In the industrial marketplace, the prevalence of connected devices through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digitization of enterprise-wide data sources is expanding the possibilities of the digital thread. Streamlining and democratizing this widespread information to specific functions (service, operations, design etc.) drives attainable digital thread outcomes across the value chain: from engineering through sales & marketing.
This digital thread is defined as a single source of data truth, creating consistency, collaboration, and alignment across functions by real-time data synchronization of related upstream and downstream derivative information. It is a scalable common set of democratized data that can enable enterprise-wide accessibility to create continuity across traditionally siloed functions in the value chain.
This digital continuity can drive unprecedented value across the enterprise. Below we dissect five functional ways digital threads can enact this industrial digital transformation today.
1. Designing with 360-view of product lifecycle
Much of the digital thread value recognized to date is derived from the democratization of the digital product definition (or its digital model) and its derivative information creating continuity throughout the value chain. Seamlessly bringing accurate product data downstream such as the bill-of-materials to manufacturing processes can result in higher-quality products and increased throughput.
On the other end, engineering excellence can be achieved as an input of other functional data. By creating a closed-feedback loop and enabling products with IIoT, engineers equipped with real-world performance and usage data can replace previous product assumptions with facts. This previously black-boxed data can inform engineers and product designers with design implications for future product iterations and usage, expedite time-to-market, and introduce new products faster.
2. Differentiating products with increased flexibility and improved quality
As customer-centricity grows, the need to deliver high-value customized and complex products accelerates in proportion. To achieve this, manufacturers must maintain seamless digital continuity of product-oriented information across the value chain to enable this mass customization.
The digital thread synchronizes real-time product lifecycle information across processes such as informing checklists in quality assurance (QA) processes or updating assembly instructions on the plant floor.
For example, Volvo Group’s engines can have 4,500 different information variants to choose from for just one plant. When performing timely quality assurance of these extremely complex and different engines, its definition data must be easily accessible by QA operators. By implementing a digital thread connecting two very different parts of the business (engineering and quality departments), Volvo has been able to quickly adjust to shifting customer requirements and increase new product introduction (NPI) cycle times.
3. Driving manufacturing efficiency by connecting disparate systems
There is both digitized and non-digitized information residing in manufacturing facilities that are critical to daily production. The digital thread provides the means to both connect disparate digitized information sources including ERP systems and IoT-enabled machines and deliver traditionally paper-based information such as work-instructions in digital form to relevant personnel.
Real-time operational visibility across production lines, assets, capacity, and other systems are required to drive operational efficiencies. 451 Research cites 53% of manufacturing respondents currently use or will use digital thread for faster access to cross plant instrumentation and status. Properly equipping this instrumentation through technologies and then streamlining it through the digital thread can drive these critical manufacturing KPIs.
For delivering the digital thread, democratizing manufacturing data to various factory roles can improve worker productivity and efficiencies by offering previously hidden insights.
4. Identifying new ways to deliver service
Service networks and lifecycles are increasingly complex, coinciding with the rise in product complexity; more intricate and customized products may benefit top-line revenue but are a cost center downstream to service organizations if improperly managed. The digital thread alleviates this complexity by giving the service teams the deployed asset’s digital definition data, which traditionally solely resides in the engineering department.
Augmented reality is one technology linking the digital thread to front-line workers in the physical world to improve technician effectiveness.
Energy company Howden is driving added-value to its customers through its connected field maintenance program, Uptime. This ‘self-service’ module uses the digital thread to give service technician’s step-by-step service instructions on a deployed asset almost immediately, circumventing product complexity challenges and improving uptime.
5. Enriching the sales & marketing experience
Customer-facing personnel are constantly looking for new methods of engagement that prolong the customer lifecycle and provide novel opportunities for new sales and upselling. This includes both knowing the customer’s current usage of products and demonstrating the potential use of future products; the digital thread provides an avenue for both. Through the digital thread, sales and marketing teams can determine the exact usage of their smart connected products, pre-formulate their potential pain points and identify opportunities.
With the digital thread and augmented reality, sales teams can demonstrate product configurations in real-time to drive revenue opportunities. More immersive experiences for customers to visualize and learn about the products is an emerging method for OEMs to engage with prospects.
These five digital thread outcomes occur as digital thread value and its pervasiveness extends throughout the value chain. However, while a long-term vision is advisable, short-term digital thread wins in specific domains for industrial organizations are achievable today. These digital thread wins will gain momentum as additional stakeholders recognize compounding value.
David Immerman is a business analyst on PTC’s corporate marketing team, providing thought leadership on technologies, trends, markets, and other topics.