The Digital Thread: Connected Approaches to Manufacturing

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When we first started to digitize our work and our world beginning in the 1980s, digital files were discrete things, whether they were documents, spreadsheets, or designs. Each stood alone. They could be saved and copied to a disk or a drive; later, they could be sent by email if they weren’t too large. But getting files to interact with other files was difficult, time-consuming, and error-prone.

Software and platforms were equally disconnected. In manufacturing, as in all industries, digital toolsets emerged for specific purposes and departments—CAD for the design department, CRM for the sales department, ERP for operations/management, and so on. These platforms were difficult if not impossible to connect; they simply weren’t built to talk to each other.

This meant that data was lost at handoff between disciplines and recreated or stitched back together throughout a project, sometimes multiple times. The idea of sharing data across an enterprise or between organizations remained only an idea. Work happened in silos, and sharing happened through printout and markup, data output and re-entry, workarounds and conversations.

As digital transformation continues to reshape our world and our work, software and digital files are now becoming less discrete. With cloud computing and data storage, workflows can be connected. Data can be shared between departments and organizations. Models can be accessed and modified by multiple people in different locations.

This evolution is creating new possibilities in manufacturing. A “digital thread” is emerging that connects products and projects across partners, platforms, and processes. “The digital thread is creating a renaissance in manufacturing,” says Oak Ridge National Laboratory Chief Manufacturing Officer Thomas Kurfess in his AU Theater talk, Digital Strategies for Resilient Manufacturing Ecosystems. “It's everywhere. And it's driving innovation, creating tremendous opportunities not just for the big guys, but for small- and medium-sized manufacturers.”

Breaking Down Data Silos

“Any product, whether it's a car, a watch, or even an airplane—that product is designed and manufactured and delivered by different companies,” says Ken Foo, senior director of strategic partnerships at Autodesk. “How do we create a data platform that allows different departments within a company, as well as different companies, to communicate and ultimately develop and deliver an awesome product to the market in the most fast, efficient, and cost-effective way?”

In the connected world of the digital thread, “all of a sudden, you have a diverse opportunity to leverage the same data for different workflows, for different personas, for different purposes,” says Foo.

Ken Foo, senior director of strategic partnerships at Autodesk, discusses the digital thread in manufacturing.

“That same digital thread can be shared by the marketing department, then by the sales department, who can take that digital asset to actually interact and start a conversation with their customers,” says Foo. He cites heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as an example of how the increasing digitization in manufacturing can make an important difference, since these systems are highly customized based on the floor plan and purpose of each individual building.

“We're actually allowing our salespeople to co-design the right air conditioning solutions with their customer,” Foo says. “A salesperson can take our design data, apply certain rules, connect up with their ERP system to quickly code and then design the type of system that suits their customer's needs and wants.”

The digital thread represents a new vision for what Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) can be, as Scott Reese, EVP for Product Development and Manufacturing Solutions at Autodesk explains in the AU 2021 General Session Part Two. “By dramatically simplifying the process of managing and sharing data, we're empowering engineers and manufacturers, as well as their suppliers and stakeholders, to work together collaboratively, focusing not on administration, but on innovation,” Reese says.

Building Resilience in the Supply Chain

In addition to helping teams from different departments of the same company collaborate, the digital thread also enables companies to work more closely with partners in their supply chain. That’s because, with the digital thread, as every product is manufactured, a unique “digital passport” is created that carries all the data related to its fabrication. By looking at the passport, you can verify that the part was made exactly to specification, according to Kurfess.

This creates not only a more efficient workflow, but also a more resilient and democratized manufacturing ecosystem, as Kurfess points out, because it enables smaller machine shops and fabricators to compete against larger operations, selling parts and products that are verifiably identical in quality.

“The digital thread is creating a renaissance in manufacturing.”
Thomas Kurfess, Chief Manufacturing Officer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

“Let's say GM needs 500 parts tomorrow,” Kurfess explains. “They can go to a really big shop and get those 500 parts, or they can go to 50 local shops—small- and medium-sized enterprises, mom-and-pop shops—the backbone of our manufacturing ecosystem. And from those 50 shops they can order 10 parts apiece—and they still get their 500 parts. If that big shop has a problem and it gets shut down, GM is out of luck. If one of the mom-and-pop shops has a problem and they get shut down, you still have 49 others that can take up the slack. So you have a much more robust and resilient manufacturing ecosystem.”

Improving Quality with the Digital Thread

The digital thread enables us to improve not only how we make, but also what we make, according to Kurfess. It does this in two important ways. First, it allows us to gather the large data sets that machine learning and artificial intelligence need to analyze and optimize a particular process; for example, how to best fabricate a specific design not only on a specific 3D printer, but in a specific area of that 3D printer.

Second, it can use that AI-based insight to augment the skills and abilities of human workers on the line. “You're in the shop anyway, you've got to have safety glasses on—why not make them AR goggles?” says Kurfess. “If a worker has to put some tooling in the machine, and she's got the tooling off a little bit or upside down or backwards, those goggles will see that and highlight it and then say, flip it over. It makes her almost infallible because it's checking her. It's helping her to move along. It's training her to do the right things on the machine and set it up accordingly.”

Forge: From Platform to Ecosystem

The keys to enabling the digital thread are data interoperability and a shared, open way to connect. And these are exactly what Autodesk is offering with the cloud-based services platform Forge. Originally created for developers and users to access the capabilities of Autodesk tools via APIs, Forge is becoming something more: a platform that enables a vibrant, robust, and open manufacturing ecosystem to flourish, as was announced throughout AU 2021.

“We're focusing on this open ecosystem, this data-driven platform,” Foo says, “so the data can be exchanged and leveraged not just with our internal software applications, but also with third-party companies who can then take advantage of the data and add additional value on top. And all of a sudden, you can actually understand how your design is impacting the manufacturing process and vice versa.”

“We've launched Autodesk on a completely new journey, a journey where we're investing in both individual products and expanding the Forge Platform,” says Autodesk President and CEO Andrew Anagnost in the AU 2021 General Session Part Three. “We're unlocking data and the capabilities of our entire portfolio of products to help you connect processes, automate workflows, and deliver valuable insights.”

Where once digital artifacts and processes meant separation, the digital thread enables connected ways of making that are better for the people doing the work and for the people using the products, too. And that means good things for manufacturing overall. “Having all that data in one place,” Foo says, “actually allows you to understand how far your imagination can go.”