Manufacturing has always been a competitive and complex industry, but it has also been one that is constantly evolving. In order to keep up with the competition, cost pressure, and growing supply chain complexities, manufacturers are turning to digital transformation. This involves using digital technologies to create a “digital thread” throughout the product development and manufacturing process. Digital transformation allows for better communication and collaboration between teams and organizations. It also enables manufacturers to build new modern processes capable to optimize the work of multiple companies in a value chain. The latter is becoming increasingly important. As none of the modern products these days are created by a single company, the question of how to orchestrate the work across multiple companies is becoming supercritical. It includes the need to share data and activity between OEMs, their suppliers, and customers. In this blog post, I will explore the trends of building a digital thread spanning multiple companies and how it can benefit manufacturers.
What is missed to build a digital thread?
The idea of a digital thread is to connect different silos of information belonging to lifecycle stages together. While the idea is not really new, it started to accelerate recently when companies started a broad digital transformation strategy. Check my articles about Digital Thread. It might sound like old PLM ideas – to manage all stages of the product lifecycle from the idea to realization. And to be honest, this is how it often sounds in PLM marketing slides taking old PLM slideware and replacing “PLM” with new catchy Digital Thread words.
What really makes sense to me is a shift from monolithic PLM platforms to agile data services. Although some PLM vendors are still dreaming about platforms capable to provide all the answers, it is obvious that covering an entire value chain with one platform is not a realistic goal. Companies are using multiple systems and you cannot force them to move to a single platform. Therefore, the idea of a digital thread connected using multiple data services is very much appealing as a scalable digital web solution. However, new data architecture is needed to close the gap in building a digital thread.
PLM Architecture Gaps
Mainstream PLM platforms, as we know them, were developed over the last 25+ years and they are represented by traditional advanced SQL-based platforms mixed with web-based architecture. MatrixOne (now 3DX), Teamcenter Engineering, and Windchill might be different in details and implementation specifics, but they are almost identical from the architecture standpoint. A newcomer to the big three is Aras Innovator, which is the younger of all of them, only 20 years old, and has more flexible data modeling capability, but architecturally is not very different from the other three big PLMs.
All these systems were built with a single-tenant data model in mind, which means their data management foundation is capable to create a data access model and P&O model for a single company only. While it was ok 20 years ago, these days it represents the biggest data modeling and process capabilities limitations. Think about two instances of PLM platform up and running for two manufacturing organizations (OEM and Tier1 supplier). What capabilities these two systems can provide to organize a process that can involve people and data from both organizations? What is missed is a “network data layer”, which is a foundation of multi-tenant data architecture capable to share data in a seamless way while keeping each tenant individually managed by its own admins.
The Role of the Bill of Materials In Digital Thread
Bill of Materials is a foundation of product lifecycle management and product development process allowing any PLM system to create a data model structure defining product components, modules, and compositions. A single bill of materials (BOM) is a simple list of components. However, a composition of single-level BOMs creates a structure (DAG) representing any product data management complexity. Traditional BOM management tools were using a limited modeling capability – a model of a single structure. Later on, the PLM system developed multiple structures to manage EBOM, MBOM, SBOM, and xBOM models. Modern PLM system architectures are developing new modeling capabilities using new data management architectures such as semantic modeling and graph databases to create more robust data structures to manage multi-disciplinary product structures.
A robust BOM model is a foundation of digital thread allowing to connect of multiple pieces of product data management semantics together. Such data structures allow linking design, engineering, manufacturing, services, and other representations seamlessly connected in a complex BOM graph with the ability to manage BOM views representing each element of the lifecycle state.
Why does Multi-Tenancy Matter?
Let’s connect the information I shared above in a single logical chain. What was known as a single source of truth about the product is now distributed and shared between multiple companies. Each company is responsible for a specific element or lifecycle state. BOM management represents a data modeling foundation of product lifecycle management providing a complex multi-view data structure (global BOM graph). A network layer is capable to control data access and instant data sharing between multiple companies. Such a data management foundation creates a data platform for managing complex processes involving multiple companies as well as a basis for product lifecycle management intelligence.
What is my conclusion?
Digital Thread is a great abstraction allowing to manage of product development processes and connecting information between multiple lifecycle states – engineering, manufacturing, sales, maintenance, and others. Modern Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems will have to develop a complex networking mechanism to manage data across multiple companies, disciplines, and lifecycle states. Current PLM systems are mostly focusing on document management and product lifecycle for a single company. Product lifecycle expands the product development process by breaking a single organization’s silos, breaking limits of the current product lifecycle management, and expanding existing paradigms of process management. Digital Thread covers an entire product value chain and not a single organization. This is a challenge for existing PLM solutions. Limitations of current platforms are especially visible in solutions covering supply chain management where coordination of work between multiple companies is so critical. The role of multi-tenant data architecture in future product lifecycle management is to organize a network layer connecting data structure (BOM) representing multiple elements of multi-disciplinary system development. PLM software capable to organize such a network layer will be capable to provide unique functions and data intelligence capabilities to optimize a product lifecycle and business processes. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital cloud-native PLM platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.