What is the Digital Thread? It’s a good question for any manufacturing professional, especially those working in complex discrete manufacturing contexts. Engineers, quality professionals, and manufacturing experts throughout the world are going digital, removing paper processes from the shop floor and experiencing huge gains through adoption of the digital thread.
What is the Digital Thread?
The digital thread refers to the communication framework that allows a connected data flow and integrated view of the asset’s data throughout its lifecycle across traditionally siloed functional perspectives. The digital thread concept raises the bar for delivering “the right information to the right place at the right time.”
Where Did the Digital Thread Come From?
The concept of the digital thread has been spearheaded by the military aircraft industry and their desire to improve the performance of future programs by using digital technology to apply lessons learned to current and upcoming programs. However, these concepts and technologies are gaining interest beyond the aerospace and defense industry and are converging with the digital manufacturing and cyber-physical system goals of Industrie 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing.
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Cyber-Physical Systems and Smart Factories
In the Industrie 4.0 roadmap, a cyber-physical system refers to the digital representation of a physical system used to communicate properties and live status to other cyber-physical systems and applications in future smart factories. Smart Manufacturing strives to orchestrate and optimize business, digital and physical processes across factories and the entire product value chain. As system architects evaluate these initiatives, it makes sense that these similar digital connectivity goals start converging into a single framework strategy for manufacturing systems. That’s where we engage with the digital thread concept.
The Digital Thread Provides a Framework for Communication
The digital thread should provide a formal framework for controlled interplay of authoritative technical and as-built data with the ability to access, integrate, transform and analyze data from disparate systems throughout the product lifecycle into actionable information. The product lifecycle includes: Design, Procurement, Test & Evaluation, Production, Field Operation, and Sustainment Services. The digital thread and digital twin include as-designed requirements, validation and inspection records, as-built data, as-flown data, and as-maintained data.
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Benefits of the Digital Thread
A Digital Thread is expected have the following benefits for manufacturers:
- Improve product quality by avoiding mistakes in manual translations of engineering specifications along the product value chain
- Improve the velocity of new product introductions (NPI) and the communication of engineering changes along the product value chain
- Increase the efficiency of digitally capturing and analyze data related to product manufacturing
- Allow manufacturers to deliver new services to customers along with physical product leveraging the digital data now available on the product
References  Global Horizons Final Report: United States Air Force Global Science and Technology Vision – AF/ST TR 13-01, United States Air Force, 2013.