A digital thread can be used to combine data from various sources and thus digitally depict complete works. Approached correctly, they offer real added value for companies and employees. […]
Regardless of whether product developers, engineers or service technicians: they all depend on data from various areas in order to be able to perform their tasks. These often come not only from our own plant or factory, but also from partners or suppliers. Linking these data together and making them accessible at relevant points is the task of the Digital Thread. As if by a common thread, data is networked with it.
The special thing is that there is not just one digital thread technology – instead, a mix of various data is combined and interwoven from different sources – even if they come from different IT systems. This is how digital threads make it possible to deliver the right data at the right time.
The data, which are linked together by a digital thread, can be roughly divided into two groups: on the one hand there are “digital definitions” and on the other hand “physical experiences”. The first group includes, for example, data from PLM systems, which in turn retrieve CAD data or information from ERP /CRM systems.
The physical data, on the other hand, includes information on individual machines or products produced, be it quantities, processed orders, maintenance and also the repair history. This data is collected, for example, via sensors and aggregated and further processed on IIoT platforms (Industrial Internet of Things).
The digital thread brings all this data together and, in order to be really effective, the next step is to display the data in such a way that the user can make an informed decision. There are a lot of things to consider in order to be able to implement a well-functioning digital thread tailored to your own requirements at the end.
When implementing a digital thread, three technologies come to the fore: PLM, IIoT and AR. These technologies stand out in particular because they are well suited to carry out process optimizations, train employees efficiently and differentiate products.
PLM systems can be used to connect data from disparate sources and map the complete life cycle. In this way, important information can be provided that a service team needs for a repair, for example, and new generations of products can be optimized with the help of the data. Linked to an IIoT system, PLM systems accelerate product development and introduction, departments can be networked with each other and fall back on standardized data bases.
IIoT systems are characterized by their performance in the networking and orchestration of information. With them, complete plants and systems can be networked, data can be drawn from all relevant sources and external IT data can also be included. In addition, the IIoT application contextualizes the data and can thus make the relevant and current data available in a clearly arranged manner. The data can also be analyzed to gain a more detailed insight into the processes of a plant. Thus, the overall equipment efficiency (OEE) of a plant can be improved and capacities can be optimized.
AR supports all employees of a factory in making their everyday work more intuitive and easier. The use of augmented reality, for example, makes it easier for technicians to carry out repairs and maintenance on machines. AR guides you through all the relevant steps or makes it possible to carry out the repair with an expert via video chat. Even untrained employees can quickly find their way into the job through AR instructions and get directly productive into everyday work.
To ensure that all data from manual processes is also recorded and displayed in the digital thread, a management system for development BOMs and a platform structure can be included in the planning. This prevents important information from being missing and errors from occurring.
Just as there is not only one technology for digital threads, there is also not one use case. Accordingly, the deployment must be planned in a structured manner so that the highest possible added value can be generated. The first step is therefore the identification of the use cases in your own company and the question of which goal should be achieved with the digital thread. It must be determined at which points the employees need data across various departments or companies.
Some of the data may be sufficient for the start, the remaining data can be stored elsewhere for later use. This approach may seem unusual to many, after all, it is often considered that the more data is processed, the better. In the end, however, this often results in a system that is too complex, which ultimately disappears in a drawer instead of being available to the employees in the company.
Too much complexity can mean the end of a digital thread project. By using only a part of the data, this problem is avoided. However, companies should not limit themselves too much and already plan for future use cases in which different data may be required than at the first surcharge. In addition, it must be borne in mind that the already planned use cases are not set in stone, but rather represent a higher-level topic for various individual situations. After all, not every error message, not every maintenance and not every repair process is identical. Thus, the planning of a tightrope walk between too complex structures and an overly simplified data structure is similar.
Successful examples of digital thread technology such as the Next e.GO Mobile SE show how concrete the connection and processing of the data can look like. The company is considered a pioneer in the field of electromobility and has completely digitized its own production halls in Aachen. Here, for example, a quality inspector can scan the serial number on a model that has just been produced and he already gets an insight into the entire production process: which configuration was specified, where were there any defects and which notes or observations must be returned to the responsible teams? He can easily take a photo, mark the respective notes and also save them in the digital vehicle file.
And the Next e.Go Mobile SE is just one of many digital thread examples, considering the various use cases. The digital red thread, for example, draws design data from the CAD software and parallel quantities from the PLM system. Customer-relevant data from the CRM system can also be included. Information on the maintenance history of a machine and repair instructions can be displayed using augmented reality and the data from the IIoT system are simultaneously included in the calculations. All this enables employees to work faster and more efficiently and to concentrate on the important tasks, since information does not have to be searched for long.
For many companies, however, there is a fundamental problem on the way to a fully digitized and networked factory: the grown structures simply do not allow it. Legacy systems that are difficult to network with each other, a non-existent digital architecture or even legal obstacles: in theory, digitization often sounds much easier than it can be implemented in practice. Therefore, the first steps must be carefully planned when using the digital Thread.
*Markus Hannen is Vice President of Go-to-Market at PTC.