Designing a digital thread: ensure traceability throughout a product's lifecycle

Wednesday November 07, 2018
Written by Jason Kasper
November 7, 2018 – Low margins, intense competition, and risk aversion in the digital era have become a formula for disruption in industrial manufacturing. So, how are you ensuring that your organization is on the right path not only to survive, but also to gain the digital edge over competitors?

A priority for any organization’s digital transformation should be implementation of the digital thread. Why? Because in order to meet your customers’ demand for the latest technology and stay ahead of your competitors, you must continuously be innovating. And you can’t do it with legacy business processes, outdated engineering and manufacturing systems, or siloed information. You need to unlock that knowledge, harness existing systems and connect people across the enterprise.

What is the digital thread?
The digital thread makes connections to critical information, enabling you to follow a product’s digital history and all related digital assets – from concept and planning, through design, manufacturing, quality assurance, field maintenance, and disposal. The implementation of the digital thread increases productivity, improves responses to customers, provides market-expansion opportunities, and creates sustainable feedback loops for innovation. The digital thread connects product information generated by a multitude of functions and phases, including product requirements, simulation models, electronics and embedded software, manufacturing process plans, service records and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Removing information silos – connecting critical information and then understanding when it changes, how it changed and what it means – enables a collaborative environment throughout the design-to-manufacturing process. Everyone has a view into information and therefore users can see the changes in real-time, enabling conversations to occur that otherwise would happen after the fact or maybe not at all.

Legacy IT systems are incapable of managing today’s – and tomorrow’s – product complexity. These proprietary closed systems were designed for specific engineering and manufacturing disciplines. The inability to integrate across disciplines disrupts on-time delivery of new products, because these complex products now contain not just the mechanical and electrical disciplines, but software as well.

The impact of change, coupled with increasing product complexity across the lifecycle, is a fundamental reason for pursuing the digital thread. It increases visibility into what is happening between disciplines, enabling collaboration and reducing quality defects that could impact your bottom line and affect customer perceptions.

Adapt to new business needs
Increased product complexity has exposed the shortcomings of legacy engineering, manufacturing systems and business processes with information locked in silos, making collaboration between teams and disciplines difficult if not impossible. Simultaneously, IT architectures and systems lack the power and sophistication to effectively coordinate engineering product development and manufacture across disciplines – mechanical, electrical, and software – across the entire product lifecycle.

The best way to resolve this problem is by connecting those disparate systems to gain access to all of the information locked away in legacy systems. With complete traceability across the product lifecycle, various teams can work concurrently with the latest product information.

The foundation for growth in an era of complex connected products requires a modern, platform-based approach that enables organizations to quickly change course as business needs change. It is this connection of processes and systems that is at the heart of the digital thread.

Close the loop for quality
As competition increases for the best new products with the latest technological improvements and materials, there is added pressure to shorten development cycles. Yet, many businesses still use standalone systems and spreadsheets to manage quality, which leads to disconnected information and process gaps. This can then lead to higher rates of product recalls, which can result in fines, compliance issues, and, ultimately, a damaged brand.

By contrast, the digital thread allows cross-disciplinary teams and the extended supply chain to create closed-loop capabilities that identify and manage risk, improve quality, meet customer requirements, and attain environmental, safety, medical, and other forms of compliance.

As an example, a large jet-engine manufacturer built a digital thread to synchronize its bill of materials across multiple legacy manufacturing systems and locations. This resulted in the creation of a traceable digital thread between engineering and manufacturing, improving visibility to changes between disciplines as well as a 62 per cent reduction in changes to analyze, an 82 per cent reduction in data entry by eliminating spreadsheets and siloed data, and an 80 per cent reduction in tools used, simplifying user training and IT maintenance.

Enable product innovation
In previous years, determining and matching a product’s functions and capabilities with what a customer required was an art form. Today however, we need new connections to information to build a little science into the process and increase our effectiveness and responsiveness to customer demands.
One primary means of achieving that is by connecting operations and maintenance information from assets in the field back into the four walls of manufacturing. This starts by connecting to information in the field, where the product operates. Next, couple that information with the evolution of the product configuration as it operates in different environments. Finally, apply powerful analytics to understand failure rates of components, maintenance histories and environmental operating conditions. Armed with this level of information, you’re in a better position to foster more collaborative discussions with customers about their needs that can shape the next generation of design, manufacturing and quality improvements.

Harness new revenue opportunities
The ability to create and deliver new services and models presents great opportunity. This is particularly true as product complexity increases. Customers seeking the latest technology in order to gain a competitive advantage more quickly may soon realize they lack the proper resources to maintain your new solution. Instead, they might look to progressive manufacturers that can package the right product with enhanced field-service capabilities, such as real-time monitoring, predictive maintenance techniques, and rapid responses. In many cases, this product-as-a-service approach is easier and more reliable than traditional ownership and do-it-yourself maintenance.

Build your digital thread
A platform approach should use a model-based technology and a service-oriented architecture that allows companies to develop and modify applications, processes and workflows far more easily than traditional PLM systems that take a hard-coded approach and struggle to adapt.

Look for an open architecture, including open standards, APIs and connectors to ensure that the platform integrates with other enterprise applications and legacy PDM/PLM systems.

Industrial manufacturers must rethink their business processes and connect siloed systems with the digital thread. The result will be sustainable connections of critical data that will enable new business models and handle increasing product complexity. Follow these seven steps to begin:
  1. Understand commitments made by the business for new product direction; outline the gaps in achieving direction.
  2. Align the organization to your strategy based on resource competencies – people, process and technology.
  3. Face facts about legacy IT situations; be realistic about the approach and timeline to get tangible results.
  4. Embrace the opportunity for business process change – this will power the digital thread.
  5. Power the product lifecycle by using a platform that is open, flexible, scalable and upgradeable.
  6. Ensure that employees buy in to supporting all of the new business goals and objectives. Management needs to communicate openly by clearly defining and reinforcing the purpose of the new direction. This helps employees to accept where the organization wants to head in the future.
  7. Finally, be realistic about the time needed to implement change. Not following through, or measuring and reinforcing organizational alignment will lead employees to stray and go back to what they think are tried-and-true approaches to align to business goals.
Jason Kasper is the product marketing manager for Aras, a developer and publisher of product lifecycle management software.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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