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Rob McAveney


Successful Digital Transformation: The Engineering Digital Thread

Three key tactics can help manufacturers foster development and innovation

Published: Wednesday, September 6, 2023 - 11:03

For most discrete manufacturing companies, digital transformation initiatives are underway in some capacity. They’re largely seen as table stakes in today’s economy. Unfortunately, outdated systems and procedures often bring problems that hinder these initiatives.

A lack of consistency among engineering fields is one of the problems. Effective collaboration is still a far-off ideal. Enterprise cohesion can result in benefits like better quality, quicker innovation, on-time product launches, and lower operational expenses. The digital thread method of product life cycle tracking makes all of this possible.

This digital thread is crucial for successfully increasing organizational efficiency and improving communication across teams, groups, and the entire firm, regardless of your workforce paradigm.

A look at historical challenges

Most product life cycle management processes developed naturally over long periods of time with a constantly changing ecosystem of technologies. These processes—which span mechanical, electronic, electrical, software, simulation, systems, and other engineering disciplines—weren’t primarily built to bridge all those disciplines. The life cycle, from conceptual design to engineering, manufacture, operation, and service, lacks cohesiveness. 

This lack of cohesiveness is a barrier to fostering digital transformation and can result in subpar products. Even seemingly insignificant things can have a significant effect on cost and efficiency. It’s possible that your electronics’ cooling is being affected by mechanical design. It can be an issue of hardware/software compatibility. The issue could be as straightforward as incorrect connectors in wire harnesses. Even in large corporations with a wealth of resources at their disposal, these kinds of problems still arise.

A company’s individual departments frequently work in isolation. Instead of collaborating with others to maximize effort across disciplines, their attention rests on their individual design tasks. Think about how regenerative braking is used by makers of contemporary electric vehicles to maximize driving range. The braking system was once thought to be essentially independent of other vehicle subsystems and could even be developed in isolation. But no longer; each component of a car today is heavily dependent on every other system.

The newest generation of electric car entrepreneurs has experienced success with interdisciplinary collaboration. The reason is that there were no barriers to remove between departments. There were no knowledge silos to break down. They started with a systems engineering method in which all parties could see and understand interdependencies. Traditional car manufacturers are swiftly catching up and adjusting as a result of their appreciation of the benefits of cross-disciplinary cooperation and systems engineering principles.

Establishing a digital thread

Your business must eliminate internal silos to increase efficiency and, ultimately, create superior products. Throughout the whole product life cycle, information should be openly exchanged between the relevant departments.

By establishing a digital thread, it’s possible to connect the data flow of a product over the course of its life. Mechanisms are needed to close the many gaps between existing systems and join them. This can be difficult, particularly if your systems are outdated and challenging to update. However, a digital thread can’t exist without a means of connecting data across the whole life cycle.

The various advantages of developing a digital thread include greater productivity; the potential for market development; the ability to better meet customers’ needs; and long-term innovation feedback loops, including digital twin applications. With the support of a constant flow of information, your company can get critical insights that can inform choices at every step of the product life cycle, improving collaboration and communication and accelerating the creation of better products.

A digital thread makes it possible to connect the data flow of a product over the course of its life. But mechanisms are needed to close the many gaps between existing systems and join them. To succeed, focus on process over software, and prioritize openness and interoperability.

Recommendations for thread creation

There are three key tactics that can help manufacturers to foster development and innovation as they construct their digital thread.

1. Focus on process over software

Don’t start your journey by comparing software options; there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a digital thread. Consider the process first, including how your data are used by other partners, such as suppliers. You must be able to adopt new technologies and integrate more tools and systems than ever before.

2. Iterate for incremental success

Keep in mind that a digital thread can’t be created in a single step; you’ll need to use an iterative strategy. Start off small and gradually add value. Don’t wait until the upcoming budget cycle to begin. Make a succession of smaller, focused investments instead, each of which will benefit the organization in a different way.

3. Prioritize openness and interoperability

As you develop your digital thread solution, make interoperability and openness priorities. You won’t be able to foresee which tools will eventually be required in your digital thread. The consequences of mergers, acquisitions, and changing supplier networks on your IT ecosystem are unpredictable. Your ability to adapt and evolve with the times may be significantly hindered if you lock yourself into the ecosystem of one software vendor.

The digital thread is a moving target, so bear that in mind as well. Recognize that in a constantly changing environment, a digital thread’s evolution is never over. But don’t let that keep you from starting, because even a minimally viable digital thread has valuable business implications.

Make way for innovation

Discrete manufacturing businesses have always used isolated processes. Without a method to bring them all together, the numerous disciplines involved in engineering, manufacturing, and service have existed separately. This has stifled digital transformation initiatives and prevented innovation for many manufacturers. But the efficiency of multidisciplinary processes can be greatly increased, expenses can be decreased, and efforts to implement digital transformation can eventually succeed beyond expectations.

By establishing a more integrated approach across disciplines, you can considerably increase productivity, save money, and eventually create a path for digital transformation projects to outperform expectations.


About The Author

Rob McAveney’s picture

Rob McAveney

Rob McAveney brings a lifelong passion for technology to the CTO role at Aras. For the past 20 years, he has focused that passion on building rich software platforms that solve difficult business problems for major industrial companies. He acts as Aras’ technology visionary and provides design oversight for future PLM technology while remaining grounded in the realities of configuration management, systems integration, and the many other challenges of delivering enterprise software.