Industry 4.0 Glossary

What Is Digital Thread?

A digital thread is the framework that enables connection with traditionally siloed elements in the manufacturing process to provide a holistic view of assets across the entire manufacturing lifecycle.

It is a communication framework that allows tracing the path of relevant data in and out of different processes along the manufacturing lifecycle. The framework connects all assets on the factory floor through all stages of development of a product. The result is high visibility on the factory floor. The benefits are not just restricted to visibility and better analytics. A digital thread can improve manufacturability in several other ways as well. It can help shorten the manufacturing cycle, minimize wastes, and even prevent unplanned downtime.

Where Did Digital Thread Come From?

The concept of information models that records and describes the evolution of information across a project, has existed in the construction industry for decades. It has helped establish traceability, accountability and asset management. However, the concept of observing and managing the flow of data across a product life cycle has been relatively new in regards to product development.

A 2016 presentation by the Airforce Research Laboratory (US) shows one of the earliest successes in use of a digital thread to ensure visibility to the information value stream across the development and life of a military aircraft. The objective was to allow different participants of the public private partnership to learn from the preceding and successive stages of the product life cycle and increase the value in their respective stages. Today digital threads have started demonstrating value in manufacturing across industries.

Digital Thread In Manufacturing

Digital thread is still a new technology in the field of manufacturing. It has only been in various stages of implementation for less than a decade. There are less than a handful of end-to-end digital thread-based manufacturing establishments. All current examples are of a limited scope of implementation for a particular product or a line.

Emerging technologies in parametric modelling combined with the ability to add relational layers of attributes like material properties, cost, time and effort have made digital thread implementations more of a reality now than ever before. The increasing speed of data handling and internet bandwidths have aided the adoption too.

Digital thread is now becoming a key prerequisite for a successful digital twin.

Difference Between Digital Thread And Digital Twin

A digital thread focuses on the value stream describing the journey of the product from the concept to the salvage yard. A digital twin focuses on the actual subject like a product or a plant.

The digital thread can compare the correlation between the original design intent and the as-built product as it can potentially have component level traceability of the path between the two. The digital twin on the other hand helps take the current state and simulate it for different inputs and arrive at scenarios for possible outputs.

Both technologies have common aspects like modelling, data handling, visualization and other components that make them deliver what they do. But a digital twin is different from a digital thread as it also has the ability to simulate scenarios. Digital thread is different in that it can establish the genealogy of information across the lifecycle.

Although the two have their different purposes, a digital thread is a key component to building an accurate and precise digital twin.

The Benefits Of Digital Thread In Manufacturing

From its early origins in the aerospace industry, digital thread has now begun making inroads into other product manufacturing industries. The relevance is high especially when the product is of high value, involves a lot of SKUs and there is a diverse set of participants in the manufacturing process. There are different use cases for digital thread like correlation of final product to original concept, accountability for all participating entities, picturing the value stream for information throughout the entire product lifecycle. These are just the ones that have been applied in the short time since the evolution of this technology.. Soon, newer use cases combined with other emerging technologies like digital twin, IIoT and Artificial Intelligence will make digital thread a significant addition to Industry 4.0.