What is a Digital Thread and Why Do You Need One to Be a Successful 21st-Century Manufacturer?

Competitiveness depends on a company’s ability to take new products to market quickly. Digital threads provide the framework that makes it all happen.

The world seems to be moving faster and faster – and activity in the manufacturing space is no exception. Competitiveness depends on a company’s ability to take new products to market quickly, continually improve with new design iterations, manufacturing processes, and operations, and keep waste to a minimum — and none of that happens without data freely flowing to the right people and processes. Digital threads provide the framework that makes it all happen.   

The Value of Digital Threads

No smart business pulls the trigger on a tech upgrade without considering ROI, and it’s definitely there with digital threads. However, it may be more challenging to quantify it than with other projects. A digital thread enables communication and collaboration, empowering people in all departments, including operations, materials management, QA/QC, and more, with data. Moreover, unlike a digital twin that only gives you a snapshot of a process or part at a single point, a digital thread provides a continuous, real-time view and shows changes over time, which keeps your team informed and able to perform more efficiently and productively. 

So, instead of focusing an ROI calculation on a single process or department, you need to consider a digital thread’s impact on the entire business. It may make the math harder, but just figuring in a minimal impact of 1% efficiency for all employees, a medium-sized business could be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings each year. But you should expect much more. 

In addition to cost savings that result from implementing digital threads, manufacturers also reap benefits that are hard to quantify. For example, mission-, life-, or quality-critical operations, such as transportation or space exploration, gain visibility and traceability with a digital thread that gives them the confidence that their products and operations are safe. Although the dollar value of those capabilities is hard to pinpoint, the value they provide is undeniable.

Implementing Digital Thread

Maximizing ROI, both hard and soft, from your digital thread project requires three key components: 

  1. An iterative approach

A digital thread’s potential is exciting — but don’t give in to the temptation to try to upgrade and connect your entire operation at once. It’s best to approach your project iteratively. Choose one part of your operation to prototype, test, and optimize before moving on to others or attempting to connect systems company-wide. 

Even with laser-focus on just one part of your operation, however, you’ll probably still encounter challenges, such as connecting legacy machines and software, so maintain a reasonable tolerance for failure. Tools, such as REST APIs, GraphQL, and webhooks that enable bidirectional communication, can help you over those hurdles and develop an effective digital thread. 

Also, keep in mind that traditional manufacturing execution system (MES) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software may not provide the flexibility you need to manage the digital threads you create. However, newer factory operating systems, designed with agility in mind, will support the functionality and tools your team needs and open doors to innovation. 

  1. The right team

Implementing a digital thread isn’t like a server installation or even an MES implementation, which is dictated by a software vendor. You need to incorporate your team to choose systems that they can fit into their workflows and goals.

Assembling the right team with the skills and expertise needed to connect factory equipment and analytics with business systems is essential in successfully creating a digital thread. Furthermore, it’s important to empower them with the data they need, the ability to collaborate, and the freedom to make decisions. Give your engineers, operators, and technicians the reins and let them choose the interfaces that connect systems, equipment, and people and the best tools to leverage the data the digital thread generates.

  1. Buy-in from stakeholders throughout the organization

When you choose your prototype, it’s smart to select a product line or process with high visibility in your organization and whose activity and data impact many employees. This strategy will enable you to involve stakeholders from different parts of your company. They can observe progress as the digital thread takes form, begin to benefit from it — and get excited. Digital threads aren’t just beneficial on the manufacturing floor; their value extends beyond to warehouse and inventory, purchasing, finance, and HR. Garner support for your project from all departments to drive its progress and create more impactful outcomes.  

As you implement digital threads for single processes or objectives, your business will eventually reach the point where you aren’t only working with pieces, but rather, a complete system. It won’t happen overnight, but digital threads will help you achieve the collaboration, automation, and productivity of the Industry 4.0 vision.

Where Modern Technology Will Take You

Digital threads are the framework for streamlined processes, greater agility, and increased productivity, which can raise the bar among competitors or enable a startup to challenge a long-time market leader. And, as the world keeps moving faster, digital threads will provide manufacturers with the flexibility to respond to change and stay ahead of new entrants in their markets. 

As digital threads develop from company to company, they won’t look the same, but they’ll all enable teams to find the answers they need, perform their jobs better, and stay agile — requisites for continued success in dynamic, competitive markets.