Fortify the Enterprise with Digital Thread – Part 1

Written By: Michael Blumberg
  • 6/16/2022
  • Read Time : 4 min

In my role as a research analyst, OEMs often ask me an important question, “where should we invest to future-proof our enterprise?” As a rule of thumb, I suggest investing in areas where the return is quick, scalable, high-value, and impacts the very core of the enterprise. To these OEMs, my answer is to invest in digital transformation and digital thread. In this two-part blog series, I explain why. 

Eliminating Functional Silos

We continuously hear stories from companies about their initiatives to eliminate or remove functional silos within their organizations. Silos present obstacles to operational efficiency, business productivity, and customer satisfaction. One of the ways companies attempt to break down these silos is by deploying information technology to integrate disparate processes and systems within and between business functions.

Companies often attempt to achieve this outcome through digital transformation (DX) initiatives. Although these initiatives have immense potential, without suitable technology and support from the enterprise, they are susceptible to failure. Despite billions of dollars a year in DX investments, 83% of these initiatives fail, according to ZD Net. At issue, while DX can lead to integration between processes and systems within a specific business function, they often fail to achieve a broader level of integration required between functions within their company or between the company and their business partners, suppliers, or distribution channel.

The Digital Thread

By implementing a systems design principle known as the digital thread, either on a standalone basis or part of a DX initiative, companies can effectively achieve the level of integration needed to eliminate silos and achieve higher levels of productivity, efficiency, and quality. The digital thread applies an asset-centric view to capturing and sharing critical data across traditionally siloed functions throughout the product’s lifecycle.

In other words, the digital thread considers data dependencies involved in the product lifecycle from design and engineering to manufacturing through maintenance, repair, and service. It is a framework for ensuring the availability and accuracy of systems of record and engagement exchange data required to improve various aspects of the product and facilitate improved asset uptime, service readiness over the asset’s lifecycle, and maximize customer satisfaction, brand loyalty, and repeat purchase. Through this framework, companies can ensure they make the correct information available and accessible, to the right place, to the right people, and at the right time. This outcome is also critical to supporting new business models, improving revenue streams, and enhancing customer relationships.

Problems Solved By the Digital Thread

Consider a company that has not followed the digital thread principles in setting up its product lifecycle systems infrastructure. There are likely to be data or information silos that exist between critical business functions like engineering, manufacturing, and aftermarket service. While product design documents or CAD drawings may exist within the engineering department, they may not be easily accessible by the aftermarket service division. As a result, the service organization may face challenges supporting the product.

For example, they may lack specifications about a spare part design or information required to maintain and repair a piece of equipment. These gaps could lead to delays or costs in servicing the product or finding or replicating the missing data/parts or result in less than optimal service decisions based on incomplete or partial information. All these examples lead to extended downtime, are costly, negatively impact customer satisfaction, and damage brand loyalty and repeat purchase.

At first glance, we might assume that this data gap is not a big deal. The engineering models are not readily available. So what? The service organization can wait for the drawings to arrive, create a workaround, or solve the service issue through brute force reasoning. These actions may suffice if this situation occurs one time. What happens if the engineering department continuously designs enhancements or revisions to the original product? Imagine how frequently the service organization will run into situations where they can’t complete a repair accurately or promptly if these updates are not available. The negative impact on service performance, customer satisfaction, and associated costs could be significant if the data gap exists. 

The digital thread resolves this issue by first recognizing that while manufacturing, engineering, and service create and collect data/information through different processes and systems, each function must rely on the same data but for different reasons. Second, the digital thread provides answers to several critical questions:

  • What data or information do I need to perform a task better?
  • Where within the organization do I find this information?
  • How do I retrieve or access this information?

The answers form the basis for automating new cross-functional processes integrated through data lakes, data layers, or APIs within enterprise systems.

Impact on Service Lifecycle Management

The benefits of a strengthened digital thread reach across the enterprise (and beyond the enterprise into the partner and supplier eco-system) to include engineering, manufacturing, and service. The service lifecycle is a particularly strong contributor since the service lifecycle is about 10 times larger than the engineering and manufacturing lifecycles combined. You design the car once and service it for the rest of its useful life. Engineering changes occur and must cascade throughout the enterprise to capitalize on the promise of aftermarket revenue/profitability.

An OEM can more efficiently and effectively support a product over its lifecycle once it adopts the digital thread methodology. Here are a few brief examples of use cases that are possible by applying digital thread principles to enterprise system architecture:

  • Smoother Product Launches – An engineering department can alert the manufacturing team to new product schematics, design drawings, and product bill of materials (BOMs) to facilitate planning for new product introductions (NPI).
  • Improved Service & Support – Advanced notice about NPI enables the service organization to accurately plan and forecast parts inventory levels and stocking locations before products roll out of the factory. In turn, asset utilization and service demand data provide input into spare parts requirements, enabling manufacturing to update its manufacturing forecast. In addition, the service organization can leverage the engineering designs and BoM to create service procedures, diagnostics, and augmented reality applications before the first installation.
  • Enhance Product Quality – By leveraging service data from warranty claims and IoT-enabled products, the engineering and manufacturing teams can identify ways to enhance or improve product quality, leading to an engineering change request (ECR) and new production runs.
  • Optimize Decisions – Gathering insight from smart, connected products through ML/AI can improve decisions on service parts stocking, design parameters, and manufacturing quality. Advanced analytics gather insight from a given population of data that is relevant to engineering, manufacturing, and service.

As these use cases demonstrate, applying digital thread principles to enterprise systems facilitates a closed-loop product lifecycle planning process. More importantly, it enables engineering, manufacturing, and service teams to extract the data they need to gain better insights and make better-informed decisions concerning product and service lifecycle management. The net impact is improved performance on critical success metrics such as productivity, efficiency, quality, and profitability.

Let’s explore the benefits further in part two - click here to read.  

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  • Service and Parts
  • Servigistics
  • Aerospace and Defense
  • Automotive
  • Electronics and High Tech
  • Industrial Equipment
  • Life Sciences
  • Connected Devices
  • Digital Thread
  • Digital Transformation
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  • Reduce Operational Costs
  • PLM Reduce Time to Market
  • PLM Reduce Costs
  • PLM Increase Revenue
  • PLM Improve Quality
  • Maximize Revenue Growth
  • Increase Asset Efficiency
  • Improve Service Efficiency
  • Improve Customer Satisfaction

About the Author

Michael Blumberg

Michael Blumberg is a leading expert on the design, execution, management, and coordination of high-tech service and support operations within a wide array of industry segments, including information technology, office automation, medical electronics, building controls, and consumer electronics. He has more than 20 years of experience in strategic planning, market research, benchmarking, enterprise systems design, and strategic management of product support operations.