The Unique Challenges of Complex Discrete Manufacturing

The global economy’s most critical sectors – aviation, defense, space, nuclear, medical device, robotics, and specialized industrial equipment – are built through complex discrete manufacturing. Such industries face unique challenges.

Typically the processes involved in complex discrete manufacturing are engineer-to-order, and bill of material levels that can go exceptionally deep. Work in process units incorporate engineering changes as a process progresses, and engineering has to be involved in everything from material review processes and dispositions to rework. As-designed equals as-built validation is required, as is traceability of changes, deviations, and approvals.

It’s a complicated business— and complicated further by the pressures of developing market conditions, including:

  • Rising price pressures
    The combination of growing global competition and rising costs for materials, labor, and energy have threatened many complex discrete manufacturers. Increasingly they must “do more with less,” trying to maintain profit margins while keeping prices down.
  • Shrinking windows to development
    Customers are demanding more new products faster. This means a constant flow of engineering changes. Add to this the smaller timeframes for ROI on products developed, as the market increasingly looks to the next products coming behind them.
  • Balancing responsiveness and quality
    Customer demands for speed and flexibility, along with the volatility of markets, mean that operational agility is now a de facto requirement for these manufacturers. How to achieve this without compromising quality – indeed while improving quality – is a question that needs to be asked and answered on an ongoing basis.

All of this accrues to the bottom line – and the constant need to optimize operations and manage costs.

The Legacy Barrier

Technology is at hand to help complex discrete manufacturers meet all these challenges and drive growth, but many have been held back from embracing it by established legacy systems and paper-based processes. This is seen most often among complex discrete manufacturers building large, complex products (e.g., aviation, aerospace, defense, energy, shipbuilding, and other complex industrial equipment).

Paper-based environments are both time and labor-intensive. Consider, for example, a technician on a shop floor that has to read work instructions, often has to access supplemental information, and then has to go hither and yon on the shop floor to get everything needed. Excel spreadsheets are often a workhorse in these settings, and particularly risk-prone: subject to both human error in consolidation and latency in delivering current information. In industries where speed of reaction to exceptions is critical, continuing such practices is not a viable long-term option.

The Solution at Hand – Modern MES

 A modern Manufacturing Execution System (MES) provides complex discrete manufacturers the means to meet today’s challenges, and in doing so help them on the journey to digital transformation and extending the digital thread through the supply chain. Among what it can deliver to these companies, here are just a few:

  • Paperless work instructions
  • Real-time visibility
  • Synchronization and control of production operations
  • Quality management and corrective actions
  • Engineering change control affecting manufacturing
  • Data collection, buy off and certifications
  • Execution of real-time, physical processes
  • Work order completion management
  • Integration, coordination, and execution of work orders with ERP and PLM systems

Today’s complex discrete manufacturing sector needs a complete solution that extends from prototyping to production to product lifecycle management, including MRO. Modern MES is an essential component of that solution, a central fiber in the end-to-end digital thread.

See an overview of how Solumina by iBase-t does this.

Benefits of Adopting the Digital Thread in Complex Manufacturing



Over the past few years, we’ve had the opportunity to attend and speak at various industry events where the topic of the Digital Thread was discussed in great detail. However, while the topic was overwhelmingly present, we noticed the majority of individuals within the manufacturing industry were still using outdated legacy systems on the shop floor and paperwork instructions (70% of manufacturers are still using Word, PowerPoint, or basic databases for process definition). Diving into the topic further, we decided to conduct our own survey to examine how far along the manufacturing industry is with digitalization and found that between 20-30% of companies were making strides implementing a Digital Thread across the enterprise.

Adopting the digital thread means better handling of data across traditionally siloed divisions of the manufacturing enterprise. When design, manufacturing, and ERP can operate in a closed-loop digital thread, the whole shop floor can work toward the same goal with more efficiency. When thinking about whether to push for digitizing the shop floor, consider the benefits of adopting the digital thread.

See below for four main benefits of adopting the digital thread:

Benefits of the Digital Thread – for Quality

Adopting the Digital Thread can bring quality gains for manufacturers who need to manage large amounts of data and manage complex supply chains. Especially in the face of stringent regulations and compliance standards for industries like aerospace, nuclear, medical devices, and defense. In all these industries, airtight Quality processes are key. The Digital Thread facilitates the right storage and management of Quality data for ensuring you’re always on the right path.


Benefits of the Digital Thread – for Velocity

Even in a complex discrete environment, where volumes are low, manufacturing enterprises must be able to adapt quickly and meet demanding timelines. Maintaining associativity among engineering, manufacturing, inspection and maintenance allows information to flow faster. The digital thread keeps everything connected so you can make velocity gains.


Benefits of the Digital Thread – for Change Management

The Digital Thread can manage multiple layers of change, including to dimensions, characteristics, or even supplier. With a high quality MES in place, the benefits of the digital thread can multiply in the context of change management.


More Benefits of the Adopting the Digital Thread

Adopting the digital thread can be the first step toward building a Model Based Enterprise for the Smart Factory Revolution. The right software can help to provide gains in productivity by avoiding mistakes in manual translations between engineering instructions and manufacturing, and can track the entire build along the product value chain.


The Digital Thread helps complex enterprises to maintaining a clear view of every component’s journey from receiving inspection through to the final product and beyond to tracking and records for quality standards and lifecycle management.


Adopting the Digital Thread Gives You:


  • Instant access to data along the product value chain
  • Integrated view of your data from one division to another
  • Streamlined arrangement of data between departments
  • 3D models that connect Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Better product and process definition
  • Simplified experience with compliance audits and supply chain


Learn more about Digital Thread readiness among your peers, in our new infographic: