The modern PLM industry is paying significant attention to the concept of Digital Thread. In a nutshell, a digital thread is a concept of how to connect various elements of information together. The concept is simple and powerful. PLM vendors are actively adopting this concept, which comes very much aligned with the biggest promise of PLM – a single source of truth. But to deliver Digital Thread is much harder. So, everyone speaks about Digital Thread, but not many actually do it.
DE247 article Making Connection for Digital Thread is a collection of interviews with business, technical and marketing leadership from PLM companies. You can see reps from Aras, Dassault Systemes, and PTC speak about various approaches to deliver Digital Thread.
Read the article and draw your opinion. In my view, it gives you few interesting perspectives on the complexity of Digital Thread delivery. Vendors are in the agreement that Digital Thread goes much beyond a single system and even one company. The discussion goes between data standards, APIs, and integrations while ending in a very open and without specific conclusion.
The article outlines the problem but doesn’t provide a way for any possible solutions. Data standards, gateways, APIs, integrations, federation, real-time access. For the last 20-25 years, PLM system development companies used all these approaches without calling it Digital Thread. How will these technologies make it different now? Just by calling it Digital Thread, the problem won’t be solved.
My favorite passage from the article is the following one from PTC.
Product life cycles span design partners, suppliers, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], sales dealers, service partners and operators,” says Marc-Thomas Schmidt, senior vice president of architecture at PTC. “Old-school document export packages don’t cut it here anymore. Secure real-time data access is needed.”
To recognize that data forming digital thread is belonging to multiple companies and organizational groups is important because it gives you an idea about the key elements of the solution – data across multiple companies and organizational boundaries – OEMs, contractors, suppliers.
The reality today that practically every mature PLM system is not ready to provide a data foundation to host such information in a reliable form. Most companies a long time ago gave up on keeping a single database for everything. If so, what is the architectural approach to making it happen?
The discussion about Digital Thread made me think about multi-tenant data management. The idea of a multi-tenant is not a novel. Global web brands, as well as numerous SaaS companies, have been using such technologies successfully for the last 15-20 years, But the situation in the manufacturing industry is different – multi-tenant systems are very rare. Most PLM platforms have a single-tenant on-premise or hosted.
But modern multi-tenant data management technologies have their chance to help connect dots of Digital Thread. Here are three fundamental elements of the architecture to support it.
1- Multi-tenant data model
The multi-tenant data model is the key element. Without a multi-tenant and flexible data model, the chances to connect data from multiple development stages and multiple companies are near zero. The data is partitioned using a network model layer. Companies can have their data isolated, but at the same time, the platform connects data elements together with the right level of access control and availability.
2- Global Access
Modern manufacturing companies are distributed globally with teams and branches located in different places. Having a system with global access is the only way to support data coming from so many different places.
3- Open REST API
API was mentioned by many vendors as a key element to have a successful integration. I completely agree and support it. Modern REST API provides a universal way to access the data programmatically and pull/push data from different systems in near real-time.
What is my conclusion?
Digital Thread is a powerful concept. But, the new system architecture is needed to support it. Most existing PLM was developed at the time when the single-tenant, single-database approach was dominant. These systems didn’t change and a substantial amount of work needs to be done to re-architect them to multi-tenant. In fact, history knows almost no companies that ever did such transformation. Therefore, the future of Digital Thread is belonging to multi-tenant network architectures. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.