Navigating the Future: How CAD and MBD Work Together to Enable the Digital Thread


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What is the digital thread? An introduction

The rapid changes currently impacting design and manufacturing demand a new digital approach to connect the product-development process with the larger enterprise. This approach is commonly called the digital thread. A digital thread is an interconnected flow of relevant data, that defines a product throughout its life cycle from design through manufacturing, service, and retirement. It enables organizations to break down silos, streamline workflows, and achieve interoperability across departments, functions, and systems.

Throughout a product’s lifecycle, the product designer constantly interacts with various other processes. These interactions are enabled by technologies such as IoT, AR, PLM, and CAD—with information and feedback from the actual product used to improve the digital design. This digital information is used to support decision-making and processes across departments, geographies, and organizations.

A seamless digital thread is crucial to having a smooth product-development process. By eliminating isolated solutions and ensuring a streamlined digital thread, companies can leverage product data across the enterprise to operate faster, more effectively, and with improved quality control. 

How do CAD and MBD enable the digital thread?

The native CAD model is the core of the digital thread, from concept design through manufacturing release, production, service, and to end-of-life planning. The advantage of 3D CAD, and especially parametric modeling, is that it records design intent using features and constraints, which makes it easier to determine how the model should respond when something changes. 

Additionally, best-in-class parametric modeling is highly associative so that when changes happen in one part of a model, the relevant changes are automatically applied to related geometry and downstream artifacts. 

Model-based definition (MBD) is a 3D annotated CAD model that defines the product without the need for a 2D drawing. MBD embeds all relevant design and manufacturing information directly with the 3D model, helping engineers avoid the discrepancies that can emerge when working with 2D drawings.

MBD ensures that all the necessary data for manufacturing and quality control stays within the common 3D model, which acts as the single source of authority that drives all engineering and downstream activities.

CAD and MBD together form the digital foundation for product development, enabling a seamless transfer of design data and information from the conceptual phase to manufacturing and beyond.

How CAD and MBD collaborate in practice

When combined in this way, CAD and MBD work together to enable the digital thread. CAD serves as the primary tool for creating 3D models of products or parts, while MBD expands the model with dimensions, annotations, and material information necessary for production. The 3D model, with Product and Manufacturing Information (PMI), eliminates the need for separate 2D drawings for production and other downstream activities.

MBD leverages the parametric and associative features of CAD models. When the 3D model is modified, related annotations and dimensions are automatically updated, ensuring data quality and precision across the digital thread. The digital thread stays continuous and consistent throughout the enterprise because of the strong integration process between CAD and MBD.

CAD software can include MBD tools such as Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T) capabilities to create annotations that align with industry standards. With GD&T and other annotation tools, product information can be represented in the 3D model with accuracy and consistency. Data interoperability also supports the transfer of MBD data among CAD solutions as it enables a connection with a digital thread framework.

Organizations that don’t leverage CAD and a model-based approach can miss key opportunities to improve collaboration, accelerate product development, and reduce mistakes. The promise of CAD and MBD’s combined benefits have been realized for years, and now is the time to leverage 3D models and the digital thread.

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Tags: CAD Creo Digital Thread Model-Based Definition

About the Author

Katherine Brown-Siebenaler

Katherine Brown-Siebenaler is the Marketing Content Manager for PTC's CAD team. Based in Austin, TX, Katherine is responsible for editing the Creo and Mathcad blogs. She has six years' experience as a content creator for various corporate marketing teams, primarily in SaaS environments. Katherine holds two degrees from the University of Florida, a BS in Journalism and an MA in Mass Communication. She enjoys learning how PTC customers bring software to life in real-world applications every day, leading innovation in their various industries.