What Is a Digital Thread?

Written By: Jonathan Lang
  • 3/28/2019
  • Read Time : 5 min

Don’t panic, our clothes aren’t going to be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)!

While augmented reality and computer vision technology are making it possible to wear digital clothing, the concept of a digital thread offers a powerful new framework to unlock data accessibility and add new analytical and decision-making capabilities to your business.

While they may not make your feet light up when you walk, they are proven to drive speed, agility, and efficiency in the products, operational processes, and worker tasks they relate to.

Let’s take a look at how:

What is a digital thread?

Digital threads seek to create homogeneity and simple universal access to data. They follow a single set of related data as it weaves in and out of business processes and functions to create continuity and accessibility.

A digital thread can be created for many different entities and processes. Most commonly, a thread of a product follows the lifecycle from design inception through engineering and product lifecycle management, to manufacturing instructions, supply chain management, and through to service histories and customer events. This thread enables enterprises to anticipate and effectively communicate bi-directionally up and down stream of where the product is in its lifecycle, ensuring all participants utilize the most current data and can react quickly to changes or new insights.

Similar threads are emerging for entire operational environments and processes – and even worker tasks and workflows – due to the prevalence of digitization across the value chain driven by technologies like IIoT, AR, MES, and others.

Why do I need a digital thread?

Data discovery accounts for a lot of workers’ time. Integration of disparate information systems in retrospect is costly and jeopardizes goals, deadlines, and market opportunities. A 2018 study by IDC of more than 400 professionals who work with data found that 37% of the time they spent ‘getting to insight’ was searching for information, while only 27% was used for analysis.

In the age of digital transformation, new data challenges have emerged, and digital threads offer a solution to improve the speed and agility of enhanced decision-making promised by all of this data. They’re about removing bottlenecks and improving transparency and accuracy of critical business information across the value chain.

What are the benefits of a digital thread?

For the industrial enterprise, the benefits of digital thread fall into five main categories and can be realized across products, processes, and people:

  • Engineering Excellence:
    • Improve quality and first-time yield rates
    • Reduce rework, scrap, failures in the field, and warranty costs
    • Expedite new product development and time-to-market
  • Manufacturing Efficiency:
    • Improve overall equipment effectiveness and production efficiencies
    • Reduce asset downtime and changeover times
    • Increase overall throughput and worker productivity
  • Product and Service Innovation:
    • Increase customer engagement and satisfaction
    • Product-as-a-Service and outcome-based business models impact top-line revenue
  • Service Optimization:
    • Improve technician effectiveness and first-time-fix rates
    • Reduce asset downtime, truck rolls, and time-to-resolution
  • Sales & Marketing Experience:
    • Increase net promotor scores, upsell, and cross-sell opportunities
    • Improve customer product usage and education

For a deeper look at these benefits, read our whitepaper, Digital Thread: Building Continuity Across Products, Processes, and People.

How do digital threads enable digital twins?

While there are benefits to this continuity across related data sets and activities, the advanced versions incorporate physical world sensor data through IIoT capabilities or through the use of physics-based ‘virtual sensors’. Utilizing these physical world proxies of products, processes, and even people and their workflows, AI algorithms can test potential scenarios to find optimization opportunities for a variety of outcomes.

When a digital thread or ‘definition’ of a product or process is applied to a 2D or 3D graphical proxy and real-world data is modeled against it, this is referred to as a digital twin. Digital twin use cases include predictive maintenance and service for products and operational intelligence across an industrial environment.

To achieve a digital twin, a digital thread must first be established. Digital thread is predominantly used to unify and orchestrate data across the lifecycle of a product, from original design, to engineering, manufacturing, operation, and service. This enables product manufacturers to analyze a holistic data set, and ensures that functions across the organization are always working with the most up-to-date information.

With the widespread adoption of IIoT technology, connected worker technology like augmented reality, and increasingly sophisticated MES and supply chain networks, digital threads are quickly expanding beyond products to be the connective tissue enabling operational insights. Woven together into a holistic view of an enterprise across many interrelated processes and functions, the relationship between multiple digital threads is referred to as a digital fabric or mesh. Even today, digital mesh is forming all around us and will be the foundation upon which we architect and orchestrate digital experiences in the physical world in the future.

But fear not, unlike the mesh pinneys you might have worn in gym class, this mesh aims to reduce business friction, improve data transparency and won’t cause chaffing.



  • Augmented Reality
  • Industrial Connectivity
  • Industrial Internet of Things
  • PLM
  • Electronics and High-Tech
  • Digital Transformation
  • Digital Twin

About the Author

Jonathan Lang

Jonathan Lang is Principal Analyst for PTC’s Thought Leadership group. He is an accomplished technology market analyst, providing advisory to the full ecosystem - investors, enterprises, and vendors - on the impact of emerging technologies and digital transformation. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors and spends his weekends backpacking, rock climbing, and gardening.