Protecting the Digital Thread With Human-centric Process Validation
Written By: Linda Di Gangi
4/23/2023 Read Time : 5 min
A digital thread creates a closed loop between the digital and physical worlds, transforming how products are engineered, manufactured, and serviced. Digital threads seek to develop 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 enable continuity and accessibility.

If there is one common theme around breaking, it is human interaction. This PTC talk featured guest speakers Jonas Fredriksson, Head of Sales EMEA Industry Portfolio at ESI Group, and Eric Kam, Senior Product Marketing Manager at ESI Group, who discussed how to weave the digital thread through human-centric assembly line validation and thereby prevent any breakages. ESI Group achieves this through its human-centric process validation tool ICI.Do.


What do we mean by human-centric assembly?

The aim of ICI.DO is to provide people with the necessary tools and insights that they need to have certainty that any new product that they are bringing to market, in the middle of engineering or kicking off its product lifecycle, people can safely and efficiently build, assemble, service, and maintain them. There are no benefits from deploying the best in class computer-aided design (CAD), product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing process management (MPM), or digital testing software if the products that are engineered are not usable by the human assembly people who are going to be working on it.


What does a product lifecycle look like?

When we think about the product development timeline for a vehicle, it is typically a 36-month development program. It starts with a product designer working on a new car three years before the start of production. This early work is all digital – engineering and product design conducted within CAD, PLM, or digital mock-up environments. It is not uncommon that the early decisions are all designed to validate that process digitally.

With 24 months to go, that product design is released to the manufacturing engineering team to start doing their due diligence and planning the manufacturing processes. Often at the same time, the service or maintenance teams will also begin their due diligence and plan their service or assembly procedures. Finally, with 12 months to go, that process plan and tooling design data is circulated to vendors and internal suppliers for them to start developing and delivering the physical tools for the production line so that stable production can begin at month zero.


How to mitigate risk in the product lifecycle?

As we transition along the timeline, as time marches forward, the design engineer will cease working on that particular product program and start work on the next vehicle program. When tooling is released for manufacturing to prepare for the ramp-up to begin production, the designer might already have two or three vehicle programs further down the line.

This is an important thing to note because this is where, no matter the good intentions of maintaining a continuous and non-stop digital thread, the digital thread gets broken. When people start building the physical tools, they discover problems that were not anticipated during the screen reviews of the digital data, which might result in changes to the process, product, or tooling geometry. Unfortunately, these changes are not always reflected in the CAD, PLM, or MPM data. This is where manufacturers need to partner with companies like PTC, who can help stitch back together and reweave any potential breaks in the digital thread.


Why does the digital thread often get broken?

To further elaborate on why that sometimes happens, we must consider when we identify these issues. How do we identify them, and when is the earliest opportunity, once we find them, to resolve or fix them? Every engineering program starts with a list of what was learned the last time the part was engineered so that those issues are not repeated. These known challenges are resolved as part of the due diligence during product engineering.

Hopefully, most of those issues will have been resolved before the product design is released for process planning. Then, as the process planning begins using computer simulation and digital mock-up tools, new risks emerge. Part of that tooling and manufacturing planning process is finding issues and then resolving them through design. At some point, a data freeze point is reached, and those tools are produced physically. At that stage, more risks are encountered, and these risks multiply after production start-up.


Why do all these new issues arrive so late?

When it comes to how human beings will interact with a new product, the manufacturer needs more experience. Quite often, the first time people can start interacting with a product and participating with it in a process is once those tools are physically available in the assembly line or the manufacturing environment. But, unfortunately, that means a lot of remaining risk is not anticipated and unmitigated until late in that process. So when we talk about human-centered process validation, we are talking about creating new opportunities so that humans can experience that product in the context of those human-performed operations.


How can virtual reality mitigate the risks?

Take a car such as the Volkswagen Passat plug-in electric hybrid. It is a new design, and a team of manufacturing personnel needs to validate the placement of the battery. By conducting this validation in virtual reality (VR), the practicality of the designed solution can be assessed much earlier in the product lifecycle. By introducing the use of VR technology, we are providing the opportunity for people to effectively travel in time and teleport themselves into that production environment of the manufacturing line that has yet to be even commissioned. They can start identifying and resolving those human factors or human-centric issues in their designs.

Following this process makes it possible to get involved and participate in the manufacturing processes before the product data is released for process planning. How people will participate and experience that manufacturing process can be visualized and validated before it is finalized and moved on to develop the physical tooling. With a VR human-centered process validation, addressing that normally unaddressed risk is possible. It must not be forgotten, however digital the process is, and regardless of which technology is being deployed, there are still numerous manufacturing and assembly operations that people perform.
Tags: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Windchill Digital Thread
About the Author Linda Di Gangi

Linda Di Gangi is a Program Marketing Manager in PTC’s Field Marketing organization. She is responsible for the marketing strategy for European Emerging Markets and India. She first started with PTC's Corporate marketing in 2006 and managed global events including PTC flagship event, LiveWorx. Prior, she worked for an agency and oversaw PR for B2B companies in new technologies. In a spare time, Linda enjoys working out and hiking with family and friends. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.