Manufacturing Optimization With Digital Thread

By using a communication framework that tracks an asset’s data throughout its lifecycle, business operations can integrate traditionally siloed data.


Data is everywhere, and if you know what to do with it, can be tremendously valuable. Huge volumes of data are collected in manufacturing industries across the supply chain, with the help of technologies such as IoT platforms, sensors, and edge devices. However, data is only as good as the value extracted from it, and getting the most out of data is challenging. Because information is often confined to a certain team or department, it’s almost impossible to formulate insights at the operational and multi-operational levels. To overcome this issue, organizations need to shift towards a holistic approach—one that can cut across traditionally siloed systems to provide an end-to-end view of entire business processes. The digital thread is a key component in this paradigm shift.

In the past year, Gartner twice cited OptimalPlus as a Sample Vendor for “Digital Thread”: once in Hype Cycle for Innovation in Manufacturing Industries, 2019 (July 2019), and again in Hype Cycle for Manufacturing Operations Strategy, 2019 (August 2019), the second consecutive year in this report.

Additionally, Gartner listed OptimalPlus as a Sample Vendor for “Intelligence Tools” in its Supply Chain Operational Visibility Vendor Guide (November 2019). According to Gartner, intelligence tools “leverage a data lake with data captured from multiple data sources, internal and external, structured and unstructured. On top of this lake, analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities are used to deliver predictive visibility and further prescriptive automation/resolution.”

As we’ll discuss, this definition is closely linked to the concept of digital thread. So what is digital thread all about? In this blog post, we’ll explore the idea of digital thread and how it can accelerate digitalization, allowing manufactures to innovate and optimize business operations with unprecedented agility and efficiency. We’ll also show you how OptimalPlus is bringing digital thread capabilities to manufacturers today.

What is digital thread?
The digital thread is a communication framework that tracks an asset’s data throughout its lifecycle. Data from traditionally disparate and siloed systems, whether structured or unstructured, all flows into this framework to create a comprehensive view of an asset. This allows businesses to move from a machine-oriented to a product-oriented mindset, which can have a significant impact on product quality and operational efficiency.

By gathering information from each component all the way to the end product, a digital thread can track and influence that product’s entire genealogy. In this way, information that was previously isolated at the team level comes together to create an enterprise-level and multi-operational view of the product. Looking at the product through a wide-angle lens opens the door to deeper insights that span the entire supply chain, shortening decision cycles, accelerating the evolution of requirement design, and enhancing overall quality and efficiency.

Placed within the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” of the Hype Cycle, Gartner identified digital thread as one of the trends expected to impact manufacturing and accelerate the pace of innovation. Gartner gave it a “high” benefit ranking and anticipates that it will reach mainstream adoption in the industry within 5–10 years. Even as things stand today, the digital thread market size is estimated at $100 million US, and is used in multiple vectors, including aerospace and defense, automotive, manufacturing, and energy.

The advantages of digital thread
Digital thread can have an impact on multiple facets of a business, including:

Organization: Founded on data sharing, a digital thread naturally tightens the cooperation between teams. This doesn’t only apply to engineering, sourcing, IT, and manufacturing units, but could even extend to departments such as marketing and sales. Imagine sales, for example, collaborating with production to offer customers nonstandard configurations. With a digital thread, these options are no longer implausible, and enterprises have newfound flexibility to get creative.

Operation: Encompassing the entire lifecycle of a product, a digital thread can expose the intricate connections hidden in manufacturing processes, revealing what should be fixed or improved. Firstly, using a digital thread allows manufacturers to detect problems in real time, identifying issues quickly and increasing synchronization between different parts of production—for example, dynamically adjusting processes to suit changes in BOMs, thus minimizing wasted material. Secondly, data collected in the digital thread can be correlated, enabling manufacturers to tackle one of their greatest pain points: getting to the root cause of a malfunction quickly through an end-to-end understanding of the failure. Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, the digital thread can be leveraged to predict malfunctions before they actually occur. This allows manufacturers to step out of a reactive state of mind, and to take proactive and preemptive measures in their operations.

Competition: When employed properly, a digital thread can play a significant role in cost optimization, and can enhance product quality, traceability, and regulation compliance. In mass manufacturing, every correction or improvement, inconsequential as it may seem, can have a tremendous impact on overall performance and cost. By tracking an asset’s data from A to Z, the digital thread shortens decision cycles and increases agility, reducing time-to-quality and time-to-market.

Optimizing the entire product lifecycle
OptimalPlus delivers advanced lifecycle analytics with applications in the automotive, semiconductor, and consumer electronics vectors, serving tier -1 suppliers and OEMs. Analyzing data from 100 billion devices per year, the machine-learning platform delivers real-time product analytics and provides full supply-chain visibility, translating the theoretical concept of digital thread into a concrete reality.

OptimalPlus’ Unified Data Model functions like a digital thread. It breaks down siloed data throughout the supply chain, collecting information from multiple stages of production. This data is then analyzed by machine-learning algorithms to produce insights from across the supply chain, making it possible to associate machine data (e.g., sensor readings from an oven), product data (e.g., test data), and inspection data (e.g., inspection images and classification) with each individual manufactured part or product.

Most importantly, OptimalPlus is geared towards the most exciting aspect of digital thread: shifting from machine-oriented analytics to product-oriented analytics. This is accomplished by tracking the genealogy of a product. The Unified Data Model is capable of tracing the complete digital thread across all points of production, providing a window into the full DNA of a product. From there, the possibilities of improvement are endless—from faster root-cause analysis and adaptive testing processes all the way to recommendations and failure predictions at the unit-batch level.

To get a better idea of how this happens, let’s take a look at a specific use case. A highly successful Fortune 500 electronics company turned to OptimalPlus because it suffered from severe visibility issues, including fragmented data, manual and time-consuming tracing, and an inability to accurately predict cycle time and production efficiency. To tackle these challenges, OptimalPlus first created a seamless digital thread that aggregated the company’s data, automatically matching part numbers and serial numbers. This provided full traceability into each part—from surface mount to packaging and shipment. In addition, the OptimalPlus interface, dashboards, and automated rules supplied the company with 24/7 monitoring of product performance (yield and operational KPI anomalies), automated reports of cycle times and production efficiency, and cross-product analysis between Chip and Board.

An end note
Digital thread widens the lens, zooming out from specific machines to cast a light on entire manufacturing processes. This starts with breaking down information barriers and consolidating data from all stretches of the business. Coupled with powerful algorithms, the data is transformed into insights that lead to vast operational improvements. Digital thread is among the trends that promise to transform manufacturing, equipping the industry with the tools to innovate with great agility.

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