Digital Thread Explained: Its Promise in Manufacturing - Part I
The digital thread is the communications network that connects all the equipment and data assets in a manufacturing process through an integrated, seamless flow of data. It extends both up and downstream from suppliers to distributors linking every phase of a product’s life cycle – including design, sourcing, testing, and production, as well as distribution, point of sale, operation, and service. Due to this integration, the thread provides a single reference point for design, engineering, and manufacturing.
Large manufacturers – especially those in sectors such as aerospace, medical devices, and industrial equipment – who are challenged with managing complex and far-flung supply networks, benefit greatly from an integrated digital thread that links every part of a production network; a single product may have hundreds of individual components or assemblies sourced from dozens of suppliers.
Challenge of Data Integration
A fully integrated digital thread is a goal more than a reality for most manufacturers today; however, to integrate data across different pieces of equipment and processes, it must first be transformed into a common data model. Yet each machine control has its own mechanism for gathering data, and data points can even differ by the family, make, and model of the machine using the control, as well as the version of the software running on that control.
We talked to several industry executives to get their perspectives on this challenge, and they agree that standardizing and integrating all the disparate sources and types of data in a typical manufacturing plant is enormous. Not only are there many distinct types of equipment – lathes, mills, plastic injection molding, AM, laser cutters, robotics, etc. – depending on the mechanisms available for acquiring data from those systems, the data points can be very different.
“The most difficult challenge is data integrity, and any gaps undermine the continuity of the thread,” says Johan Israelsson Sr., vice president and head of global sales at Sandvik Applied Manufacturing Technologies. “You're dealing with massive amounts of data, and the end result is only [as] good as the accuracy of the data. Most manufacturers, including Sandvik, use equipment from multiple vendors. The challenge is making it all accessible and integrating it. If one company interprets one field differently than another company, then even if the data is accurate, it's in the wrong place.”
Is Industry Collaboration the Solution?
Some in the industry believe that the success of the digital thread in the manufacturing industry is closely linked to the industry’s collaboration with major technology companies. “Manufacturing companies need to work with partners, including companies that have the same or similar technologies on the commercial end as well as in R&D. For example, two of the experts in big data right now are Amazon and Google, who have the ability to supply manufacturers with the type of knowledge and tools to tackle some of their data challenges,” says Israelsson.
Others believe the best solutions are going to be those that originate from within the industry. “Collaborating with technology companies to solve common challenges in the industry is critical, but I think that this type of collaboration will just help cultivate creative solutions from within the manufacturing ecosystem and not necessarily make Amazon or Microsoft experts at solving manufacturing problems,” says John Murphy, CTO ofTrue Analytics.
Part II of this article dives deeper into these two perspectives and explores the way forward.
About the Author
Tim Shinbara is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for AMT - The Association For Manufacturing Technology. He is responsible for strategic technology integration, international standards, and global collaborations regarding advancing the state of manufacturing technology. Mr. Shinbara focuses on activities related to research and development, industry adoption, and technology gap analyses. Mr. Shinbara is a Board Officer of the MTConnect Institute and has served on several committees and councils advising the public sector's manufacturing strategies, organization, and investment. He has over 19 years of combined IT/OT, manufacturing R&D, and tech start-up experience.