Exploring the possibilities of connecting the digital and physical worlds
The Internet of Things (IoT) and digital twins are becoming common in several industries, from aircraft manufacturing to utilities. These virtual representations use real-time data to represent a physical object, meaning they can be monitored remotely and be used in simulations to make testing and product development more efficient.
A digital thread expands on the digital twin concept, providing a digital record about a physical item throughout its entire lifecycle. The thread is the fully unabridged biography of an item, recorded in a shareable digital format. The digital thread isn’t tangible—it’s a communication framework that allows an integrated view of an asset’s data throughout its lifecycle across traditionally siloed functional perspectives.1 Digital threads offer the ability to capture and use data that has previously been difficult or impossible to access.
The digital thread begins long before there’s an item capable of having a digital twin. The thread links engineering designs to quality and reliability test data and production process instructions in a product lifecycle management (PLM) system. If changes are made to any of these functions, all stakeholders are updated immediately.
Previously, this work model was described as “throwing things over the wall” between product management, engineering, operations, and quality. Changes might happen along the path, but unless someone volunteered the info or it came up in a meeting, that essential information might not get to everyone who needed to know. The digital thread eliminates the manual information flow so that all stakeholders are aware of issues and changes as they happen.
In addition to tracking changes throughout the design phase, digital thread combined with digital twins enable faster testing and modification. Proposed changes can be modeled digitally rather than having to wait for fabrication. It also increases agility, allowing a business to react quickly to change, such as substituting an alternate part if there are supply chain issues.
The digital thread follows the product throughout the production phase. The record can include not just when and where it was made, but on which line and even the conditions during production. If an issue was later discovered that impacted items built on particularly hot days, you could go back and find every item made when the heat level crossed over the fault-triggering temperature. That data would also be available to the product design team, who could implement a fix so future production wouldn’t be impacted by hot weather.
The digital thread continues to collect data throughout the rest of the product’s life. Manufacturers usually lose visibility once the product is sold, but with a digital thread, they can continue to collect data to improve future products. Maintenance records can be a valuable source of information, but they rarely get back to the product managers and engineers who could use this data for future improvements. Digital thread not only allows maintenance records to be shared with other teams, but it can also contain augmented reality instructions to help maintenance technicians resolve issues faster.
Digital thread, in combination with a digital twin, can also enable predictive maintenance—identifying problems that could lead to failure before anything actually breaks. This streamlined process benefits organizations by preventing outages, as the item can be fixed during scheduled downtime rather than suffering an unexpected failure that can have a far-reaching impact.
A real-life example of the digital thread in action comes from Boeing. The T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer, designed for the U.S. Air Force, was built using a digital thread. Boeing reports that by using model-based engineering and 3D design tools, the T-7A saw a 75% increase in first-time quality and an 80% reduction in assembly hours. The project went from computer design to test flight in only three years.3
Digital thread is considered a key technology of Industry 4.0 as it allows companies to use their own data to create new operational efficiencies and differentiated products and services. Companies that use digital threads are expected to get products to market faster, with improved quality and reduced development costs. 44% of organizations have begun implementing this technology into their operations, meaning we’ll likely hear more about the benefits as adoption and usage increase.4
- Demystifying the Digital Thread and Digital Twin Concepts, IndustryWeek, August 2016
- 7 Statistics to Explain the Need for an Enterprise Digital Thread, PTC, September 2020
- Boeing is accelerating the Joint Force’s digital revolution, Boeing, accessed June 2022
- Digital Thread in 2021: 5 Takeaways from a Survey of DX Leaders, PTC, July 2021