The Connected Digital Thread

4 July 2024

We're in an exciting phase in the manufacturing world.

Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are embracing new challenges, adapting to the evolving demands of modern customers, the latest technological advancements in the Cloud, and an increasing focus on sustainability.

This move towards innovation and sustainable practices isn't just altering the production landscape; it's fundamentally changing the dynamics of competition, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

To stay ahead, it's critical that you smartly integrate new technologies and optimize existing ones, making them both central to your business operations and a single source of truth.

This can otherwise be known as the digital thread.


What is the digital thread?

So staying ahead is now synonymous with embracing the digital thread.

Formally a LinkedIn buzzword —a true digital thread is about digital continuity and the connectivity between electronic information. It’s having the ability to find what you need without the need for third-party intervention. 

In manufacturing, it’s about making the flow of information from the very start of designing a product, through its making, all the way to managing it, super smooth. 

The Aftersales Digital Thread goes one step further, feeding user information from ERP and PLM systems back to the manufacturer for an infinite loop of intelligent improvements.

No matter what industry your digital thread is applied to, there are generally two types of digital thread

1. Coordinated digital thread

The most typical form of digital thread involves using various digital platforms, each holding different pieces of information. To gather all the necessary information, it's common to hop from one system to another.

Generally, there's a specific application dedicated to each type of information, but the level of data that can be shared is somewhat limited.

2. Connected digital thread

The concept, often referred to as the Modern Digital Thread, involves making data accessible beyond the confines of native software, eliminating the need for direct authorization.

This flexibility is vital even when the initial setup taps into existing CAD, PLM, or ERP systems. Nowadays, certain professionals, like service engineers, need access to comprehensive data. This connected digital thread is typically established through an external application, which bridges various systems, allowing for real-time data retrieval.

Digital Thread

For OEMs aiming to really get the most out of the information in their systems, the connected digital thread presents a unique opportunity - but it's all about the strategy used to achieve it.

A strategy that can give your market position a very nice boost.


A strategic advantage with PLM and ERP systems 

At the heart of this boost are two tools that have become increasingly pivotal to digital change: PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems. 

PLM systems oversee the entire life cycle of a product from its conception, through design and manufacturing, to service and disposal. They're the secret sauce to enhancing processes, quality, and cutting down critical time-to-market, all while keeping an eye on sustainability.

Then there's ERP systems – think of them as the business's central hub, giving you an overview of everything happening and feeding you the insights needed to make smarter decisions. This boosts not just how well the cogs in the business machine turn but also how profitable things can get.

When you mesh these systems together, to solidify your digital thread, you get a supercharged workflow where information zips across departments, making everything run like a well-oiled machine.

This blend is a real advantage, especially for the smaller and mid-sized OEMs. It catapults them into a league where they can punch above their weight, trimming down the time it takes to get products out, improving the quality and staying sustainable!

Being adaptable and smart about leveraging technology is really what makes the difference between leading the field and trailing behind.


A new standard with the Circular Economy 

Once you begin to connect and interrogate data from central systems such as ERP and PLM, you unlock access to insights that can help you improve efficiency for both your profit margins and better sustainability.

The Circular Economy is a concept that imagines a world where we say 'no' to waste - a game-changer in how we manage resources. 

Forget the old take, make, dispose cycle.

Now, it's reuse, repair, and recycle.

Connected ERP and PLM systems benefit the Circular Economy by enabling businesses to optimize resource use, improve efficiency, and promote sustainability.

These systems facilitate better insights into product lifecycles, enhance material traceability, and support data-driven decision-making - ultimately driving the adoption of Circular Economy principles.


The PLM Green Alliance and sustainable manufacturing

The PLM Green Alliance advocates for sustainability and circular economy principles within the PLM space. With a strong focus on sustainable product development and lifecycle management, the Alliance is helping OEMs reduce their environmental footprint while staying profitable.

This dynamic organization is all about supporting green initiatives, striving to steer the PLM sector toward more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices to:

Get ahead in the market

Sustainability isn't just good for the planet—it's smart business, too. By adopting the sustainable and circular economy practices the Alliance champions, OEMs stand out in a crowded market. Customers and partners are increasingly drawn to businesses that tread lightly on the earth, and following the Alliance's guidance helps OEMs align with these values.

Boost operational efficiency

The support for sustainable product development and lifecycle management that comes from the Alliance doesn't just sound good—it’s practical. By embracing smarter resource management and cutting unnecessary costs, OEMs can enjoy a healthier bottom line.

Spark innovation and growth

The PLM Green Alliance is all about nurturing innovation. It encourages OEMs to dive into sustainable production and product lifecycle management techniques that could pave the way to new markets and opportunities for growth. For companies serious about their environmental footprint, this is the place to be.

The PLM Green Alliance stands out as a key advocate for sustainability in the PLM space, giving OEMs the insights, strategies, and motivation they need to make real progress towards a greener and more profitable future.

Learn more about the alliance here.


Overcoming challenges in digital integration

Setting up a fully connected digital thread comes with its fair share of hurdles, like breaking down data silos, overcoming change management challenges, and managing the financial costs of integrating systems.

Despite these challenges, manufacturers have a number of strategic options they can explore to increase their competitive edge and promote sustainability.


So what practical steps can you take?


Assess your current systems

Take a moment to deeply evaluate your present PLM and ERP systems. It's all about spotting areas where we might do better and grabbing those chances for growth. Figure out how well these systems talk to each other and how easy they make it to keep everything digital and connected.

Set your transformation targets

Decide on some solid, achievable goals for connecting your systems. Then align these goals with the bigger picture of your business's aspirations. You might focus on getting your products to market faster, boosting the quality of your products, or hitting sustainability goals.

Map out your integration journey

Create a plan for getting your PLM and ERP systems to work together, making sure information flows smoothly everywhere it needs to. Choose integration tools and platforms that won't box you in – we're talking scalability and adaptability.

Tools like Partful successfully connect engineering and aftersales departments with simple CAD upload and universal BOM management, maintaining the digital thread.

Engage with the PLM Green Alliance

Being part of the PLM Green Alliance can be a game-changer. It’s your go-to for the latest on sustainable manufacturing and managing product lifecycles the green way. Why not start with getting your head around circular economy ideas?

Boost your team's skills and manage the change

Plan a comprehensive training scheme to boost your team’s know-how, prepping them to easily use new systems and workflows. Alongside, roll out a plan for managing change that helps everyone adjust smoothly, dodging any pushback and setting the stage for a digitally savvy workspace.

Consider moving to the Cloud

Think about moving to cloud-based PLM and ERP management. It’s a smart move. Not only does it mean easier access and lower costs for maintaining your setup, but it also steps up your data security game.


Leading the industry

Small and mid-sized OEMs are at a pivotal moment, and success hinges on making the leap into digital transformation.

This leap involves smartly connecting PLM and ERP systems to smooth out operations and get products to market faster.

To kick off this journey, it's vital to take a close look at existing systems and processes to spot areas ripe for improvement. It’s also key to set achievable goals that mesh well with the overall business strategy.

Getting people from different departments involved early on can help paint a fuller picture, making it easier to embrace new systems.

But diving into the digital era isn't just about the technology; it's also about focusing on the people. 

Putting time and resources into training and managing change is critical to get past any hesitations and ensure a smooth transition.

Regularly checking how the new integrated systems are performing against your goals is important to stay on track with evolving business needs and objectives.

Opting for a strategic approach to digital transformation doesn't just amp up competitiveness; it also lays the groundwork for a resilient future in manufacturing.

For OEMs ready to embark on this adventure: the time is now. A connected digital thread is more than a trendy phrase—it's the gateway to leading in the manufacturing world, defining not only your future but shaping the industry's direction as well.


Want to learn more about the connected digital thread? Listen to our podcast episode with guest Jos Voskuil from The Virtual Dutchman



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