The digital thread refers to a framework that enables the connected flow of an asset’s data throughout its lifecycle. When approached the right way, the efficiencies of a digital thread are very real, and companies are proving that they can use it to transform their businesses.
The digital thread has emerged as critical to success for driving greater efficiencies, improved quality, and innovation across the product lifecycle. I’m going to focus on some of the more collaborative aspects of the digital thread that increase an organization’s ability to collaborate and adapt, making their businesses more resilient.
What holds most organizations back, is their reliance on their legacy infrastructure—specifically, the hundreds of software applications based on different technology stacks and their corresponding integrations, that attempt to bridge these many islands of automation. This is a costly and non-sustainable way to move data from one island to the next until they can get an end-to-end connection. If we could travel these bridges and magically see every island we care about and how exactly they relate to each other—it would be Nirvana.
Sadly, this is not the case and it’s a major dilemma facing most companies. Business demands constant change. Building independent silos of automation and integrations is simply too slow and costly to keep up and creates a rigid and fragile infrastructure and organization.
The challenges we face are similar—unrelenting change, growing product complexity, and our legacy infrastructures. They come down to our ability to meet the challenges of tomorrow, which, by definition, are not yet known.
So, the question we should always be asking ourselves is—how prepared are we to adapt?
Think of the game of chess. In chess, I know what all my pieces are, their roles, and can move them into position with efficiency. Business is very unlike chess. In business, I can’t see all of my opponent’s pieces. And some of my pieces have differing opinions on the best way to move forward. Some make moves on their own, some make moves that benefit themselves while sacrificing others, some simply don’t play well with others, and others can’t move when required. And what makes matters worse, the rules of the game itself keep changing.
I maintain that industry has, to some extent, acted like a chess master, which isn’t sustainable. It simply doesn’t adapt at the speed required. The pieces themselves are not pawns—they’re our people, who need to communicate with each other and adapt as a collaborative team, faster than any of us can even comprehend.
The ability to collaborate across multi-discipline domains, up and down the supply chain, and across the lifecycle over a flexible digital thread doesn’t just drive greater efficiencies—it empowers us to collaborate, to see the strengths and weaknesses that each of us as individuals would otherwise miss.
Enabling collaboration across a digital thread creates a meritocracy, allowing us not only to be more efficient, but to develop meaningful relationships with others in different teams, people that otherwise we might never know. This leads to a more adaptive culture both in terms of our ability to react to unforeseen events and take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.
Collaboration in Context
Let’s look at a few examples of how the digital thread enables collaboration.
First, is the ability to collaborate in context. Today, we’re all accustomed to using social collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, our cellphones, etc. While these tools bring us together, they can also be a distraction. Many teams still rely on email and spreadsheets to relay information, which are disconnected from the product, prone to error, and take energy to “re-connect the dots.” What they lack is context.
Diagram 1 is an example of Visual Collaboration. The user can drag content into a discussion. This could be any PLM item, a simulation, requirements, 3D CAD model related to a part or an assembly—whatever we wish. We can then discuss with our peers in other design disciplines, or job functions, and resolve potential issues with speed and accuracy. You can mark up anything, add a note, and take a snapshot.
Diagram 1: Visual Collaboration
These discussions can be followed, bookmarked, and be used anywhere along the digital thread with anyone—securely, both in terms of the object or objects being discussed, and the people involved.
And while we, as people, move on, the data and design intent remain. What we discussed, who we discussed it with, when we discussed it, and our logic for why we made the decisions we made remain. As different people get involved and try to piece together why something was decided, they can pull up a discussion and continue it.
Graphically Navigating the Digital Thread
The most important aspect of the digital thread is our ability to graphically see and traverse it bi-directionally, as shown in Diagram 2.
In this case, because we’re using a platform made of an endless number of item types, you can select any item, anywhere in the lifecycle from any application, including applications developed by yourself or a third party, and items originating outside the platform. You can expand and traverse this thread in any direction.
Graphically traversing the digital thread enables you to visually see the complexity of the product, as it evolved, in a simplified manner, leading to unparalleled access to data that, in the past, we could never see, let alone grasp.
Diagram 2: Graph Navigation View in Aras Innovator
We now have a window into everything.
It’s not just the ability to access the right information in the right place at right time, it’s also the enabling of collaboration with people who we’ve never collaborated with before.
Dynamic Product Navigation
The third example is Dynamic Product Navigation. This allows users from any function to view and filter their product in 3D without any knowledge of the 5 or 6 CAD systems that this product originated from.
As an example, let’s say I’m a service technician, querying products on a digital twin—an up-to-date digital replica of the as-running asset—and I’m looking to see which parts require maintenance next month. In addition to the service history and other pertinent data, I can view related information such as service bulletins and also trace back across the digital thread and look at the as-shipped BOM, the released part, simulations, functions, logicals, requirements or parameters within requirements. And I can do this querying the product, not CAD with attributes that make sense to me—not CAD attributes, not attributes used by engineers.
To be clear, we’re rendering the product in context that we use in our job function or to collaborate with other functions. In this example, this was a query on the cost of parts above a certain threshold.
Diagram 3: Dynamic Product Navigation
The digital thread enables collaboration by creating intuitive ways for people from different teams to work together across organizational barriers. These were just three examples of services that can be accessed by any PLM application or any application a customer develops, anywhere in the lifecycle, which commonly use information from other systems (CRM, ERP, MES).
This brings transparency, knowledge, and insights to users of all types in every part of the extended enterprise in a very simplified manner. Why is this so important?
People tend to be drawn to people with similar beliefs, which, when isolated from others and up-to-date data, can contribute to an “us” versus “them” culture.
The ability to collaborate in context across the digital thread exposes us to facts we’d otherwise not be aware of and people we’d not normally work with. It breaks down barriers, makes silos more pliable, and builds meaningful relationships and trust with people we’d not normally associate with.
Borrowing from General Stanley McCrystal’s book, Team of Teams, you can’t manage this type of environment like a chess master trying to move all the pieces. There’s too much change, too much complexity to deal with, and the game itself is constantly changing.
Instead, we need to be more like a gardener, nurturing our people and providing the necessary ingredients for everyone to flourish and collectivity grow as a team of teams.
This can be realized by providing our people with an open, flexible, and scalable digital thread that not only enables us to collaborate in context and create a collective intelligence that we and others can draw from, but also increases our elasticity. This enables us to adapt collectively with the speed to react to unforeseen events and take advantage of unexpected opportunities—to be more resilient.