Digital Thread • June 17, 2020

Digital Cloth Is the Fabric of Industry 4.0

Digital Cloth Is the Fabric of Industry 4.0

My previous post on what is a Digital Cloth made the case that since there typically are so many digital threads in complex manufacturing that the threads needed to be brought together, much like weaving cloth. The idea that all the digital models or twins must be coordinated seems obvious, but it has proven challenging for many in the industry.  Lockheed Martin’s Digital Tapestry initiative highlighted in that post provided one example of a company that is proceeding down this path.  For companies that accept they need to bring all their loose threads together, here is a blueprint on how to begin the process of weaving digital fabric as part of their journey towards an Industry 4.0 future. 

Defining the Digital Business

The very first step is understanding what your digital cloth is doing.  The material for a parachute is very different from the fabric for making firefighter turnout gear.  This understanding is akin to strategy setting.  It is the vital first step in any business change initiative.  If you don’t have any idea of your destination, you can’t possibly go in the right direction.  

In conventional business planning methodologies, such as Enterprise Architecture (EA), understanding how your solution will be used is the foundation on which all following steps are built.  For complex discrete manufacturers, the strategy may be entirely up to the business. Still, it may also be driven by buyer mandates such as in the A&D sector, where government programs may dictate specific digital initiatives.  Either way, without a clearly defined vision of what your digitally transformed business will look like, progress will be limited.

Know Success

In cases where federal or other buyer mandated digitization efforts are already defined, there will also likely be metrics in place to measure performance against objectives.  Where an industry defines its digital transformation strategy, the next step is to define success.  

If you don’t have some way to gauge how well you are doing, it will be impossible to assess if you are successful.  Metrics are essential, and you must understand which of those metrics are truly key performance indicators (KPIs).  Like defining the warp and weft, sizing, denting, and other metrics that weavers use to weave their traditional cloth, you can’t weave the right digital cloth without knowing the parameters that you need to set up your virtual loom. 

Inventory the Current State and Map Out the Future

Knowing what tools, technologies, and processes are in place and how people use them to accomplish work might seem obvious, but very few companies have a complete and accurate picture of all of the above.  It is a safe bet that the more complex a manufacturing process is, the more likely it is there will be multiple applications.  

Multiple tools, all collecting data, reporting, and providing decision support for someone seeking guidance for their actions often create new problems. Businesses must then spend more time trying to understand which report is correct instead of determining the root cause of the problem and how to fix it.  The most detailed part of any EA effort is defining the current state.

While an enterprise is documenting its current state, it can begin to think about possible futures.  As people start to understand how things are done and all of the tools that are used, they begin to see better ways of doing things.  Any EA effort must ensure that all three fundamental building blocks of manufacturing are working: people using technology to perform processes that create goods and services.  There are numerous ways to educate an EA team on envisioning the future. Still, the goal should be to define a better way of doing things and then deciding what technology can help the organization best achieve that future state.

Select the Right Technology and Partners

There will naturally already be technology in place. But not all of it will be useful in weaving your version of a digital cloth. People have emotional attachments to the tools they are using, and change is difficult.  Therefore, picking the technology platform and tools that will serve as the basis of your digital transformation is critical as you try and realize your Industry 4.0 vision.  

As important as the technology itself, it is the partner who provides it.  And, partner is the correct term.  No manufacturer can weave digital cloth alone.  The rate of change and innovation in digitization in manufacturing is higher now than ever before.  Choosing a provider with a clear vision of how technology is evolving and is committed to helping its clients with their Industry 4.0 journey is critical.  

Just as a weaver of real cloth partners with the providers of the yarns and tools used to produce their cloth, the business weaving a digital cloth needs a provider who knows as much about their business as they do. Only then can a meaningful plan be identified, followed by setting strategy, defining metrics, and KPI’s. These actions can then help them understand where they are today and most importantly, define what the future can be.

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