We hear a lot about the digital thread in manufacturing, but it isn’t always clear exactly what is meant by the term, why it’s important, or even how it came to pass. Here’s a primer with everything you need to know about the evolution and importance of the digital thread in manufacturing.
What Is a Digital Thread?
A digital thread is the information about a specific product created by a closed-loop flow of data between the digital and physical worlds. Everything that happens to the product in the real world—from design through product retirement—must be captured and reflected in each product’s digital thread. It’s unlikely that any two products, even if created in the same manufacturing lot, will have an identical digital thread by the time the products reach retirement because of maintenance changes and the application of ECNs, upgrades, and product enhancements added over time.
A digital thread is the information about a specific product created by a closed-loop flow of data between the digital and physical worlds.
It is impossible to have a complete digital thread in manufacturing by relying on ERP, SCM, EQMS, CRM, field service, or any other enterprise application except PLM because none of the other enterprise applications encompass data captured and maintained throughout the product’s entire lifespan.
It is possible to integrate all these systems to share data and thereby create a cohesive digital thread, but that can be a costly, time-consuming, and error-prone process. Using a modern PLM solution such as PTC Windchill cuts out a lot of the hassle and expense. It makes it easy to retrieve information about an individual product’s digital thread throughout manufacturing and even at the customer’s site.
Digital Transformation and The Digital Thread
Modern manufacturing companies are undergoing a process known as digital transformation in which data is used to track every aspect of the company’s products, from ideation through design, testing, prototyping, and manufacturing, and even during after-sales support and service.
Digital transformation allows companies to reduce or eliminate costly processes such as iterative prototyping in favor of using a “digital twin.” This replicates the production process and, using 3D models, may even allow prospective customers to interact with the latest design before the manufacturer needs to commit to expensive machinery, tooling, and inventory.
A cohesive digital thread can result from a company’s digital transformation.
The digital twin is an integral part of digital transformation, and the digital thread is an essential part of the digital twin. Each item in production has its own design process, lots and serial numbers of inventory used in its creation, operations it undergoes, testing results, and use at the customer’s location. All this data becomes part of the specific item’s permanent record—its digital thread.
Who Needs a Digital Thread?
A digital thread in manufacturing companies has become a necessity, especially in highly regulated industries such as aerospace, medical devices, consumer goods, and automotive. If your products or component materials might ever be subject to recalls, you need a digital thread.
While there have long been methodologies for managing recalls, they are expensive, time-consuming, and error-prone. Problems managing recalls could lead to hefty fines or even the complete closure of a company’s manufacturing operations. The digital thread in manufacturing simplifies the recall process and the maintenance and field service processes by making it easier to define and identify affected products.
How the Digital Thread in Manufacturing Has Evolved
In the past, companies had methods for managing maintenance, warranty upgrades, and recalls that were slow and expensive, but they were all necessary steps in the evolution of the digital thread. Here’s a rundown of how they led to today’s digital thread in manufacturing.
Until the mid to late 1980s, most manufacturing companies kept track of their products’ lots and serial numbers, manufacturing operations, and quality assurance results using paper. The data might have been aggregated on a production order routing, or each item might have had a separate index card or another record where its data was recorded.
This process was extremely labor-intensive and error-prone. Lost or misfiled paperwork was a regular occurrence. In addition, when multiple component lots or serialized items were used in a single production lot, it was impossible to know if a particular end item included the questionable component or production operation.
As a result, many items that might not have required changes would be recalled or technicians dispatched to make changes that weren’t required. In addition, changes made in the field were rarely updated on the paper records, so the accuracy of the records degraded over time. It was wasteful and expensive, but it was the only game in town.
Electronic Serialization, Track, and Trace
With the advent of computerized ERP systems, it was possible to automate the gathering of the component lot or serial numbers and text results for each work order. This made finding and identifying items subject to recall faster and more accurate. However, it still did nothing to identify items that didn’t require recall either because the changes had already been applied or because the problem didn’t exist for that item in the first place.
Limits of Traditional Track and Trace
Using built-in serialization was better, but track and trace was still an expensive and clumsy solution to understanding a product’s history. It rarely included the ability to see the maintenance history of a particular unit, and as mentioned above, it ran into extensive problems when lots were mixed or combined. It was impossible to know for any specific item exactly what items it contained, what processes it had undergone, and what its QA test results had been.
Previous track and trace methods were expensive and error-prone, but the digital thread in manufacturing simplifies the process.
Over time, field service technicians performed maintenance on units, but there was rarely closed feedback showing which components had been swapped or upgraded and which ECNs, if any, had been applied. The units’ records—questionable to begin with—became less accurate as the item was maintained.
Because the enterprise systems used by the engineers, the manufacturing and inventory teams, and the field service teams were all different, the data became increasingly disconnected as time went on.
Modern Digital Thread in Manufacturing
Using PLM as the backbone of the digital thread eliminated all these problems by acting as the single repository for data from all the different groups involved in a product’s life cycle. With PLM, it’s now a simple matter to see how a product has evolved across its history. Recalls and ECN implementations can be fine-tuned so that only units that need the action are involved. That alone make recalls much less expensive and disruptive.
How to Achieve a Solid Digital Thread in Manufacturing
The first step is to select and implement a modern PLM solution. While many enterprise application vendors such as purveyors of ERP or SCM will advocate using their systems as the backbone of the digital thread in manufacturing, this choice will expose the company to many of the problems discussed above. While necessary to run the manufacturing company, these solutions simply cannot contain the breadth of data to cover the entire product life cycle. If used as the backbone of the digital thread in manufacturing, the company opens itself up to more complicated business processes, the unneeded expense of system modification or integration, and possibly, missed data.
In contrast, PLM can house all the data necessary to be the single source of truth for a product, from ideation through manufacturing, service, maintenance, and ultimately, retirement.
PLM is the best possible backbone for the digital thread in manufacturing because it is the only enterprise application with data covering every phase of the product’s life.
Learn More about Implementing a Digital Thread in Manufacturing
If you are interested in learning more about implementing a digital thread in your company, contact us today for a free demo or to start a conversation about your company’s specific needs.