Tracing the Digital Thread in Manufacturing

NIST launches Smart Manufacturing Systems test bed.

(Image courtesy of NIST.)

(Image courtesy of NIST.)

Have you heard of digital thread?

No, it’s not what you use to keep pixelated pants stitched together.

The idea behind digital thread is for manufacturers to utilize standard, three-dimensional models for the entire manufacturing process, from the first design to the last inspection.

Until recently, manufacturers have relied on two-dimensional drawings either in printed form, as computer-aided design (CAD) plans, or some combination of both. However, this approach requires humans to interpret, translate, re-enter and transmit the data at each step in manufacturing process, resulting in significant expenditures of time and money, and introducing additional opportunities for error.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 90 percent of small manufacturers still rely on traditional 2D methods to make their products, despite these disadvantages. The Institute also estimates that transitioning from 2D methods to digital thread could reduce production times by up to 75 percent.

A Model Factory for Digital Thread

To that end, NIST has launched the Smart Manufacturing Systems (SMS) test bed, a model factory designed to help manufacturers implement the digital thread along with the necessary resources to make it work. The model factory can also be used to gauge the effectiveness of standards for collecting and distributing the production data which supports digital thread.

The test bet itself consists of three basic components:

  • A computer-aided technologies laboratory with a suite of standardized software tools for controlling design, fabrication, inspection, data management and verification and validation testing.
  • A real-world manufacturing facility at NIST’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters which features a variety of computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools (such as milling and turning centers) and precision inspection devices (such as coordinate measuring machines and digital micrometers).
  • Online data streaming, collection, storage and publication services that provide real-time, universally compatible data links for experimenting with the digital manufacturing process; a searchable repository of all SMS Test Bed data generated; and pre-set data packages for model products previously fabricated using the digital thread, which manufacturers can try at their own facilities.

“The goal of the SMS Test Bed is to create a shared resource that enables smart manufacturing research and development,” said NIST mechanical engineer Thomas Hedberg, co-coordinator of the project. “We are actively seeking collaborators who are willing to link their manufacturing data sets, fabrication processes and product data exchange systems with our test bed so that we can help them make their way toward digital manufacturing and, at the same time, let others who participate in the project gain from their knowledge and experience.”

(Image courtesy of NIST.)

(Image courtesy of NIST.)

Future plans for the test bed include giving manufacturers the chance to compare test products fabricated using standard procedures with those produced via an optimized digital thread plan. “We also hope to assist with the creation and launch of test beds like ours across the country, so that eventually a national network is established,” said NIST mechanical engineer and project co-coordinator Moneer Helu.

NIST is working with a number of companies and organizations to realize this goal, including:

  • The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT)
  • DP Technology Corp.
  • Mazak Corp.
  • Mitutoyo America Corp.
  • The MT Connect Institute
  • System Insights Inc.

For more information, visit the SMS Test Bed webpage.