Digital Twin Lessons for Engineers from the PLM Road Map & PDT

Don't miss these warnings, predictions and best practices for Industrial digital twins.

PLM Road Map & PDT, CIMdata’s (in collaboration with Sweden’s Eurostep Group) annual North American gathering of product lifecycle management (PLM) professionals, was an eye-opener in terms of what a few years has done for the enablement of the digital thread. However, it also outlined the digital thread’s remaining challenges, interoperability and transparency issues. This was summed up in the conference theme, “The Digital Thread in a Heterogeneous, Extended Enterprise Reality.” Here is a summary of highlights from the event.

Engineers learn about the digital thread in a heterogeneous, extended enterprise reality. (Image courtesy of Brigstock.)

Engineers learn about the digital thread in a heterogeneous, extended enterprise reality. (Image courtesy of Brigstock.)

What Engineers at PLM Road Map & PDT Learned About Digital Threads

In my keynote address, “The Digital Thread: Why Should We Care?” I noted that the technology can be seen as a network, web, chart or map of decisions that sews together—interconnects—data in the enterprise’s end-to-end product lifecycles.

Digital thread connectivity is vital to digital transformation—freeing information from formats, documents, tools, models and departmental databases (read silos). The value of the digital thread lies in the myriad of data links that feed and validate decision-making. This includes hundreds, thousands or perhaps millions of information nodes and data repositories that involve numerous systems and the processes they enable.

From a product’s conception through the end of its useful life, the digital thread helps us to see into every product- or service-related decision. So, a digital network must have a purpose—it is not just a linear sprint through product development.

Digital thread implementations are not straightforward. A well-implemented digital thread may require countless narrowly focused digital sub-threads containing hundreds of information-packed nodes and data repositories ranging from simple flat files to highly detailed model-based structures. As a communication framework, the digital thread also allows an integrated view into digital twins across the lifecycle, product and organization. A digital twin cannot be created or leveraged unless a digital thread connects its data and the processes that support it. PLM solution providers offer many powerful tools for establishing these connections but using them often requires significant experience.

Why go to all this trouble? Digital networks help us understand what decisions were made and why. If we fail to remember our past mistakes, we risk repeating them. And if we fail to learn from them, we can’t build on previous successes.

Human factors—skillsets, attitudes, even short-sightedness—are critical. Also critical is data governance and sound plans that span the organization.

To that end, Christine McMonagle, director of Engineering Business Systems at Textron Systems, zeroed in on engaging with people as the key to successful change and why that’s hard to do. Textron started on its sweeping changes with a prod from the DoD about developing “an authoritative source of truth.” This is related to a DoD effort to digitally transform its engineering documents.

She emphasized that engaging with people is the key to successful change. Among the quotations in her presentation was this gem: “Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.” It is from Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence by James Belasco and Ralph Stayer, a 1993 business bestseller.

Survey Outlines Engineer’s Thoughts on Digital Threads

James Roche, director of CIMdata’s Aerospace & Defense Practice Group, outlined the organization’s three-phase collaborative research into A&D’s use of digital thread.

The research survey respondents, all domain experts, offered 15 different definitions of digital threads, Roche said. The different views were fostered by growing product complexity, shorter time-to-market, efficiency campaigns, new enabling technologies and rising customer demands to deploy digital twins.

Also addressed were the needs in digital threads for traceability of product information, data elements and metadata, along with interoperability between pairs of data elements and the interpretation of one by the other.

The research showed digital thread investment to be in its very early days, and therefore a major business opportunity for solution providers. It also showed that model-based systems engineering (MBSE) will be a fundamental driver of future digital thread investment.

Also covered in the survey’s follow up were common pain points. The digital thread’s top inhibitor is poor interoperability between different solution providers. As a result, greater support for standards was deemed essential. Lack of openness in new solutions and dependence on third parties for extended connectivity and data interchange remain universal concerns, Roche said, adding that new technologies are helping with linkages and traceability.

To that point, Mattias Johansson, Eurostep Group CEO, focused on what Eurostep considers a viable standard, ISO 10303-239, Product Life Cycle Support (PLCS). PLCS standardizes information exchange among engineering support, resource management, configuration management, maintenance and feedback. He noted that developers are always playing catch-up because “data reacts to change faster than humans do.” No single system or standard will suffice, he added.

What the PLM Executives Think About Digital Threads

The differences in PLM solution providers’ approaches to the digital thread were addressed in an executive spotlight and Q&A with Aras, Dassault Systèmes, PTC and Siemens Digital Industries Software.

In response to a question about the digital thread connectivity that customers are asking for, Rob McAveney, CTO of Aras, pointed out that the digital thread and interoperability are “all we do,” adding, “we are fully agnostic with technology solutions and vendors.”

“Our customers want us to help them get across boundaries in their organizations,” which McAveney said means “cross-discipline digital threads instead of point solutions.” Aras, he added, pushes customers to think about the big picture of what they must accomplish while focusing on individual user access. “Consider it a Think Globally, Act Locally approach,” he added.

In response to a question about the new technologies that will enable the digital thread, McAveney listed the convergence of hardware and software development, cloud-based technologies, connectivity, systems thinking and systems-design. Still missing, he added, is “a sense of urgency dealing with the many challenges coming at us. We’ve had great conversations about this, so now let’s get going on implementations.”

In response to a question on whether customers wanted solution providers to introduce them to digital threads. Michel Tellier, Dassault Systèmes’ vice president of Managed Services, said, in effect, yes. “At Dassault, we are focused on experiences rather than products, and not on modeling but in circularity. Creating, managing and extracting value from digital twins and virtual twins,” he continued, requires highly engineered models from the customers, “which are not always a realistic expectation.”

Most needed, Tellier said, are interoperable, multi-scalar, model-based digital threads, which require “that we myopically focus” on the creation and exploitation of value. He also predicts AI will enable the harmonization of product with nature. Once multi-scalar design becomes widely understood, Tellier predicted, it will move into other industries and eventually become “mission critical.” To justify the effort and cost of automation to get us there, “we must focus” on key performance indicators (KPIs).

Kevin Wrenn, EVP and chief product officer at PTC, said, “Customers tell us they want a digital thread to enable digital twins and to synchronize information from multiple enterprise systems to enable critical use cases that span engineering, manufacturing and service to improve efficiencies, speed time to market, improve quality and sustainability.” He added that PTC is working on integrations across heterogenous systems both within its own portfolio and with other ISVs in the ecosystem to enable open, interoperable data orchestration that solves the most valuable digital thread use cases for manufacturers.

“When we speak with customers about digital thread, we tell them to think about far-reaching digital transformation initiatives like data driven design or closed-loop quality. Next, we discuss approaching these transformative initiatives in phases: first, clean up your digital life, meaning sort out the right systems of record for your product data (ALM, PLM, ERP and more); next, implement more straight forward data orchestration, like integrated change management between PLM and ERP; and then start working on your farther-reaching digital thread initiatives.”

Wrenn also believes new technologies will help customers meet sustainability requirements and advance hardware and software development with Agile methods. “We see this happening already in many platforms and systems, not just in PLM. Software as a service (SaaS) helps us deal with integration,” he noted. As for artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, a natural-language search engine, “who knows where they will go, but you certainly could imagine applicability in areas like requirements and generative design.”

Dale Tutt, vice president of industry strategy at Siemens Digital Industries Software, said customers “want our help in tightly closing their many open loops in product development and manufacturing to improve performance and sustainability. [They] want the digital threads to free up their engineers from moving data around and getting rid of ‘air gaps’ in everyone’s processes, to allow their engineers to focus on creating new, innovative products and solving problems.”

“Customers sometimes ask if they should go ‘all-in’ on digital transformation, or if they should approach it incrementally?” Tutt said, “We work with them to understand what they are currently doing, and take a holistic view of solutions, processes and people, as they implement digital threads and improve interoperability. Often, they may want to focus on a few new use cases, but we want to help them bring in solutions that will help them provide a foundation for future growth. If they just bring in technology to satisfy the new use case alone, or they don’t consider process changes and buy-in from their team, they may be setting themselves up for long-term failure.”

As for data itself, Tutt continued, “we help them understand why they need to clean it up to enable digital threads. Usually, they might achieve a 20 percent gain in productivity in the first program they apply digitalization, and then each program after that they can get that productivity increase over and over. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” As for applying AI, Tutt said, “Once you have cleaned up the data, AI will help classify data created to build connectivity and traceability in good data structures. After that’s done, we’ll see digital threads used to increase automation production and design.”

A Serious Warning to Engineers from Academia

Patrick Hillberg gave an unsettling look at coming social and economic disruptions in “The Past Century Has Not Prepared Us for The Next Decade.” A Ph.D. in systems engineering, he teaches graduate courses in engineering management at Michigan’s Oakland University.

Hillberg explored big disruptions that are expected in global trading patterns: a shift toward goods produced locally and close to customers rather than manufactured where costs are lowest and shipped globally. He also said digital threads and twins could be used to shift to virtual products from physical products.

The greatest challenge facing us, Hillberg said, is developing a digital-capable workforce. To drive home his point, he compared the U.S. workforce of 2020 with predictions that a 2030 workforce will face:

  • Out of the 2020 workforce of 12.3 million, 500,000 jobs went unfilled.
  • In 2030, 4.4 million additional jobs will need to be filled thanks to 2.5 million retirements plus 1.9 million new jobs created by economic growth.
  • One-third of the 2030 workforce will be “new,” and 2.1 million of its positions will be unfillable.
  • 75 percent of 2020’s tech skills will be irrelevant in 2030.

Despite this warning, the PLM RoadMap & PDT North America showed that progress is being made by digital thread users and developers, while highlighting the remaining challenges, particularly interoperability. However, nearly every speaker left the audience convinced that the digital thread and the digital twins it supports prove their value and that more is coming.