Stitching Together the Digital Thread

A digital thread is the communication framework that connects and integrates product data throughout its lifecycle, and across functional perspectives. It’s the next-gen of “right information, at the right time, to the right person.”
Monica Schnitger Monica Schnitger

First, what is a digital thread? It can mean many different things, depending on how technological the processes already are, and what the end game is. If you make industrial equipment and see potential opportunities for a maintenance business that’s fed by real-time operating data, the digital thread goes from concept to operations. It’s necessary to gather, store and keep current information about the product design, the decisions made during the process, who supplied the components, how the product was made and sold, and any maintenance logs. It’s a big vision, but the data exists and can be gathered and managed.

Then the magic starts: The data can be analyzed, leading to a better-informed next design and to the opportunity to build a field service business.

Notice that the digital thread isn’t a digital twin. The twin is a virtual representation of a physical object as it is. The thread is the mechanism by which all of that data is gathered and managed, from design to use. To me, a digital thread is the communication framework that connects and integrates product data throughout its lifecycle, and across functional perspectives. It’s the next-gen of “right information, at the right time, to the right person.”

Ramping Up the Digital Thread

Where to start? That’s often the hardest part, because it seems so overwhelming. If starting where you are, with what is already on hand, it’s possible to make incremental progress. Let’s say you’re a monster CAD user; no problem there with digitization. Or is there? In email exchanges with colleagues about design changes—how is that record being captured? For users of Excel—how are the formulas being documented so that someone else can understand and extend what has been done?

A digital thread starts at the concept and continues through every decision, every calculation and every step in the manufacturing process until the product leaves the warehouse. If looking at services, the thread likely extends beyond the enterprise to the services partner.

Start by documenting everything. Far more than one may think, it’s necessary, since it’s much easier to throw out information that ends up being useless than it is to recreate something important after the fact. This includes customer requests, design specs, CAD models, CAE setups and results, CAM processes and codes, email trails of how decisions were made, meeting notes—basically everything related to the product. This can be done in product data management, product lifecycle management, data warehouse or even a C drive (though that’s going to pose challenges in searchability). Wherever you are, start there.

One of the first things one will notice is that everyone doesn’t speak exactly the same language. Someone may label a component 1234-abc, while a colleague uses 1234-ABC. That minor difference will complicate downstream analytics, so start standardizing naming conventions and terminology. Solidify the versioning and part-naming schemes. Just those simple steps will create the foundation of a digital thread for the product.

Long-term Goals and Analysis

Getting people to change is difficult; they need to see the potential benefits before they completely buy in. Tell them about reusability of prior designs and common components, possible only if everyone uses common names.

Talk about reduced risk when the team can work backwards to figure out what worked and what didn’t on a design iteration. Perhaps the concept was right, but improperly sourced. And maybe an abandoned design branch can be the springboard for something new and innovative that can get to market faster because it enables the ability to avoid pitfalls.

Start analyzing both the thread and its data. See what data is there and what conclusions can be drawn. If, say, the analysis of products in the field shows production-related quality issues, it may be necessary to add which specific computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machine made which part. Then determine how to address both the manufacturing and end-quality issues. When building that thread, remember the point isn’t gathering lots of data; it’s analyzing that data to improve products and processes.

There is no one path to a digital thread, because it’s the next step from wherever people are today. Many of today’s business strategies are only possible with this type of data and thinking—it fundamentally changes a gut-feel culture to one based on data.

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About the Author

Monica Schnitger's avatar
Monica Schnitger

Monica Schnitger is the founder, president and principal analyst of Schnitger Corporation. She has developed industry forecasts, market models and market statistics for the CAD/CAM,CAE, PLM, GIS, infrastructure and architectural / engineering / construction and plant design software markets since 1999.

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