and enjoys projects that incorporate both electronics and mechanical systems.

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Andrew R. Hanson

Engineer - Stratasys Aerospace & Defense SBU

Andrew is a guest blogger from Stratasys’ Aerospace & Defense group, and works on a blend of engineering and business activities focused on meeting the needs of the Aerospace & Defense industry’s use of additive manufacturing.

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