The 3D of Digital Transformation: Documents, Data, and Digital Thread

The 3D of Digital Transformation: Documents, Data, and Digital Thread

Let’s talk about the importance of digital transformation and the challenges that manufacturing companies are facing in product lifecycle management, supply chain management, product data management and organization of product development process. To manage a product lifecycle of modern products is a complex tasks that goes much beyond the idea of using “PLM software” to solve product lifecycle management problems like we did 10-15 years ago. Business processes and business strategy of any manufacturing company must be transformed into PLM vision and strategy including multiple systems for computer aided design, document management, systems including customer feedback and connected with process management to help controlling all product development, supply chain and manufacturing activities.

Designing and building products is hard and these days it goes much beyond creating drawings and organizing MRP process. Companies need to make a digital shift and to focus on a comprehensive product lifecycle management strategy as a foundation.

I came across an article by Andrew Sparrow titled “Revolutionize Manufacturing with the Critical Thread: A Guide to Seamless Integration“. The article walks you through each step of the Critical Thread, explain its importance, and demonstrate how it flows smoothly from one stage to the next. Additionally, it explores the crucial connections with ERP, MRP, PLM, and the Supply Chain that are essential for the efficiency and success of this transformative approach.

I appreciate the article’s goals and recommendations, which focus on connecting essential activities in product development, such as requirements, design, change management, testing and validation, and the supply chain.

I like the objectives, but they got me thinking about digital transformation and process organization. In most companies, these processes rely heavily on documents. This is a reality – requirements documents, design documents (drawings), purchase orders, work order documents, and more.

One of the main challenges in digital transformation projects is the long-standing “document” approach that has been ingrained in organizations and people for the past 30 years. We tend to think in terms of documents. It’s as if we’ve been hardwired to “think in documents.” When it comes to various product development disciplines, such as requirement management, design, Bill of Materials (BOMs), procurement, and supply chain, the default mode of operation invariably revolves around documents and spreadsheets. When it comes to various product development disciplines like requirement management, design, BOMs, procurement, and the supply chain, most companies rely heavily on documents. How can we change this?

When a company approaches me and asks about implementing a specific system (e.g., PLM or any IT project), I always advise them to prioritize their processes first. If you bring a computer system into a disorganized environment, you’ll end up with a “computerized mess.” The primary focus should be on transforming processes before considering systems and integration.

This activity includes gaining a deep understanding of how modern processes and information should be organized, setting the stage for a profound paradigm shift. Therefore, any change, especially digital transformation, should start with transforming the foundation and understanding how modern processes and information need to be organized.

I like to refer to this as the “new 3D,” consisting of Document, Data, and Digital Thread, which together provide a solid foundation for a digital transformation project.


In most manufacturing organizations today, the reality is that everything is stored in documents. These documents are essential for various processes, such as design, defining product BOM, sending documents to contractors or suppliers. However, we need to take two crucial steps: first, acknowledge that documents may contain information, but they cannot serve as the foundation for process organization and data management in a modern digital environment. Second, in a modern digital environment, a file (document) can still be a vital source of information containing specific data (e.g., design) for engineers or others to use. However, it is not the data used by digital systems for data management and process organization.

We are not going to force companies from using documents, but we can change the way data is management and captured to become a foundation of digital processes.


Data The goal of transitioning to “data” is a fundamental step that enables organizations to create a digital platform where information can be managed, consumed, and used by everyone for process organization and analytics. This is the point where a company needs to shift from “document” thinking to “data” thinking. To achieve this, we must find a concept of data abstraction that allows us to create data representations (think of objects with attributes and their dependencies).

In one of my previous articles Graph Knowledge Model in the future of PLM, I suggested that a product knowledge graph is the future of manufacturing and product lifecycle. Such a product knowledge graph can serve as an excellent data foundation instead of relying solely on the structure of folders and design files. The outcome of this stage is a data model that can be used as a digital foundation for organizing company processes.

Digital Thread

The term “digital thread” is gaining popularity as a means to connect multiple systems. It is somewhat similar to what we used to call “integration,” although I agree partially. However, an essential aspect to consider is that a digital thread requires a robust data foundation. Attempting to establish a digital thread on top of existing document-based systems would be a recipe for disaster for the future manufacturing digital platform.

Therefore setting up a digital thread atop an existing document-centric system would be an idea of coming back to Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) endeavors of the early 2000s, where information and documents were shuttled between systems without genuine data integration and underlying data foundation.

What is my conclusion?

You cannot create a digital thread in isolation; you must have a solid data foundation. Digital thread demands the presence of a robust data layer. Efforts to build a digital thread atop an existing document-centric paradigm and systems will be return to enterprise application integration (EAI) approaches of the early 2000s, characterized by the transfer of information and documents between systems.

To succeed in the realm of digital transformation, organizations must prioritize the establishment of a modern, data-driven model, such as the product knowledge graph, which will serve as the cornerstone for all digital activities within the manufacturing company.

To build a digital thread successfully, we need to establish a modern data-driven model (e.g., a product knowledge graph) that serves as the cornerstone for all digital activities within a manufacturing company. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital-thread platform with cloud-native PDM & PLM capabilities to manage product data lifecycle and connect manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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