Transforming Manufacturing: A Case for the Digital Thread

Transforming Manufacturing: A Case for the Digital Thread

“Released to Manufacturing”, “Manufacturing Nonconformances”, “Engineering Change Order”: even in the language we use, manufacturing seems to be the recipient of product development—with engineering happening “to” manufacturing—rather than manufacturing being a key strategic driver in new product development and new business strategies.
Can digital transformation flip that script? Maybe a better question is, will a company’s digital transformation succeed if that script isn’t flipped?

The Ubiquity of the Challenge

Sooner or later, every company across every industry will be staring down a digital transformation path; there is no escaping it. Three interrelated forces drive digital transformation for product and services companies today, and they are impacting the way we manufacture products.

New technologies to advance products’ functionality and competitive advantage are introducing new complexities into the product development process—and new demands on manufacturing. New suppliers and partners; new tooling and methodologies to accommodate them; and new demands on quality, inspection, testing, and performance are all required—and all are further complicated by the fact that cutting-edge new technologies often haven’t had much time out in the field to be tested and proven. Add to that the need to advance new product technologies to market faster than the competition, and quality and manufacturing teams can see an increased volume and velocity of issues and changes as new products are released and improved on-the-fly.

New market realities can also drive digital transformation initiatives. Competitors with differentiated product and business strategies are predicted to knock out current market leaders across nearly every industry, creating a leaderboard that will change even more frequently as seemingly strong new market entrants may prove to be just a momentary success. The strength of emerging competitors can often lie in their streamlined new approaches to manufacturing, since they’re not mired in existing legacy technologies and mantras of “but this is the way we’ve always done it”. They are positioned from the start with the latest technologies to introduce products “faster, better, and cheaper” to delight customers or just to make their lives a little bit easier. But if those cutting-edge new products and manufacturing approaches cannot perform in the long run, even up-and-coming new businesses will be subject to the same market forces that gave them rise.

New business models—including product-as-a-service and “power by the hour” subscription models, engineered-to-order and configured-to-order product offerings driven by trends toward “mass customization”, and lifelong support from installation to sustainment to retirement—all introduce new challenges to the manufacturing phase of the product lifecycle. Can the needs to build for longer life, build to refurbish, keep older SKUs in production longer to meet demand for older products, and/or build and adapt new parts to fit older assemblies all be worked into manufacturing’s day-to-day operations while still maintaining profitability? Can existing tooling accommodate new, platform-based product designs to enable more customized product offerings, or will new tooling need to be designed and developed—incurring new costs and risks? These are all challenges that manufacturing will be wrestling with as businesses adopt these new, more competitive, customer-first business models that markets increasingly demand.

The Potential of the Digital Thread in Manufacturing

A Digital Thread connects data, teams, and tools across the product lifecycle—starting in design, development, and manufacturing and extending out into the field across operation, maintenance, and service. It can loop information from the later parts of the lifecycle back into the earlier parts of the lifecycle: for example, informing design teams with field feedback to help them introduce product improvements or next-generation offerings based on quality, performance, and usage data.

But the digital thread can enable a multitude of smaller closed loops, connecting vital internal organizations more closely and to great effect.

Connecting engineering and manufacturing with a digital thread allows engineering to drive changes more quickly into manufacturing processes; plus, it allows manufacturing to drive their own changes more efficiently back into engineering teams. Engineering needs a quick assessment of the impact of their changes on manufacturing processes, to be sure they will be efficient. Meanwhile, manufacturing will inevitably introduce their own changes that engineering naturally won’t be able to anticipate, but that are often needed to boost quality, accelerate time-to-market, ensure manufacturability, or streamline processes. The digital thread can enable a mutual view for both teams into changes that are coming from the other, and it can result in the improved coordination required, on both sides, to effect valuable changes quickly.

Connecting multiple manufacturing sites across a digital thread is also key as new suppliers, partners, and locations come onboard. When new product technologies or new business strategies are introduced, partnerships become increasingly critical—whether those entail new suppliers, new contractors, newly acquired companies, or new manufacturing locations. Connecting and coordinating these sites and their assets and equipment is no easy task, but it is necessary to ensure consistent performance no matter where or how a product will be manufactured. This consistency relies on visibility across sites, capacity, equipment, and production. And, as an increased velocity of change begins to flow between engineering and manufacturing, managing it across a broadening supply chain relies on close communication, the ability to control and rebalance processes, and the free flow of information among all sites to optimize productivity and reduce risks.

Connecting quality and performance with manufacturing throughput is inevitable: when problems are found during test and inspection, they often become the problem of manufacturing—even if they didn’t originate there. But a digital thread that can connect issues uncovered in manufacturing, testing, inspection, service, and operation should naturally funnel through a common set of quality processes no matter where they were discovered, because their root cause might be found anywhere from requirements and development through maintenance and use. When the manufacturing team is part of that digital thread—whether they are uncovering issues to be addressed or introducing changes to improve them—the rising tide of quality will lift all ships in the organization: customer satisfaction and brand loyalty being chief among them.

The Strategic Role of Manufacturing

What could your manufacturing team do with this free-flowing, connected information—accurate and up-to-date, protected and secure, and available to your teams when they need it—made possible by a robust digital thread that extends throughout the end-to-end product lifecycle? Obviously, the ability to respond to trends found in the data will improve manufacturing and strengthen its contribution across all parts of the product lifecycle. But the ability to anticipate trends and steer manufacturing to new methodologies that will strategically advance the business is where the real power of information gleaned from the digital thread lies. And it’s a strategic advantage that only manufacturing can offer.

Advancing new manufacturing approaches, from additive methods enabled by the latest 3D printer technologies to generative design driven by manufacturing parameters and optimized production scenarios uncovered by factory-level simulations—all of these can become a strategic competitive advantage for companies looking to ensure a successful and profitable digital transformation. These methods can dramatically accelerate time-to-market, enable the creation of a product platform through new approaches to tooling and production, revolutionize the materials that can be used in the product, and even expand the design envelope in which engineering can work. Manufacturing can introduce new possibilities for products that engineering and service teams are now free to explore, and expand the ability of the business to offer new products in new combinations (engineered-to-order, configured-to-order, mass customization, design for maintainability, Product as a Service) to existing or new markets, extending the competitive advantage of products and services. Advanced manufacturing approaches are more than just buzzwords: they can revolutionize the products being built and boost the competitive edge of the businesses offering them.

Understanding capacity is critical to understanding potential. Exploring what you could do tomorrow begins with the best information possible about what you can do today—and that begins with a digital thread. Knowing how the manufacturing organization is handling the current capacity, and streamlining that capacity to become the most nimble and efficient process it can be, is critical before introducing the possibility of strategic new approaches. And that streamlining requires getting your digital house in order. It requires connecting teams that need to collaborate even more closely as new product or business strategies come online, and it requires accelerating quality processes to address any issues quickly and efficiently when they do arise–because they will.

Driving product and business strategy from the manufacturing organization may seem out of order. But that’s only because manufacturing has been the recipient of product engineering for far too long—a “downstream” function—when, in reality, it is the key to all gates, defining whether or not the product can be produced, how, and at what cost. So why not flip the script? Why not transform manufacturing into a technology driver within your organization and a competitive advantage for your product and service teams? Why not explore what manufacturing could do, demonstrating the art of the possible to other teams across the organization? By doing so you can expand the potential for engineering and service strategies to get out ahead of changes in the market that are driven by digital transformation and are sure to be coming whether or not your company is ready for them. If your manufacturing organization can beat your competitors’ teams to the punch with innovative new production methodologies to enable what’s next, your company will be better positioned for its upcoming digital transformation—and the one after that.

The Way to Get Started

If knowing what you could do tomorrow starts with knowing what you can do today, the digital thread is where to begin. Not only does that free flow of information, communication, and change inform teams of how the others are performing and push feedback more efficiently among them; it also provides a conduit for the change that will be coming tomorrow. Creating the pathways and shoring them up to meet today’s needs more efficiently will ensure that a path to introduce tomorrow’s changes is wide open, and it will make tomorrow’s changes more smooth and more effective to help companies avoid some of the pains of growing.

Only manufacturing can streamline capacity, understand new approaches and where they can have the most strategic impact, and introduce them to upstream and downstream teams like engineering and service to open their eyes to the real possibilities these new approaches can offer to the business. As the only phase in the product lifecycle where ideas are transformed into physical realities, manufacturing is not just one strategic enabler of digital transformation for companies—it may be the key to digital transformation success.