Designing a Digital Thread for Engineering: Key Considerations
Written By: Carlos Melgarejo
2/8/2022 Read Time : 5:30 min

What is a digital thread in engineering and why is it important?

The digital thread is a single source of data truth that creates consistency, collaboration, and alignment across the entire product life cycle. Analyst firm Tech Clarity reports that over 75% of companies say the digital thread is either important or critical to achieving their business strategy. The report further indicates that companies that have adopted a digital thread have enabled their technical resources to spend 10% more value-added time on innovation, design, and development work.

So, how does an engineer leader ensure global teams and systems spread across different geographies are in sync? And how do they keep their engineers productive? The key is designing a digital thread for engineering. With this, real-time product and process data is extended bi-directionally from engineering to downstream teams as well as suppliers, and users in the field. 

As an example, JR Automation, a global leading provider of automated manufacturing and distribution technology solutions with a workforce of 2,000 employees spread across 27 global facilities, struggled with tools, systems, and processes that were not integrated. Its large operations made it difficult to collaborate across functions, product groups, and geographies. Teams were unable to work globally 24x7, quality control was suboptimal, and customer deadlines were missed. Senior management realized the urgency of adopting a digital thread.

Key considerations for designing a digital thread for engineering

An effective digital thread blends product data from a variety of disciplines and systems. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is the foundation and the logical starting point because the digital thread starts in engineering. It enables companies to bring processes up to date and make information accessible under one common data infrastructure. It’s important for today’s manufacturers to evaluate their digital infrastructure capabilities to ensure it’s sufficiently addressing their needs both now and in the future. There are a few considerations for designing a digital thread for engineering:

1. Managing data across global teams and systems

Ensuring your data is accurate, current, and under control is key. Teams must be able to collaborate securely and globally. This data serves as an authoritative source of truth and creates a foundation on which the rest of the digital thread is supported. Organized data enables cross-functional collaboration and synchronized engineering. 

JR Automation struggled with how exactly to manage its data. Machines that have up to 20 thousand parts, are designed and built according to a customer’s needs over a several-month development cycle. Typically, a new machine will require hundreds of engineered parts. Sometimes, even after the prototyping phase, many of these products require rework or new parts.  There was lots of room for error.  

Similar to many other discrete manufacturers, JR Automation’s data and designs were in paper form. Paper-based processes and rapid growth made design and manufacturing complexity even more challenging. “When I first began at JR Automation, over 22 years ago, we built everything from prints. With no access to computers on the shop floor and no models to reference, we had to build everything off drawings,” said Ross Walters, Director of Engineering Services at JR Automation.

Leadership knew they needed to minimize human error, create a more efficient way of delivering drawings to the builders, andincrease collaboration across the extended enterprise. They set out to reduce the time it takes builders and engineers to manage print packages, increase efficiency during the manufacturing process, enhance communication to the shop floor, and gain efficiency for machine assembly and tactical coordination.

2. Breaking down silos across functional disciplines

Recognizing and integrating siloed systems is critical not only to engineering but also to establishing a true enterprise digital thread. Incredible potential is unlocked when information is more readily accessible across departments and geographies. Organizing existing silos of product information across the value chain to create visibility helps in several ways: 

  • Connects assets in the factory and field
  • Establishes a strong digital backbone in engineering to unify diverse tools, methods, and processes
  • Creates a single source of truth in the product definition with powerful governance and traceability 

In the case of JR Automation, they joined forces with PTC’s partner EAC, who had the expertise to match technology to implement the organization’s ideal product development processes. Together, they embarked on a journey to digitize JR Automation’s paper-based operations from design to the shop floor and across the supply chain — all leveraging PTC’s Windchillfor enterprise-wide collaboration. Windchill is an essential tool to break down data silos. JR Automation uses the core product data management (PDM), configuration and change management, bill of materials (BOM) management, and project management capabilities to securely share consistent data across departments, practices, and geographies. Bringing decision makers together through collaborative engineering regardless of physical location is one of key benefits of Windchill and the digital thread. 

ThingWorx Navigate is a PTC platform that allows information from multiple systems to be delivered through a single window and enable user groups to access real-time, relevant data right when they need it. Stakeholders can make better and faster decisions while minimizing search time. Customer satisfaction is also improved. 

When paper-based processes were used, the shop floor relied heavily on the experience of longtime builders who knew how to proceed in certain situations based on their years on the job.  Now, new employees have access to all the data they need to perform well without depth of expertise. JR Automation experienced immediate efficiency gains in the time it took its engineers searching and managing materials. Windchill and ThingWorx Navigate has made JR’s workforce more effective across skill and experience levels. Stakeholders can make decisions better and faster, time isn’t wasted searching and communicating, and customer satisfaction has improved significantly.

3. Close the loop with a digital thread

A true digital thread enables a “closed loop” of product data across the value chain so manufacturers can make faster and more accurate decisions. Closing the loop with the digital thread means linking the intersection points between functions and departments to spread data across traditional boundaries and enable collaboration. 

Closing the loop was essential for JR Automation because while builders use Creo, other teams across the enterprise use SOLIDWORKS and AutoCAD. These teams needed to work across design teams with bi-directional communication of product data, design changes, etc. Also, the explosive growth led by the Hitachi, LTD acquisition, brought with it different cultures and ways of working across the business, increasing complexity.

JR Automation chose Windchill, due to its powerful out-of-the-box functionality, it’s operability in a multi-CAD environment, and open architecture that could integrate seamlessly with systems already in use at JR Automation. Windchill enables data governance and traceability to realize value quickly through standardized processes. 

Achieving value: Enabling collaborative engineering with the digital thread 

The digital thread and collaborative engineering have provided JR Automation several benefits. With efficiency and user-centric design built into their solution, mechanical engineers and builders are spending less time managing print books. Mechanical engineers went from spending 5% of their time managing print packages to only 1%, resulting in an 80% efficiency gain. Similarly, builders who used to spend 8% of their time managing print packages, now spend 1.5% of their time managing print packages, resulting in a 60% efficiency gain.

Windchill has delivered immediate efficiency gains and money savings as well as improved accuracy with customer shipment orders and product designs. Windchill powers JR Automation’s digital shop floor and it’s used across the enterprise by supply chain and project management teams. 

The path forward: What comes after you’ve designed a digital thread for engineering

A digital thread is meant to be layered and connected, weaving different pieces into an increasingly complete picture, which is essential to the long-term success of the digital thread. Once the digital thread has been established in engineering, it’s crucial to expand it across the enterprise. A digital thread becomes more powerful and transformative by extending it to new functions, departments, and roles. This expansion will enable the enterprise to realize substantial value and ROI as it scales.

As far as what’s next for JR Automation, now that they have a solid foundation in place, they’ll take on creating and integrating software and simulations that depict the machine in operational mode. The manufacturer is also aiming at having most components ready and configured since customers want line monitoring. Using augmented reality to simulate machines in motion before the order is built is another goal of JR Automation for the near future.

To explore how other manufacturers have implemented a digital thread for engineering, click here.


eBook: Product Data Management: The Foundation of the Digital Thread and Digital Twin Get Your Copy
Tags: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Windchill Digital Thread
About the Author Carlos Melgarejo Carlos is a Sr. Content Marketing Specialist for PTC’s PLM technology. He comes from a broadcast journalism background where he developed a love for writing and visual storytelling. He is also passionate about developing creative content and communications, having received a Master’s degree in Marketing. He enjoys the outdoors, the beach, exercising, riding his motorcycle and car restoration.