In my previous blog post titled “Fortify the Enterprise with Digital Thread – Part I”, I examined how manufacturers can utilize the digital thread to eliminate data gaps between siloed business functions and achieve higher levels of productivity, efficiency, and quality in their respective operations. The digital thread creates a full lifecycle, a closed-loop between the physical and digital worlds that exist from design & engineering to manufacturing, through to service & support, and back again to product design.
Utilizing the digital thread, stakeholders like engineering, manufacturing, and service obtain real-time access to data and information common to all functions, but that exist in disparate enterprise systems and databases. As a result, stakeholders can draw better insights and make optimal decisions about how to best design, manufacture, and service a product throughout its lifecycle and future iterations. This principle will become table stakes as exponential technology further lowers the cost of computing power, and sensors, and expands the availability of internet access to growing populations of smart, connected devices.
The digital thread weaves together fragments of data and information to create new threads or data sets to support the product lifecycle.
"For example, a fragment could be a CAD design of a component, and a thread might be several digital components coming together in an assembly," notes Leslie Paulson, General Manager of PTC's Servigistics Business Unit. "Threads, of course, can be spun together to form a rope, and a rope is stronger than an individual thread."
A rope in this context could be a digital twin of a product assembly containing IoT sensor data information visible through augmented/virtual reality. The assembly, digital twin, IoT sensor data, and AR/VR images all represent threads that comprise the rope. It is this rope that "enables companies to meet expectations over the product lifecycle."
While the digital thread has significant benefits in creating a closed-loop data flow between manufacturing and engineering, perhaps its most significant beneficiary with an OEM organization is the service organization. Traditionally, service organizations have attempted to implement service lifecycle management (SLM) applications that stitch together point solutions and applications into a single end-to-end enterprise solution. While these SLM solutions effectively integrate and automate service functions dependent upon each other, they fail to integrate data from the engineering or manufacturing departments vital to the service lifecycle. As such, the data silos remain and the aspects delivering the greatest value remain untapped.
An OEM can increase asset uptime while improving service readiness, the ultimate outcome of SLM, by applying digital thread principles to the enterprise systems that manage service delivery. However, it is not just about integrating data fragments within the SLM applications that improve outcomes. To a large extent, the performance gains come from weaving data fragments from other enterprise systems like supply chain management (SCM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (ERP), as well as enabling technologies like IoT and AR/MR into the data thread. Additional benefits to the service organization from weaving manufacturing and engineering data fragments into service include reduced total maintenance costs, higher customer satisfaction/loyalty, and optimized planning, process, and decision making.
Service parts management is one aspect of service lifecycle management where a digital thread can deliver massive value, not just for the service organization but for all stakeholders, including other business functions with the company, customers, suppliers, and channel partners. Even with spare parts management (SPM) software, the ability to accurately plan, forecast, and procure spare parts is dependent on many upstream inputs, including production forecasts, product specifications, bill of materials, and asset utilization rates. These data points often reside in disparate systems and databases maintained by engineering and manufacturing.
Any changes within a specific data record or element could dramatically offset the spare parts planning process and negatively affect service performance and customer satisfaction. For example, the service organization could experience stock in balances without up-to-date production forecasts or experience missed SLAs due to a stock-out if engineering changed a part specification and did not notify service in advance or promptly.
The digital thread provides seamless and automatic integration of critical data between service parts management software and the engineering and manufacturing software systems of record, thus avoiding the aforementioned consequences. More importantly, the benefits of the digital thread are bi-directional. The as-maintained BoM managed by the service organization can help the manufacturing and engineering organizations gain insights that improve manufacturing quality and product design.
Another valuable aspect of the digital thread within SLM is the creation of new service delivery models and products. Using computer-aided design (CAD) and product lifecycle management (PLM) software, a manufacturer can design a new product with IoT sensors to track product performance and asset utilization rates. The information gleaned from the IoT sensors can enable the service organization to provide predictive and proactive service. It can also form the basis of a "smart warranty" where the costs and coverage are determined by how closely the customer uses the equipment within performance parameters. In other words, how close to or over specifications the operation runs.
In this example, the digital thread weaves together CAD, PLM, IoT, and warranty data to create a new product feature and service solution. In turn, the asset utilization and warranty data captured through the IoT and SLM solution provides input to engineering to improve product designs or influence design for serviceability efforts developing improved product releases and enhancements. Manufacturing can also benefit by having access to data that can help them build sturdier, more reliable products.
There are, of course, many more use cases for the digital thread within the context of providing improved service lifecycle and product lifecycle management. These use cases could probably fill a book. Applying digital thread principles to enterprise systems is not something a company can or should do all at once. It's not a one-and-done proposition. Digital thread implementation is a marathon, not a sprint.
Outcome-based thinking is critical. It is essential to determine what insights and decisions are needed, where the data is maintained, and how to access it. A data lake or data layer must provide automated integration between functions if pre-built software integrations do not exist. While this may seem like a significant undertaking, the long-term benefit is enormous. The value is real and quantifiable! Organizations interested in applying digital thread principles should think through a few initial use cases and start their digital thread journey. It doesn't matter as much where they start, but more importantly that they start and stay focused.
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