In my recent discussion about Rethinking PLM architectures for Digital Thread, I’ve got an interesting comment about why Files are the problem for Digital Thread organization.
The problem with PLM systems for managing Digital Threads is that PLM systems store objects, as in files. The data necessary to maintain a Digital Thread is contained in the individual files that represent one product and are not standardized across products. Why is this important? Organizations who need Digital Threads don’t manufacture or support one product. They manufacture and support many products. These organizations must have the ability to standardize data across multiple Digital Threads and products.
I found this comment interesting and worth more detailed discussions. In many ways, files are representing a difficult problem in engineering and manufacturing applications. Files are widely used by most of design applications today for storing and sharing data. As much as files are complex to manage, they are ubiquitous and simple to use, especially when you need to share something outside of your applications. CAD files are complex and bring the challenge of dependencies and relationships. Other files like PDF and Excels are simpler, but also can also present some difficulties to manage and trace dependencies.
To start with, the definition of Digital Thread. I took a vendor-neutral Wikipedia article, even so, the article says it is insufficient content for people not familiar with the context.
A digital thread describes the framework which connects data flows and produces a holistic view of an asset’s data across its product lifecycle. This framework addresses protocols, security, and standards. Typically, the digital thread connects digital twins, digital models of physical assets, or groups of assets
PTC Article – What is Digital Thread says the following about Digital Thread.
Digital threads seek to create homogeneity and simple universal access to data. They follow a single set of related data as it weaves in and out of business processes and functions to create continuity and accessibility.
A digital thread can be created for many different entities and processes. Most commonly, a thread of a product follows the lifecycle from design inception through engineering and product lifecycle management, to manufacturing instructions, supply chain management, and through to service histories and customer events. This thread enables enterprises to anticipate and effectively communicate bi-directionally up and down stream of where the product is in its lifecycle, ensuring all participants utilize the most current data and can react quickly to changes or new insights.
Similar definitions can be found in Aras, Siemens, Dassault Systemes, and other vendors’ publications and materials.
So, some thoughts… Thinking about universal data access, you can see a challenge presented by information hidden in files with different formats such as CAD, PDF, and others. I can see the advantage of getting information out of files and placing it in a structured homogeneous, accessible information structure available for everyone in a company, but also across companies. And when you step outside of the company boundary and coming after suppliers, contractors, service, and maintenance vendors and customers, you can find even more challenges today than just challenges of file data access. In many scenarios today, file is the only possible way to exchange information, and here is why.
Existing mature PLM infrastructure is using traditional relational databases to store data. These PLM systems are also single tenant and serving a single company. I doubt, existing PLM systems can provide a universal data management infrastructure and replace all files. In many examples provided by PLM vendors, digital thread is presented as data infrastructure connecting processes, but as any PDM/PLM system also using files as part of the data.
I can see many reasons while existing PLM data infrastructure can be limited to serve as a universal data representation for digital thread connecting companies, supply chains and customers together. Usually when it comes to communication between companies and supply chains is coming, I can hear many voices about absence of standards, but this is not a new thing – discussions about standards are around for many decades. Some standards indeed improved during this time, but standards don’t provide sufficient way to manage data and also very often focusing on how to store data in a specific file.
What is my conclusion?
Digital Thread is a concept that requires a total rethinking of data infrastructure. Traditional PLM databases can provide a limited foundation for digital thread together with files used as a source of data storage and representation for many designs, engineering, and manufacturing systems. A broader data management consideration should be achieved to support the Digital Thread concept including multi-tenant data management, online (SaaS) infrastructure, data standards, and other data and process management practices. To build a Digital Thread is a lengthy process, which requires rethinking many aspects of data management including getting rid of files, setting up multi-tenant data management infrastructure, and making a business case for vendors and customers to share data. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups, and supply chain. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.