What is a Digital Thread

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How to Spin a Digital Thread

The digital thread is the foundation of digital transformation. It closes the loop between the digital and physical worlds, seeking to create simple universal access to data. The Danish manufacturer of wind turbines, Vestas, is a good example of how to benefit from it and letting the digital thread define the whole product lifecycle process.  

But what is it really? What do we mean when talking about the digital thread? Let’s sort out the threads!

By collecting data from industrial products and machines in an organized way, the manufacturing industry can make considerable improvements and profits. If you connect all components in your assembly lines, you can start analyzing data that tells you the status and utilization of your equipment. If in addition connect all your products beyond the loading bay, you can start collecting data about how and when they are used. This will give you oceans of valuable insights, enabling you to react quickly to any changes:  

  • Are your designs and materials sustainable? 
  • Are your designs aligned with an efficient manufacturing process? 
  • Are you operating as planned?  
  • Are your machines healthy and in good condition?  
  • Can you speed up your production?  
  • Where are your bottlenecks? 
  • When do your products need service? 
  • Why do your products respond and behave in a certain way? 

This is the core of spinning a digital thread. It spans from planning and designing over producing, operating, monitoring, providing service, and closing the loop, delivering data back to your R&D for improving existing and new products. It maximizes process efficiency, manages complexity, and creates new opportunities to increase profitability. 

Source: PTC Digital Thread 

The benefits of a digital thread 

A digital thread creates an incredible amount of data. But data is worthless unless you know how to use it. By connecting technologies like CAD, Simulation, ALM, PLM, IoT, PCB design, 3D simulation, AR and SLM, the digital transformation allows you to analyze, manage, and communicate information across your organization. Your decisions will be faster and more accurate. 

The digital thread is about removing bottlenecks and making critical business information transparent and accurate across the value chain, up- as well as down-stream. It supports a single source of truth and gives universal access to data by being woven into all the core processes across the business. 

Source: PTC Digital Thread 

The digital thread weaves the digital twin 

Close connected with the digital thread is the digital twin. A digital twin is a digital replica of a unique physical product, continuously updated with real-world operational information. It is not to be confused with a simulated model. You have one digital twin for each product sold, to understand how your customer uses the individual product and the status and health of the product that follows. 

The information you get from your twin is invaluable and may enable you to take tremendous leaps forward in your business and position on the market. But to create digital twins, you must first have spun a digital thread throughout your entire product lifecycle. 

This leads us to the core issue: How is this done?  

How you spin a digital thread 

1) Identify a problem. It is tempting to rush forward, seduced by all the savvy tech talk about the digital thread, the Internet of Things and digital twins. Don’t do that. Start with learning to know your customer and identify a problem worth solving–for yourself, your customer, the product user, or some other in the value chain.  

2) Identify the data. What data do you need to solve the identified problem efficiently? How can you get access to that data? 

3) Board the management. This will change your company and affect all parts of your business model. The leaders must be on board and support the change. 

4) Find the right partners. You will need support on this journey. Set a strategy and goal together with trusted partners. Depending on your own in-house resources, it may involve more than a strategic software system consultant. Legal, sales and business development, and change and transformation management competencies are some examples. 

5) Think agile. You will learn a lot. Be ready to change your approach and choose new ways forward. Start small, dream big, scale fast. 

6) Board the customer. With a product as a service model, you will own all data. But if the customers buy your products, they will own all the data. You must provide a service that is valuable enough for the customer to share its data.  

How Vestas spins its digital thread 

As we all know, theory is one thing, practice something else. All organizations have their own unique prerequisites and challenges. The Danish manufacturer of wind turbines, Vestas, started with CAD and went on working with requirement management and involving product development and manufacturing. From a model-based design integrated with the PLM system Windchill and digital BOMs, they have spun a digital thread all the way to manufacturing and service. Four key components have motivated it: 

  • Right materials. The primary data that describes the raw materials going into manufacturing are digitally connected with the bill of materials via the Ansys Granta database. 
  • Right design and bill of materials. The modeling tools describe, for example, the blade shape parameters. This parametric foundation is connected to the 3D modeling and design tools and integrated with Windchill and the BOMs. These models also support 3D simulation. 
  • Right processes. The processes and plans are digitally described to the operation. This enables Vestas to simulate its processes by doing virtual assembly, factory simulations, taking the digital thread into execution. 
  • Right execution. Sharing data to production enables Vestas to use digital work instructions and training applications as augmented reality.  

All this data is in the end built with an interface to the ERP, connecting a full digital thread from the first steps of defining the models, through the modeling process all the way to operation and follow-up.  

The significant results of Vestas’ digital thread 

Digitalization has transformed Vestas’ development process from a drawing-based process to a model-based design. This has yielded quite significant results: 

  • The cost of poor quality is reduced by over 90 percent. 
  • Time-to-market for new blades is reduced by 45-50 percent, including reducing the number of mock-ups from up to eight to just one. 
  • Efficiency has improved significantly. 

The Vestas case is a good example of how to execute a digital thread and how it profoundly pushes the boundaries, keeping a leader in a highly competitive market in pole position. 

Spinning a digital thread, securing a closed loop between digital and physical, will be paramount to succeed for all manufacturing industries in the years to come.
Here are some examples of technologies and softwares that enables you to spin a digital thread: 

Curious about the Digital Thread? Dive into our latest blog post featuring a summary of the PDSFORUM with the theme “Master Your Digital Thread.” Discover how companies are successfully navigating their digital transformation journey. Read it here!

Note: The Vestas story is based on Simon Saandvig Storbjergs’ talk on PDSFORUM 2024. Simon Saandvig Storbjerg is the Head of Digital Engineering and Product Lifecycle at Vestas.

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