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Digital Thread

What is a Digital Tread?

Digital Thread is a means for organizations to create strong digital communications between manufacturing elements. This technology works by centralizing and standardizing data so that all manufacturing elements are connected and share the same information. Digital Thread accelerates product development, reduces production wastes/costs, and offers multiple manufacturers incredible insight into their connected operations.

From research and development to shipping and distribution, digital thread technology and practices enable modern manufacturers to weave standardized information protocols and data across their entire manufacturing process.

Key Takeaways

  • Digital Thread is a means for organizations to create strong digital communications between manufacturing elements.

  • It accelerates product development, reduces production wastes/costs, and offers multiple manufacturers incredible insight into their connected operations.

  • The term “Digital Thread” was first used in 2013 and then further refined by Singh and Wilcox in 2018.

  • The Digital Thread concept is a combination of Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing goals that seek to optimize cyber-physical systems and intelligent processes.

Think of everything that is involved with a manufacturing process for just one product. How many different systems, people, departments, and companies did this one product have to go through to be made?

Often, every product has a variation of the following separated elements:

connected worker

  • Research & Development
  • Process engineering
  • Fabrication of materials
  • Supply chain management
  • Assembly of materials
  • Quality inspections and control
  • Distribution and warehousing

Traditionally, each of the above elements is individually siloed and has a corresponding digital system that helps them track their specific goals and metrics.

The problem is there is very little communication between each element, hence their siloed nature. Most production silos, such as departments and companies, fulfill their functions and then hand over the work to the next production silo with very little valuable or standardized information.

But what if these departments, systems, and people could interact and communicate in real time? This new digital network would usher in a new era of intelligent management and optimization that would reduce costs and increase efficiency.

A Brief History of Digital Thread Technology

The term Digital Thread is relatively new, only coming into widespread use in the past decade. After first making an appearance in Global Horizons 2013 report, it was further refined by Victor Singh and K.E. Wilcox in their MIT paper titled Engineering with a Digital Thread.

“A data-driven architecture that links together information generated from across the product lifecycle and is envisioned to be the primary or authoritative data and communication platform for a company’s products at any instance of time.” - Victor Singh & K.E. Wilcox

The digital thread is the amalgamation of Industry 4.0 technology and Smart Manufacturing principles. Industry 4.0 aims at the enhancement of cyber-physical systems through connected technologies like IoT. In the same vein, the concept of Smart Manufacturing aims to optimize business and manufacturing principles so that operations gain the most intelligent and effective methods.

These two goals merge to form a collaboration of intelligent technology and smart methods that enable organizations to share knowledge across complex supply chains and create a single authoritative source of data and communication, an achievement that was i before thought impossible.

How Does the Digital Thread Work?

A Digital Thread is tasked with placing the right information in the right place at the right time. This technological concept ties together the digital and physical worlds, merging data and physical progress into valuable knowledge for every part of the supply chain.

And there are a few key technologies that enable manufacturing organizations to weave a Digital Thread through their operations and supply chains.

  • CAD Software: This software is used by engineers to create 2D or 3D designs of products and facilitates the design, development, fabrication, and optimization of the product and the manufacturing process.
  • ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning): With an ERP, organizations can gain a comprehensive view of their operation from one central location. Companies track inventory, spending, work orders, and customer orders through their ERP platform, essentially tracking and managing WHAT is involved in the manufacturing process.
  • Work Instruction Software (VKS): Digital work instructions are the ultimate tool to manage, track, and optimize HOW work is achieved. By detailing the proper methods with visual and interactive step-by-step instructions, users gain the ability to perform tasks with greater accuracy and efficiency.
  • BI (Business Intelligence) Software: Companies use BI software to gather, analyze, and transform data into actionable business insights.
  • API (Application Programming Interface): An API is a set of code that enable two or more systems to connect and share data. An example of this would be the ability to automatically send quality and productivity data to a database where the BI software can analyze the data.
Lightbulb Pro Tip

Pro Tip

Use the VKS Digital Ecosystem to easily share work instructions with suppliers and business partners to maximize digital efficiency and standardize manufacturing processes within the whole supply chain. Also, this VKS add-on gives manufacturers key insights into the productivity and efficiency of their suppliers.

To achieve an effective Digital Thread, you don’t need each of the above technologies. The main thing you need is a way to create one intelligent stream of data that all production silos, companies, and systems that can gather accurate information from.

What does a Digital Thread Look Like?

It’s important to remember that a Digital Thread is not just one system. It is a blending of departments, systems, and people to create one centralized source of information and data flow. Once we understand this concept, we can begin to establish a Digital Thread within our products’ manufacturing lifecycles.

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An integrated Digital Thread would look like the following:

  • Engineers use CAD software to create 3D models that detail the components and processes that make up a product or item.

  • These same CAD drawings and 3D models are used to create visual step-by-step work instructions that detail the conformance requirements and process specifications of the various components that make up the whole product. These processes are then shared with the various manufacturers through the VKS Digital Ecosystem.

  • The inventory, cost, workforce, and customer requirements are tracked and monitored by the ERP, which also distributes the work orders through the work instruction software.

  • Once VKS receives the work order from the ERP, an assembly operator then begins assembly using their detailed instructions. Quality data is gathered either manually or autonomously and sent to a database for storage and analysis.

  • The data is shared with customers to extend the product's lifecycle. With detailed information on how each product was assembled (much like an eDHR - electronic Device History Record), organizations gain greater quality information that can be shared with the customer.

Any updates and improvements to the processes or components then follow the same data stream, from design to production.

Lightbulb Pro Tip

Pro Tip

Did you know that CAD drawings and other materials can be linked to your VKS guidebooks to provide additional information for users? It’s a fast and easy way to provide additional information that can be pulled up at any time.

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