Thread, used to create repair and bind things together, has evolved from natural fibers to manufactured materials engineered for special strength and durability. It’s logical that the next evolution for the digital era (smart connected technology, Industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing) is the concept of the “digital” “thread” “digital thread” — to similarly bind people and information to improve efficiencies in the manufacturing realm.
Much attention has been placed on the need for industrial manufacturers to pursue Digital Transformation, but less has been said about the specific actions required to get you there. One example is the notion of the Digital Twin — but you cannot have a Digital Twin with the necessary context without first creating traceability and maintaining its configuration. THIS is the Digital Thread, and it’s where the story of the Digital Twin begins.
Digital Thread – Where Digital Twins Come From
The Digital Thread is the capability that allows anyone, from engineers to maintenance personnel, to follow a product’s digital history and all of its related digital assets, from the initial planning and analysis, through design, manufacturing and testing and on to final sustainment and disposal phases. The Digital Thread does this by weaving together the meaningful relationship connections between and revisions of things such as the bill of materials, parts, software versions, electronics, CAD models, documents, production plans and service records.
Anyone talking about building Digital Twins, without providing the ability to manage the context and configuration of those critical connections, is not creating a true Digital Twin. They may be providing a picture of an asset, but without a Digital Thread, the Digital Twin unravels as you won’t have the context and configuration of that specific asset.
A CAD rendering of a jet engine is highly valuable, but without the tail number of the plane it’s installed on, information on where it is flying or has flown and the history of changes made through the engineering, manufacturing and maintenance phase, you will not be able to make accurate decisions on the product itself.
Digital Thread in Action
A real-world example of the Digital Thread in action is at GE Aviation. GE Aviation was relying on manual processes to translate engineering change into manufacturing change. They lacked a business system to cascade engineering change orders (ECOs) into manufacturing change orders (MCOs). The underlying engineering bill of materials (EBOM) was not synchronized with the manufacturing bill of materials (MBOM). The company needed to reduce failures in downstream quality testing.
Using a platform approach, GE Aviation built a solution to synchronize the translation of EBOM and MBOM across multiple legacy manufacturing systems and multiple locations. The result was a traceable Digital Thread between engineering and manufacturing functions. Using their new system to connect and federate their product processes, GE Aviation was able to integrate engineering and manufacturing for full visibility on decisions and impact of changes. This resulted in a 62 percent reduction in changes to analyze, 82 percent less data entry — eliminating spreadsheets and siloed data — and an 80 percent reduction in tools.
What’s Stopping You?
Creating meaningful and maintainable connections between all relevant information for a product throughout its lifecycle is the goal of the Digital Thread. The value is sharing this information between operating groups to enable innovation and operational efficiencies and to remain competitive in a world of ever-increasing product complexity.
Use of legacy PLM systems has led to the rise of many broken connections. This puts immense pressure on organizations pursuing innovative products as each subsequent generation adds an increasing amount of complexity from software code and smart components. This necessitates that groups within engineering work more collaboratively to meet ever-shorter, new product cycles.
It’s also exposing flaws in change management between Engineering and Manufacturing and when products are ready to be manufactured. Inevitably, changes occur to products as they move through the production process and some of these critical changes are being missed — increasing quality and support issues when these products are operating in the field.
Legacy PLM software was intended to share information across the product lifecycle. Increasing product complexity is now revealing legacy PLM’s shortcomings and many broken promises. As a result, organizations have reverted to spreadsheets or buying discipline-specific software that further fragments the organization’s IT landscape. Now, just when organizations need to collaborate and share information most, their systems are the least capable in handling complexity. So how can these operating groups that need to work together to ensure the latest information is available manage product complexity?
Legacy PLM will continue to be a pain point that inhibits innovation as product complexity increases. The industry is at a tipping point where engineering teams will struggle to deliver on-time, new product introductions with existing tools, processes and a siloed approach to sharing information.
Most of the promise of transforming organizations is talk of Digital Twins. But, without providing the context and configuration of each individual product throughout the product lifecycle, you only have a snapshot of a single point in time. The Digital Thread is essential to establishing the link between the configurations that lead to the development of the Digital Twin.
Jason Kasper is a product marketing manager at Aras.