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Enterprise Apps, The Digital Thread and Intelligent Manufacturing

Date posted: September 14, 2015

One of the major developments I’ve observed over years of writing about enterprise applications is how those applications have become connected. A recent article on R&D by editor Lindsay Hock underscores the importance of this. In the piece, Rich Carpenter, Chief Technology Strategist at GE Intelligent Platforms Software speaks to the development of intelligent manufacturing and the move to the Industrial Internet, and one of the most interesting points he makes is about the importance of what he calls “the digital thread.”

Many companies have fully realized the benefits of Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma and other initiatives driven to improve manufacturing productivity. These initiatives are focused on driving efficiency in manufacturing to deliver production goals at lower costs with higher quality. “It’s the digital thread that takes these principles to the next level,” says Carpenter.

The digital thread helps to lean out the new product introduction cycle from initial product concept and design, through manufacturing, the supply chain and, ultimately, through operations, maintenance and service. However, to leverage the digital thread’s full potential requires connecting previously islanded systems such as PLM, ERP, EAM, MES, M&D and supply chain systems.

The benefits of this digital thread are profound, including:

  • Faster product cycles
  • Higher quality products
  • Lower manufacturing costs
  • Faster response to real-time changing market dynamics

The digital thread can enhance manufacturing in many ways. “For example, a great new product may be sent to manufacturing where it is determined the product can’t actually be built in volume,” says Carpenter. “This may be because parts with the right specifications can’t be acquired cost effectively, or state-of-the-art equipment can’t make the parts.” Traditionally, this is a very long process of discovery, re-work, escaped product defects and re-designs.

“When the digital thread is connected, the design from the PLM system can lead directly to a manufacturing plan,” says Carpenter. And that plan can automatically produce the manufacturing execution system configuration and bill of materials. “Quality can be collected in the context of the design,” explains Carpenter. And, if during manufacturing, non-conformances are identified, they can immediately be sent back to engineering for resolution. This closed loop, continuous feedback loop helps to ensure quality products are built and the risk of recall is minimized.

Such connectivity is unleashing the power of enterprise applications in a way heretofore unrealized, and is leading to what Carpenter calls “a massive change in process with the Industrial Internet.” While this is at an early stage, its momentum is clear and worldwide. (Germany’s Industrie 4.0 can be seen as a parallel approach to this connected technology.)

Carpenter nicely summarizes the scale of the industrial change being driven by connectivity:

“We are collecting and organizing the world’s industrial knowledge in a way that makes it accessible to the broad community of businesses, thus creating a form of industrial ambient intelligence that is always available.”

This isn’t your grandfather’s or your father’s industrial world. It should be riveting to watch its further development.