The work toward a common, digital thread is moving forward as industry address the challenges of developing end-to-end, readily accessible information on systems.
Jean Thilmany, Contributing Editor
The computer-aided design that defines a product geometrically drives more than just that part’s manufacturing process. The model begins a digital thread—a digital conversation, if you will–that enables on-going product and manufacturing innovation long after the part has cleared the manufacturing floor.
“The digital thread is the communication that connects elements of the engineering and manufacturing process that have traditionally been separated—such as the electronic and the software design information,” says Don Tolle, PLM consultancy CIMdata’s director of the systems engineering and simulation practice.
“Everyone is going digital, so we need to figure out how to connect the digital design process and spread it forward into things like plant design and layout and the servicing of systems once they’re in use,” Tolle says.
“The thread is the means of continuing to connect product data and information long after the product has been sold or is in place. And it’s more important than ever in the face of changing business models and the coming Internet of Things,” Tolle says.
“While that digital thread is gaining in importance in this age of advanced manufacturing, Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things—all of which call for automation and the exchange of data–significant challenges still exist to ensuring the thread is maintained in a central technological location and readily accessible to all potential users,” Tolle says.
Those affected by the technology are finding ways—mostly through vendor mergers and acquisitions and potential standards setting—to house a complete digital thread.
“The digital thread is needed to ensure an up-to-date digital version of the product is always maintained and available,” Tolle says. That digital version is called the product’s digital twin.
The digital twin is the physics-based representation of the product, the virtual product as represented in a computer system—often many computer systems, such as the CAD, BIM, and analyses applications and any other software used to create or describe the product.
Maintenance and billable hours
The digital twin—and its attendant thread of information–needs to be readily available to give feedback and information about how the product is functioning in the field, to help service the product, and to act as a virtual prototype in case product changes are needed.
For example, the digital twin could be used to make predictions about how an already built and hard-to-access system will operate under certain conditions. Take the case of a high-value industrial pump that operates underground.
“The twin would give the operator the speed and temperature conditions the pump functions within, so the operator could monitor for those things in real time and if they’re exceeded he could shut that system down before it gets to failure,” Tolle says.
“The digital twins need to be continually updated to remain current. So that’s where the digital thread comes in,” Tolle says.
“If every year I upgrade software or electronics, then I want to set up so I can go back to the core digital information, which might exist in PLM or three or four different systems and see the current information for these systems and check it against the twin to make sure the twin is valid,” Tolle says.
The digital thread can’t fray, as he puts it, or the digital twin won’t be around for reference. And estimates have shown that in the not-too-distant future billions, even trillions, of digital twins may be maintained within the industrial space.
“The conversation is relevant in a time of changing business models,” he adds. Aircraft engine makers, for example, offer what they sometimes call “power by the hour.” That is, the engine manufacturer will maintain the engine even after it’s placed in the aircraft. Some ship makers that provide naval ships have proposed following suite.
The people who service the engine—whether aircraft employees or engine-maker personnel—need the digital twin to determine proper operating conditions and how best to service the engine.
Clearly, the people who will call upon the digital thread go beyond the engineers tasked with originally creating the part or product.
“For example, the 3D model is used to program the robotic vision-systems tasked with helping build the part,” says Keith Vozel, product manager for software at robotics maker Yaskawa Motoman. Here, the digital thread ensures the vision system is programmed so robots can construct the product to within tolerances.
Getting systems on speaking terms
“So many products are, of course, more than just mechanical. They include software, electronics, and possibly even chemical and other types of engineered systems. That’s why those looking to create a digital thread seek a way for all the systems used in product creation to interact,” Tolle says.
That means all the systems that go into product creation—the mechanical and electrical CAD, the product lifecycle management, the analyses, the computer-aided manufacturing, the ALM, the enterprise resource management, the service lifecycle management and many more applications need to speak back and forth in a common language and potentially on a single, common platform, he adds.
“That interoperability is one of the greatest challenges to the digital thread,” Tolle says.
“You can keep electronics and mechanical systems the same, but when you download a product software update, you’ve got new functionality,” Tolle says. “The digital thread lets you know: If I download new software is the rest of the system equipped to handle what the software will tell it to do?”
“Likewise, if software update drives the product to do something it wasn’t originally designed to do, the digital thread helps users evaluate what’s going on,” Tolle says.
“Software vendors are attempting to get systems talking by carrying out mergers and acquisitions that would connect the systems used by everyone who has a role in the product,” he adds.
“PLM was always intended as end-to-end connection, but in many cases it wasn’t able to do that,” Tolle says. “But now the larger vendors are filling the gaps with their acquisitions.”
Arena Solutions cloud-based PLM system also includes a quality-management system, an application lifecycle management system (used by software developers), a supply-chain-collaboration and a requirements-and-defect-management system. These systems tie the engineering, electrical, mechanical, and software developers and bring in manufacturing as well.
Siemens PLM recently purchased Mentor Graphics, which makes electronic design automation software and CD-adapco, maker of simulation software. In 2015, Siemens PLM purchased Polarion, which makes ALM software.
“So they’re trying to bring in all that information—the electronics and the software side of things, and connect those,” Tolle says.
Based on its history of automation, GE has released its Predix cloud platform, which the company says will help users create models that span the entire system. GE calls Predix the operating system for the industrial IoT. The company has business units in many industries, including aircraft, power plants, manufacturing, and transportation and Predix will be used to help design all those systems and connect them with Internet of Things connection.
PTC also seeks to be a player in design for IoT. The company has acquired ThingWorx, an IoT platform provider and Axeda, which provides cloud-based software for managing connected machines. ThingWorx also has an agreement to offer semiconductor manufacturer Analog Devices customers an integrated sensor-to-cloud environment on the platform. PTC also purchased Kepware Technologies, a maker of manufacturing connectivity tools; ColdLight, for machine learning and predictive analytics; and Vuforia, which makes augmented reality tools; and Servigistics, a service parts management tool.
“IoT gives PTC an opportunity to “improve the capabilities, value proposition and differentiation of our CAD, PLM, ALM and SLM offerings,” wrote James Heppelmann, PTC chief executive officer, on the stock market analysis and insights blog Seeking Alpha.
“As we land these new logos, we’ll work to expand our position by introducing SLM, which is really the killer app for IoT, as well as ALM, PLM and even CAD technologies over time,” Heppelmann wrote. Service lifecycle management is used to understand and following system service needs as the system operates in the field.
These companies systems would maintain a digital thread—but only within the company software.
The Oasis Open Standards Network, an independent standards organization, has proposed a standard that defines a way to connect information across systems to maintain the digital thread. Oasis maintains the Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration, which develops standards for software lifecycle tools to share data.
“The standard would help with data loss that can happen when information moves between systems,” Tolle says.
“When you move data from one system to another it’s a conversion and at the boundary something gets lost, that’s been one of the challenges of the digital thread,” he says.
“The work toward a common, digital thread is moving forward as those in industry address the challenges to get to means for end-to-end, readily accessible information about a system,” Tolle adds.
“Everyone sees the problem and understands it, but moving from one paradigm to another takes time, and there are challenges along the way as you get everyone on board the same train,” he says.