What is the digital thread? And why does it matter when thinking about the operating life of an asset? PTC offers this definition:

“A digital thread creates a closed loop between digital and physical worlds, transforming how products are engineered, manufactured, and serviced. Digital threads seek to create simple access to data. They follow a single set of related data as it weaves in and out of business processes and functions to enable continuity and accessibility.”

This digital thread begins even before the asset exists, in the conception, requirements, design, engineering, and plan of manufacture. But that is only the beginning of this vital thread that runs throughout the asset lifecycle.

The Birth, Life, and Demise of an Asset

Assets and equipment begin their existence as an idea, a draft, a set of requirements, or a need.  How is that initial requirement captured and saved? How is it recorded, where, and by whom?  What is the result? Schematics, CAD drawings, designs, and prototypes.

This is the start of the digital thread—the concept, design, requirements, and model of the asset. Following on from the concept, there are iterations of design, model, build, test, modify, redesign, rebuild, and retest, until there is acceptance of the design and manufacture specifications. The asset now has a form, a function, a process of manufacture, and all the supplies and costs associated with it. It also has a record of expected performance and output based on adequate supplies and an ideal environment.

During its economic life, there is an expectation for how much output (or yield) the asset will produce over time as well as what maintenance will be required to operate the asset. This ‘digital twin’ is a set of parameters that is created during the manufacturing process and is the basis of the business case supporting the development and sale of the asset. With the application of the correct technology, the actual output of the asset can be compared to that digital twin throughout the asset’s economic life, and better validation and/or management of its performance is possible. A better understanding of the operational output of the asset in the field can support the expectations of the engineering and manufacturing process and provide a feedback loop to refine and aid in re-engineering the product to continually improve its performance. The digital thread enables this feedback loop.

At some point, the value of the economic output of the asset will fall below the cost to maintain and operate the asset, and the owner/operator will have a decision to make – rebuild, sell, or dispose of the unit. Again, utilizing the data available in the digital thread should ensure that this is not a surprise, but a planned event with ample warning and the ability to squeeze the most value out of the asset as its usefulness declines. Knowing when an asset, or class of assets, will need to be replaced or upgraded is critical data for owners, operators and service providers.  There is an operational balance that incorporates training, inventory, staffing, warehousing, and parts stocking locations. As assets are utilized, organizations are managing much more than just the asset, but everything that touches on that asset. This is all part of the digital thread. When planning the obsolescence of an asset, inventory must be drawn down, staff must be prepared to train on replacement products, and territories may need to be realigned. It is far more complex than deciding on just the asset itself.

Extending the Life of an Asset

This is where service comes in. What is the cost/benefit of extending the economic life of an asset? While in principle the longer an asset can stay operational, the more economic benefit you will get, there is more to the equation.

I previously mentioned the feedback loop to engineering. Suppose that there was an electric motor or relay that failed at a high rate. The failure of that part puts additional stress on the systems around that part and may lead to several associated failures. Timely, accurate, and easily digested feedback to engineering would alert them to the high rate of failure of these parts and the associated maintenance costs of the problems associated with these failures. This feedback loop would enable engineering to address the root cause of failures by either redesigning or sourcing alternative parts. This would reduce the number of failures of the part itself and the associated failures around it, and the overall operational stress on the whole asset, resulting in a longer lifetime for the asset. The benefits when you have this digital thread broaden into a reduced cost of service, fewer truck rolls, fewer parts used, fewer manhours expended, increased uptime, and happier customers.

Outcomes of Enabling a Digital Thread

Feeding back operational and service data to manufacturing and engineering enables continuous improvement of the asset in the field, driving more output at lower costs. Accessing this data in a continuous digital thread, tied to the asset and the asset history, is what enables this continuous improvement. Understanding equipment failures and why they have occurred is central to reducing those failures and, hopefully, eliminating them. Shifting from reactive to predictive and prescriptive maintenance reduces stress on assets, increases uptime and reduces maintenance costs while improving customer satisfaction and reducing customer effort.

Understanding the condition of the asset in the field and feeding back that data to engineering and manufacturing is key to obtaining these benefits. They include:

  • Lower operating costs
  • Improved asset up-time
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Reduced inventory carrying costs
  • Increased First Time Fix rate
  • Higher CSAT
  • Lower Customer Effort
  • Longer economic life of the asset

In addition, from a services perspective, accessing this data allows for improved equipment uptime, more informed territory management, higher technician utilization, better inventory and parts management, lower cost of inventory, higher customer satisfaction and lower overall costs for service.

Digital transformation and the technology that enables the digital thread are game changers for manufacturers, operators, and service leaders. It is the cost of entry for organizations that manage complex assets, and late adopters will have a very difficult time competing against these new technologies.

To learn more about the results you can achieve through digital transformation, read ServiceMax’s latest report: The Impact of Digital Transformation on Service Organizations.

More on the digital thread: 

ABOUT Joe Kenny

Avatar photoJoe Kenny is the vice president of global customer transformation & customer success at ServiceMax. His career spans over 30 years of leadership positions in Operations, Sales, Product Development, Product Marketing, and Field Service. Beginning his field service experience with the U.S. Naval Security Group Command (NSGC) as a mainframe computer technician, Joe subsequently lived and worked in Asia, the U.S., and Europe. Joe has focused on customer relationship management, using clearly defined and mutually agreed to measurements of success, and driving to continually exceed customer expectations, allowing for exponential business growth and client retention.