H Digital Thread

Creating an engineering digital thread for a more successful digital transformation

May 19, 2023
The digital thread is essential for boosting organizational efficiency and enhancing collaboration across teams, groups and the enterprise as a whole.

By Rob McAveney, CTO, Aras

Most discrete-manufacturing organizations have some form of a digital-transformation project ongoing. It’s seen as an imperative for the modern economy. Unfortunately, these efforts are often hampered by challenges stemming from legacy systems and processes.

Part of the challenge is a lack of cohesion across engineering domains; effective collaborative remains an elusive goal. Bringing cohesion to the enterprise can lead to outcomes like on-time product launch, improved quality, faster innovation, and lower operating costs. All this becomes possible with the digital-thread approach to product-lifecycle traceability.

Regardless of your workforce paradigm, this digital thread is essential for successfully boosting organizational efficiency and enhancing collaboration across teams, groups and the enterprise as a whole.

Examining the historical challenges

Most product lifecycle-management processes weren’t built from scratch; they grew organically over extended periods of time with an ever-evolving ecosystem of tools. These systems were not designed to span the many disciplines involved in engineering—across mechanical, electronic, electrical, software, simulation, systems and so on. And there’s a lack of cohesion spanning the lifecycle from conceptual design through engineering, manufacturing, operation and service.

When you’re trying to foster digital transformation, this lack of cohesion is an inhibitor that can lead to suboptimal products. It could be mechanical design harming the cooling of your electronics. It could be a software/hardware compatibility challenge. It could be something as simple as wire harnesses having the wrong connectors. Something that seems minor can have outsized impact in terms of efficiency and cost. These types of issues are occurring even within major companies with plenty of resources at their disposal.

In many companies, individual departments operate in silos; their focus is on their own design responsibility, rather than working with others to optimize across disciplines. Consider how modern electric-vehicle manufacturers optimize driving range by taking advantage of regenerative braking. In older vehicles, the braking system was considered largely independent of other vehicle subsystems and could be designed in a silo. No more; every subsystem in a modern automobile has significant dependencies on other functions.

The new breed of electric-vehicle startups has had success in cross-discipline collaboration. The reason is simple: there were no artificial walls to break down between departments. There were no silos of knowledge to dismantle. They began with a systems-engineering approach that made interdependencies clear and visible to all. Traditional automakers are adapting and catching up by recognizing the value of cross-discipline collaboration and systems-engineering concepts.

Creating the digital thread

To improve efficiency and ultimately build better products, your company needs to break down its own silos. Information should be shared freely between responsible departments across the entire product lifecycle.

Creating a digital thread enables the connected flow of a product’s data throughout its lifecycle. This requires mechanisms both to stitch together existing systems and fill the many gaps between them. This can be a challenge, especially when you have systems that are out-of-date and difficult to modernize. But you can't have a digital thread without a way to connect data across the entire lifecycle.

Gains in productivity, opportunities for market development, better ability to respond to customer needs and long-lasting feedback loops for innovation—including digital twin applications—are among the many benefits of creating a digital thread. The continuous flow of information can help your business gain vital insights that can guide decisions at every stage of the product lifecycle, enhancing cooperation and communication and speeding up the development of superior products.

Best practices for success

There are a few best practices to keep in mind while building your digital thread. To start, generating, managing and connecting related information across a product’s lifecycle is highly dependent on a company's existing IT landscape. There is no one-size-fits-all software solution for digital threads, so avoid beginning your journey by evaluating software solutions. Think first about process, including how external partners like suppliers interact with your data.

Remember that a digital thread cannot be built in one step. An iterative approach is warranted—start relatively small and deliver incremental value over time. Don't wait for the next budget cycle to get started. Instead, make a series of small, targeted investments that each deliver their own value to the organization.

Prioritize openness and interoperability in your digital-thread solution. You can't predict which tools will need to participate in your digital thread in the future. Mergers and acquisitions, as well as evolving supplier networks, can have unpredictable effects on your IT ecosystem. Locking into one software vendor's ecosystem could severely hamper your ability to adapt and adjust to business changes.

Lastly, keep in mind that the digital thread is a moving target. Accept the fact that a digital-thread journey is never truly complete in an evolving world. That should not prevent you from getting started, as even a partial digital thread provides significant business value.

Following the thread of transformation

Historically, discrete-manufacturing companies have had siloed processes. The many disciplines involved in the engineering, manufacturing and service have been separate, without a way to bring them all together. This has hindered efforts to digitally transform and has held back innovation for many discrete manufacturers. Creating a more cohesive process across disciplines can significantly improve efficiency, reduce costs, and ultimately pave the way for digital transformation efforts to surpass expectation.