Connecting The Dots: Digital Thread Strategies For Manufacturers
Forbes Business Council publishes article by Actify CEO Dave Opsahl
CEO at Actify, Inc., helping manufacturers to build some of the world’s most complex and advanced products.
The last 10 years have seen amazing developments in technology relevant to manufacturers. Design optimization, 3D printing, augmented reality and advancements in robotics are but a few. Often included with these advancements are digital twins and digital threads, both on the minds of corporate engineering and IT management. A common misconception, however, is that the latter two is not really a technology but a business strategy.
A common definition for digital thread is “the communication framework that allows a connected data flow and integrated view of the asset’s data throughout its life cycle across traditionally siloed functional perspectives.” Variations of this Industry Week definition abound but say essentially the same thing.
If you are a large organization with a dedicated IT support department, you likely have the necessary experience and resources to develop a digital thread strategy. If, though, you are a moderate-sized company, your IT support is more likely to be minimal and often provided by outside IT services organizations that have no practical experience with these efforts. How do you begin to think about what the impact of digital thread would be to your organization? Here’s some practical advice.
Think Of Threads
A good place to start is considering that the conversation really should be about digital “threads.” The usual image of a digital thread is more like a pipe, where 100% of the data that defines the product, as well as its manufacturing process and its operational performance, is always available. Now, overlay that onto a supply chain and ask yourself, “If I am a supplier to that original equipment manufacturer (OEM), or to a supplier of that OEM, what is the value to me of the data involved with unrelated parts of the vehicle?” Not much.
That supplier has its own digital twin — the data that defines the product it makes, the way the product is made and how the product performs in operation. The supplier has components, tooling or raw materials in uses and procures in the product it produces. In isolation, that is a digital thread — one that has its own requirements for data coming in from the OEM as well as that coming from its suppliers, as well as data it publishes to both. The supplier has data it receives and provides to its end customers. If that customer is the OEM, then the OEM has what amounts to a collection of similar threads it maintains that describes the whole product.
In other words, this tapestry that is woven from these various threads only is complete at the final product level.
Threads don’t occur naturally; they are manufactured from fibers and then woven together into a thread. In order to weave your organization’s thread, you must first define the “fibers,” or data, that are needed to define your products, manufacturing operations and operational data. What you need internally, as well as both inbound and outbound, must connect to your suppliers and your customers. At this point, it is critical to know what data is incoming, what is required to be outgoing, and what stays internal and isn’t needed to support any inbound or outbound data needs.
In virtually every case, that data never exists within your organization in a single place. You have multiple systems of record — applications and processes that “own” that data. Ownership, in this case, matters a great deal. For instance, your quality systems record data that is needed in the event there are warranty issues or, in rare cases, issues of product liability. Good governance requires that companies have strict policies in place to control that information. Operationally, though, visibility to that data is often needed across the various functional silos in the organization.
Program status alone demands a solution to achieving seamless visibility to thread data, as program managers manage multiple programs simultaneously and are required to report statuses daily. Similarly, your organization has requirements to both consume and publish data to suppliers and customers. When that data lives in multiple systems of record, reporting or publishing that information to other “threads” becomes more than challenging.
Connect The Dots
Because you did the upfront work to define your thread (identifying which data you require and from whom, and who requires your data), you have defined the connections between your thread, the threads of your suppliers and the threads of your customers. Those connections can occur in a variety of ways. Files in the form of spreadsheets and other documents is the most common way to achieve this, but you will find many situations where this approach creates issues with versioning and acknowledgment of receipt. Most often, those artifacts only replicate a manual process in electronic form. A much more efficient way is to use a system of reference to publish data, not documents or spreadsheets, in electronic form that can be consumed automatically by the recipient.
Part of the appeal and value of strategies like Industry 4.0 and digital twins is the goal of being able to expose data in your thread to the portions of your value chain that require that data to support their own initiatives. This has placed renewed emphasis on data exchange standards and the growth of solutions that use APIs and web services to allow — with authentication and security — data to be “linked” and shared between value chain members without human intervention. But if you don’t start your digital thread initiative with the right strategy, achieving that nirvanic vision might be out of your reach.