The Digital Thread in Advanced Manufacturing

by Kevin Madden

A key characteristic that sets the Fourth Industrial Revolution apart from the first three is the rapid pace of change in today’s business environment. While the first three events unfolded at an ever-increasing pace, industrial innovation is now exploding exponentially across a wide range of technologies. One factor contributing to this exponential change is referred to as the “digital thread.”

The digital thread can be thought of as a technology itself, piecing together many different technologies. At its core, it is about the accumulation of digital data from all stages of a product’s life cycle. Essentially, a digital twin can be created for every stage of production—both of the product being manufactured and of the production process itself. This process begins with the design stage, where the product can be designed digitally, which is followed by other steps like simulation, testing, fabrication, maintenance, and repairs. Deloitte Insights and MIT Sloan Management Review have partnered to produce an excellent series of short documentary-type videos that explore the digital thread in its entirety.

The series follows the journey of a bell crank (a part used to open and close wheel doors for the landing gear of aircraft) through the entire manufacturing process, from design to performance in the field. The bell crank’s digital thread begins when it is designed using advanced computer software. From there, the product moves to the digital simulation phase, where engineers test how it will perform through a vast number of scenarios. After it is tested digitally, a prototype of the part is produced via three-dimensional printing using the digital thread; engineers can digitally design how they want the actual fabrication process to occur. Once the part is produced, it is scanned and compared to the ideal/digital part to see how closely they resemble each other. Then, after everything is approved and all stakeholders are satisfied, the bell crank is installed in the aircraft. Thereafter, the manufacturer can access data on how the part is performing out in the field, and provide faster and more sophisticated inspection and repair services to customers.

While watching each individual step of the production process is fascinating, the purpose of the video series is not to focus on each step in isolation. Instead, the key concept emphasized is the interconnected flow of data between devices at all stages of the process—what they refer to as the “feedback loop.” Engineers can take performance data from the bell crank in the field and feed that back through the system to refine the product design, production, or any other step of the process. This system enables manufacturers to make real-time design and manufacturing process changes, which ensures higher-quality products as well as drastically compressed supply chains.

The digital thread represents a hugely significant development because in the past, manufacturers have found it extremely difficult to integrate different elements of the production process. Each step tended to operate as its own silo, and the only way to take insights from one silo to another was through extensive human effort, much of it essentially manual. Now, with advanced software systems and computing power, the flow of information can be direct, immediate, and at orders of magnitude far beyond anything previously harnessed.

Another crucial aspect to note is that the more data an analytics system has access to, the more insights it can gain from the data through machine learning and other computational techniques. Thus, as the digital thread gets access to more and more data, the manufacturing process continues to improve.

Moving forward, the digital thread has potential applications across the entire manufacturing industry. While its foundations were primarily in the aerospace industry, other businesses are starting to realize its revolutionary benefits and taking steps toward its implementation. Ontario manufacturers should take note of this development and examine whether the digital thread has the potential to transform their business by creating value and boosting competitiveness.

If you or a business you know is taking steps towards integrating the digital thread into the manufacturing process, please let us know! You can tweet us at @TrilliumMfg or send us an email at info@trilliummfg.ca.

Below is a link to the Deloitte and MIT Sloan Management Review series:

https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/learn/following-the-digital-thread.html

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