A Digital Thread is for Life – Not Just Manufacturing

Enabling the digital thread with ShareAspace

Implementing the digital thread and digital twin with PLCS

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The concept of a Digital Thread has been gaining traction for a while. It often seems to be focused on manufacturing:

Digital Thread is a communication framework that connects traditionally siloed elements in manufacturing processes and provides an integrated view of an asset throughout the manufacturing lifecycle.” 1

Sometimes the longer perspective is allowed for:

“The digital thread refers to the communication framework that allows a connected data flow and integrated view of the asset’s data throughout its lifecycle across traditionally siloed functional perspectives.” 2

Alongside the Digital Thread is the concept of the Digital Twin:

“The digital twin refers to a digital model of a particular asset that includes design specifications and engineering models describing its geometry, materials, components and behaviour. More important, it also includes the as-built and operational data unique to the specific physical asset that it represents.” 3

The essential argument here is that we can create a joined-up electronic data set that allows us to track and simulate products and their related processes, such as manufacturing, and the tools used. That data set covers both designs and individual products and supports simulation and analysis, even allowing for “what-if” questions. The aim is to create feedback loops and simulation capabilities around both process and product improvement.

Digital thread

Product Life Cycle Support (PLCS) is for life, not just for Support!

Back in 1999-2004, Eurostep was asked to lead the development of an ISO standard for the information used in the support through-life of complex products. The request came from five Defence organizations and a group of leading Defence OEMs, plus a group of smaller companies. It was largely based on the fact that whilst there were processes (even several standards) for designing a support system, the feedback loops were not consistent and did not really work. The result was the PLCS standard (ISO 10303-239) and specifically the data model it contains. Courtesy of the diverse nature of the related standards, the data model was designed to allow the creation of an integrated view of the asset’s data covering its lifecycle across traditionally siloed functional perspectives.

PLCS Background and Design Objectives

In other words to provide a Digital Thread but from a Life Cycle Support viewpoint. So how different is that viewpoint and can PLCS meet the needs of Digital Thread and work with Digital Twins?

Using PLCS to enable a Digital Thread

The main requirements coming from applying the concept of Digital Thread and Digital Twin include:

  • The ability to distinguish between designs and actuals (individuals).
  • The ability to handle different BOM views (such as as-designed, as-manufactured and as-maintained) of a product and link/trace between them.
  • The ability to handle different breakdown views (such as physical and functional breakdowns) of a product and link between them and to different BOM views.
  • The ability to handle many different properties and record their values over time or against different views.
  • The ability to handle requirements, allocation, tracing and Verification and Validation.
  • The ability to record processes and other actions applied to the product (or done by the product).
  • Being able to record subsidiary products such as tools and equipment and their use and properties.
  • Managing the associated documents and other information, such as models, related to the product and any subsidiary products.

All of these are within the scope of the PLCS data model. In fact, implementing PLCS provides an immediate Digital Thread capability adding this functionality to already existing software and processes. This conclusion is endorsed by Microsoft in their webinar on “How Digital Twin Can Help Manufacturers Transform. 4

Extending across the enterprises

In practice, a key aspect of the Digital Thread is that it will include information with different ownership from multiple sources in a supply network. There may be many interested parties, not all of whom should see the entire thread. This also means there are many sources of change. Indeed without change how can there be the product and process improvements that justify the Digital Thread?

The PLCS data model allows for some of the additional information that this requires but a data model cannot provide the functional capabilities needed to protect IP and manage change. Eurostep’s ShareAspace collaborative hub implements PLCS and provides the additional functionality needed to support the Extended Enterprise Digital Thread.

The design and introduction to the market of a complex product typically involve collaboration and the consequent sharing of engineering information across an extended enterprise involving a multitude of engineering disciplines and organizations throughout the product’s life.

This collaboration and sharing include information such as product requirements, CAD, bill of materials, manufacturing instructions for collaborative product design, information for the outsourcing of the design and build, information for manufacturing and information about equipment and standard parts suppliers.

The timely and accurate sharing of this information is critical to the rapid delivery of a high-quality product to market. However, achieving effective data sharing is challenging. The necessary data is managed by a variety of systems across the extended enterprise. The data is often replicated and sometimes contradictory. Security, protection of Intellectual Property and export controls are paramount.

To overcome the challenges, organizations have applied a set of common tools, CAD, PDM, ERP etc. to the enterprise. Enforcing this requires tight coupling of the enterprise’s processes and infrastructure with obvious cost implications for the enterprise and efficiency considerations for partners in the enterprise who will be working in other enterprises. Consequently, organizations often use basic file exchanges to share data, often using data exchange standards such as ISO STEP / Product Life Cycle Support (PLCS). However, file exchange also requires rigorous processes to ensure data integrity and quality are preserved as the data is propagated and replicated throughout the enterprise and the supply chain.

This whitepaper discusses the challenges in sharing data and the different business relationships in which information is to be shared. The paper outlines a data-sharing approach based on a standard (PLCS) based collaboration hub, the ShareAspace suite of products, that overcomes a number of the issues associated with file exchange. The ShareAspace pre-packaged products include ShareAspace Design to Manufacturing which focuses on supporting the sharing of the product data in the design and manufacturing stages of the life cycle across the extended enterprise; ShareAspace Export control that enables the sharing of information subject to export control regulations, such as ITAR, in global value chains; and ShareAspace iAIM that solves the problem of sharing asset data between disciplines in the AEC and Plant industry and is supporting with the most important data and process standards.

This paper focuses on ShareAspace Server – a fully configurable on-premise platform for secure PLM collaboration across enterprises and domains. It is designed to be flexible and to support the variety of different collaboration patterns used by organizations. Hence ShareAspace Server provides a wide range of configurable capabilities that encode best practices for managing engineering collaboration. This includes capabilities that define:

  • Default types of organization, user roles, and permissions;
  • Product data types e.g. Parts + properties, assemblies, documents + properties;
  • Structures for managing and coordinating the collaborations.
  • And more…

ShareAspace Server enables organizations to rapidly share data in a managed and controlled way.

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1 Daniel, D. (2021, October). Digital Thread. Retrieved from TechTarget: https://searcherp.techtarget.com/definition/digital-thread

2,3 Leiva, C. (2016, August 1). Demystifying the Digital Thread and Digital Twin Concepts. Retrieved from IndustryWeek: https://www.industryweek.com/technology-and-iiot/systems-integration/ article/22007865/demystifying-the-digital-thread-and-digital-twin-concepts

4 Andaluz, E. (2017, May 16). How digital twin technology can help manufacturers transform. Retrieved from Microsoft Cloud Blogs: https://cloudblogs.microsoft.com/industry-blog/ manufacturing/2017/05/16/digital-twin-technology-can-help-manufacturers-transform/

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