Manufacturers are experts at minimizing waste. From production to packaging to transport, every part of the process is constantly combed for cost efficiencies. So why are many manufacturers letting their greatest resource — data — gather digital dust?
Typically, computer-aided design files, development testing data, and end-of-line data are all shelved once a manufactured product hits the market. What would manufacturers find if they were to marry that design and production data with real-time field and warranty data? What would automakers, for example, discover if they correlated transmission shift timing to real-world transmission failure rates?
Such is the idea behind the digital thread, one of the key concepts behind the shift toward intelligent manufacturing. Just as a thread runs the length of a garment, the digital thread unites the life stages of a manufactured product, from design to production to field use.
Weaving Better Manufacturing
Throughout the manufacturing process, enormous amounts of data can be generated and analyzed to realize efficiencies and minimize field defects. Not only can the digital thread provide a 16% increase in supply chain efficiency, but it can also get new products to market an average of 20% faster, according to LNS Research.
Unfortunately, however, most manufacturers are a long way from stringing the digital thread through their own operations, let alone integrating it with that of their suppliers. Researchers at the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found last year that nine out of 10 small manufacturers still model their products using traditional 2D methods.
Other promising uses of the digital thread include corporate accountability. Although how much access government regulators should have to preproduct launch data is an open question, there's no doubt Volkswagen's emissions debacle could have been caught sooner had regulators been privy to a digital thread. Development data in the German automaker's digital thread would have shown different emissions information in test cells than what was happening on the road.
Designing With Digital Thread
Certainly, leveraging the digital thread means turning away from legacy processes and toward intra- and intercompany collaborations. But it also means enormous benefits throughout the design process and product life cycle. Manufacturers that incorporate the digital thread into their design process can realize:
1. Tighter iteration loops
Nowhere is the adage "time is money" truer than in manufacturing. Decreasing production times makes more frequent iteration and shorter time to market possible. By incorporating development and field data, manufacturers can more quickly refine everything from lawnmower blades to sophisticated aerospace engines.
Although the digital thread can help consumer goods companies meet market needs more quickly, the real winners will be additive manufacturers. General Electric, an early adopter of digital thread, recently used the digital thread to dash through 10 iterations of a 3D-printed fuel nozzle in a few months. For context, a spokesperson noted that the process would typically take 12 months to complete.
2. Greater customization opportunities
Thanks to startup Fast Radius and more established players like Proto Labs, companies around the world can receive on-demand custom prototypes within a few days to two weeks. In a recent Huffington Post editorial, Proto Labs' president presciently describes a future of mass customization. Medical devices, backpacks, clothing, jewelry, and much more will be built explicitly for the end user.
Shoe manufacturers have been early adopters of the customization trend. Nike's NIKEiD line of custom footwear has been a cash cow for the footwear brand, which Wiiv is hoping to replicate with customized insoles. Shoes of Prey allows users to choose from 20 different shoe types, from boots to flip flops, which can be customized with millions of toe, back, and heel design options.
3. Decreased defect rates.
Especially for automotive, heavy-duty equipment, and aerospace manufacturers, product defects can slice deeply into profits. Last year alone, U.S.-based manufacturers paid more than $26 billion in warranty claims.
Enabled by the digital thread, digital twins can help manufacturers understand how production will work on the shop floor before actually giving the green light. The digital twin acts as a test dummy, helping engineers and designers spot product problems before they turn into pricey warranty claims.
At Siemens, for example, the use of a digital thread and a digital twin cut defects to just 11 per million — or, put another way, it facilitated a 99.9989% perfection rate. Mercury Fund portfolio company Sight Machine offers foundational analytics for manufacturers to begin weaving their own digital thread. By feeding a factory's full data set into deep learning models, it helps manufacturers discover part failure dependencies well before a defective product is produced.
Manufacturing has changed tremendously in the past few decades, and it's not done yet. The digital thread, as part of the broader digital manufacturing boom, can decrease costs and time to market while increasing customer choice and satisfaction. Data isn't just the new oil; it's the new lifeblood of manufacturing.
Adrian Fortino is a managing director at Mercury Fund, where he leads Mercury's Michigan office in Ann Arbor. He focuses on investments in intelligent manufacturing, industrial IoT and enterprise SaaS startups. Prior to joining Mercury, Fortino managed two seed-stage funds in Detroit and co-founded three software companies. He received a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, as well as an M.B.A. with high distinction from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.