Most manufacturing organizations have some form of active digital transformation project to stay relevant in the current economy. Challenges stemming from legacy systems and processes often constrain these efforts.

One challenge is enabling an effective collaboration that allows one to find, access, and have confidence in the accuracy of digital information. This is important because collaboration based on information served up in context, across the enterprise, and throughout the lifecycle leads to more timely product launches, improved quality, increased innovation, and lower operating costs. Effective collaboration requires an effective Digital Thread, an essential foundation for boosting organizational efficiency across teams, groups, and the enterprise.

PLM’s historical challenges 

Early product lifecycle management (PLM) processes were primarily focused on mechanical designs. Their lifecycle management of mechanically oriented BOM structures formed an early implementation of a Digital Thread, but only for a limited data type. The legacy PLM systems did not span the many other engineering disciplines—systems, simulation, electronics, electrical, and software.

Furthermore, in many companies, individual departments and disciplines within each department operate in their specific tool silos, even if the company is standardized on a particular PLM platform. Departmental focus is on their design responsibility rather than working with others to optimize across disciplines because of legacy processes and because of the limits of the legacy PLM systems. A lack of cohesion between all engineering disciplines in this early form of Digital Thread inhibited the development of highly complex products.

To better understand the problem, consider how modern electric vehicle manufacturers optimize driving range using regenerative braking. In older vehicles, the braking system was largely independent of other vehicle subsystems and designed in a silo. That is no longer the case; every modern automobile subsystem depends significantly on other functions.

In contrast, new electric-vehicle startups have had success in cross-discipline collaboration. Why? Because they had no legacy products and therefore they were not constrained by legacy disconnected silos of knowledge, data, and process. For example, their strategic embrace of systems modeling and MBSE allowed them to identify and understand interdependencies that otherwise would be missed. Today, traditional automakers adopt similar approaches to become more competitive by recognizing the value of cross-discipline collaboration and systems-engineering concepts.

The creation of a Digital Thread 

To improve efficiency and build better products, companies need to expose and share information between silos by embracing traceability between them so that information can be shared securely between internal departments, partners, and suppliers across the entire product lifecycle. That can only be accomplished by creating a modern Digital Thread that enables connected flow across the silos of the product’s design intent (the Why), design data (the What), and design processes (the How) – in context. This requires mechanisms to connect existing systems and fill the gaps between them. This can be a challenge, especially when legacy systems, tools and data repositories need modernizing.

A truly effective Digital Thread must provide proper data and process context specific to the particular stage of a lifecycle. The continuous flow of information in context can provide vital insights to guide decisions at every stage of the product lifecycle, enhancing collaboration and communication and speeding up the development of better products.

Best practices 

There are a few best practices to remember while building your modern Digital Thread. To start, generating, managing, and connecting related information across a product’s lifecycle depends on a company’s existing IT landscape. There is no one-size-fits-all software solution for it. It is wise to avoid beginning your journey by identifying a list of specific goals before evaluating software solutions. Consider the process first, including how external partners and suppliers interact with your data. In addition, consider the fact that the relationships that connect artifacts in a Digital Thread are much more than “just” links. To facilitate traceability in context, they must reflect the level of maturity that includes their own semantics, directionality, history, revisions, lifecycle states, and other indicators.

Remember – you cannot build a Digital Thread in one step. An incremental and iterative approach is warranted—start small and deliver incremental value over time. Don’t wait for the next budget cycle to get started. Instead, make a series of small, targeted investments that deliver value to the organization.

Prioritizing openness and interoperability is essential in building your Digital Thread. You can’t predict which tools you will need to include in your Digital Thread in the future. Mergers, acquisitions, and evolving supplier networks can affect your IT ecosystem unpredictably. Committing to one software vendor’s ecosystem could severely hamper your ability to adapt and adjust to business changes. Last, remember that the Digital Thread is a moving target. Accept that a digital-thread journey is never complete in an evolving world of technology. That should not prevent you from getting started, as even a partial Digital Thread provides significant business value.

For more information on Aras Digital Thread solutions, visit aras.com.