Let’s say you’re about to design a brand new product. You have a lot of work ahead of you.

You need to define the specs, create the design, source suppliers, check in with experts in legal and in safety, set up a testing procedure, do trial runs. Then the product will go into mass production, require a warranty, be put into actual use…

But one thing you can’t do in design is use the information that has been gathered in the real world, by the manufacturers making a similar or previous product and users using it. Because that information isn’t available, or not readily so.

What if it were?

The Digital Thread

With the increasing use of systems that collect and analyze information from every process in a plant, we can digitally follow a product all the way from its inception to design to manufacture to use to re-design or obsolescence. That’s the digital thread.

Access to the digital thread helps us design better products. In fact, studies by LNS Research indicated that tapping into the digital thread, capturing knowledge “with a unified experience that leverages modern technology such as cloud, mobility and big data analytics”—earned significant payoffs, helping manufacturers to experience a 16% improvement in OTCS (on-time and complete shipments), and 20% in SNPI (successful new product introductions).1

The power of centralizing data parallels the experience of the American auto industry, in the development of PLM (product lifecycle management), decades ago.

AMC adopted the new CAD process and a new system that allowed conflicts to be resolved more quickly and changes to be minimized, because all drawings and documents were kept in a central database. After Chrysler purchased AMC, the system was expanded throughout the enterprise.

Chrysler became the auto industry's lowest-cost producer, recording development costs that were half the industry average by the mid-1990s.2

Building Digital Causeways Between the Islands

For decades, information was available on varied metrics/processes in most plants—QA, OEE, scheduling—but only through disconnected sources—in an Excel spreadsheet, on a manual clipboard or from a report run on a stand-alone system. Connecting the information, just as in the design process of the 1980s automobile industry, was fraught with obstacles. Causes and effects were near-impossible to pinpoint. Barriers to analysis were everywhere.

Manufacturers can now digitally capture and analyze everything that goes on in their plant, increasing efficiencies as they cut costs."

With the development of cheaper sensors and the availability of more sophisticated, powerful software, those days are coming to an end. Manufacturers can now digitally capture and analyze everything that goes on in their plant, increasing efficiencies as they cut costs.

Equipped with a digital thread, the story only gets better. Manufacturers will connect ever more closely with customers, weaving customer requirements and experience into engineering and manufacturing. The digital thread provides an excellent foundation for continuous improvement, with enhanced  quality and traceability.

Just Two Digital Thread Examples

Medical devices  A medical device manufacturer uses highly sophisticated mathematics to influence the wiring design of its embedded devices. The closer the wires are, the greater the possibility of a short [inside a human being!]. Yet at the same time, the smaller the device, the less invasive it is. Could they design even better if they had access to the data covering every incident of a human wearing their device? One would certainly expect so.

Tapered bottles  In a bottling plant where Factora was heading up a major MES project, we discovered an unhappy correlation between a certain tapered bottle and downtime. When there were line stops involving this bottle, the risk went up of damage and further downtime, because the tapered bottles started to tilt … and eventually toppled … sometimes en masse. Had this information been available to the designer, would they have designed the bottle that way?

Digital Detail Facilitates Decisions About Priorities and Risk

Many factors go into product design: functionality, ease of manufacture, cost of components, ease of transport, durability, beauty, and ease of use, to name but a few. Yet designers rarely have robust data on which to base decisions about these factors. The digital thread will change that, bringing manufacturing and usage data into the designer’s hands.

This will enable number-crunching through statistical modeling, and minimize the need for tweaks and re-trials. Parts that fail or degrade too quickly can become grist in the design mill for future products, with the issues readily available in full digital detail. In sum, designers will know with greater certainty how to design the right product.

Here Come the Smart Machines
Already, we are seeing examples where machines themselves can enable continuous improvement, with no human involvement in the process—the self-improving factory. The digital thread, with its in-built feedback loop, offers manufacturers endless opportunity for improved decision-making.

1 Understanding the “Digital Thread” in Aerospace & Defense [INFOGRAPHIC]

2 Product Lifecycle Management