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Digital Threads in Manufacturing


Lack of data on products and processes is no longer a problem for manufacturers. In fact, they’re awash with it, but it’s only useful when made available to functions or teams that can put it to work. Providing this accessibility is the role of the digital thread.

This blog explains the digital thread concept and what it does in manufacturing. The relationship to digital twins is touched on, and the benefits of implementing one or more digital threads is explored.

What is a digital thread?

Digital records permeate every aspect of manufacturing business. These include:

  • Product design files
  • Routing instructions
  • Programs for machine and process controllers
  • The production schedule
  • Inventory records
  • Maintenance records
  • Inspection records

Unfortunately, these records are often hard to access. Software incompatibility and other factors lead to it being hoarded in silos or aggregated in unusable forms, so functions or teams that could put it to good use are unable to access it.

A digital thread makes all this data available to everyone. It provides a single source of truth that every function, from production scheduling to purchasing and maintenance, can access.

Digital threads link business functions that should be connected. Design data is available to manufacturing and quality. Machine performance statistics are shared between quality, maintenance and manufacturing. Warranty claims and customer returns data is passed between quality, product design, and manufacturing.

These may be separate threads but for efficiency, businesses usually work towards creating a single, unified digital thread throughout their operations.

Importance of a digital thread in manufacturing

When there’s no digital thread data moves slowly. Passing it between incompatible systems requires human involvement that’s often error prone. Transcribing information from one format to another takes time and mistakes are common.

Sometimes people don’t know data is available that could help them do their jobs. They might address this by setting up new data collection processes, duplicating effort and risking wrong or poor decisions being taken.

Consequences of these problems include:

  • Wasted time: Time is spent finding data, transcribing it between formats, and checking for mistakes.
  • Quality problems: Parts are made to the wrong dimensions, there’s too much variation, processes are skipped or added unnecessarily.
  • Delays: When information moves slowly it slows the flow of products and material through the factory because people are unwilling or unable to take decisions.
  • Lack of corrective actions: Continuous improvement requires data analysis, followed by action. When people don’t have information they need, this happens slowly, if at all.
  • Excessive inventory: Delays caused by waiting for answers to questions lead to product being sidelined and affect the production schedule.

For machine maintenance, a digital thread supports use of predictive maintenance tools, especially if machines are equipped with condition monitoring sensors. This can tell the CMMS when abnormal conditions are being experienced, with links to the production schedule ensuring variability due to product differences isn’t the cause. The CMMS can then check on parts availability, notify purchasing if ordering is needed, and find a suitable time in the production schedule to have the work done.

In the absence of a digital thread these same activities can still take place, but they need human input. They will almost certainly go slower with an increased risk of mistakes. This increases the chance of a breakdown occurring before repairs can be made.

Digital thread vs. digital twin

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical entity. A digital twin goes beyond a 3D CAD model because it replicates motions and forces and exchanges data with a physical world equivalent. The first digital twins modeled complex products where the manufacturer or user wanted the ability to predict behavior and experiment with varying inputs.

More recently, manufacturers have taken to building and using digital twins of production equipment, processes or lines. This supports activities such as work scheduling, maintenance optimization and quality improvement, but as with the product digital twins, needs a direct exchange of data with the physical world.

A digital thread provides the data a digital twin needs to continuously reflect what’s happening in the physical world. It’s the link between the two that ensures the digital twin simulates the physical reality.

Benefits of a digital thread

A digital thread in manufacturing ensures everyone has access to the information they need, and that they’re using the same information. This improved collaboration and communication yields benefits such as:

  • Less scrap and rework: Fewer mistakes are made and there’s less waste.
  • Fewer customer complaints and lower warranty costs: Products function better, and improvements are implemented faster.
  • More effective maintenance: Maintenance planners have more and better information on machine activity and condition and can schedule work better.
  • Improved delivery performance: Lower reject and scrap rates, combined with higher machine availability and fewer breakdowns, means better schedule adherence.
  • Higher manufacturing throughput and efficiency: With less waste and downtime and fewer stoppages, OEE rises.
  • Continuous improvement: Accurate data, available when needed, supports teams working on improvement and kaizen efforts.

Driving better maintenance with data

Manufacturing relies on data to move physical goods and material through the factory. In the past getting and formatting this data took time, but today digital threads can make it available instantly, and without the errors manual intervention would cause.

Improved machine maintenance is one of the results of increased data availability, leading to higher OEE and shorter MTTR and MTBF. As industrial maintenance experts, ATS helps manufacturers improve operational performance through increased reliability and availability, while lowering maintenance costs. Contact us to learn about the services we offer.

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