In my last discussion, I wrote about the importance of the concept of a digital thread regarding complex asset manufacturers and service providers. Here, I would like to address the beginning of the digital thread: the conceptualization and design of complex products.

As a reminder,

“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.”

Equipment manufacturers have become very aware that with increased quality assurance, better design capabilities, and improved manufacturing processes, complex assets are lasting longer and longer in the field. Automobiles, which used to be considered aging out at 100,000 or 125,000 miles, are now regularly pushing 250,000 and 300,000 miles or more. This is due to the improved manufacturing processes, but also to a continuity of design principles that extend from equipment manufacturing to lifetime asset maintenance and service.  Complex assets are now being designed for service.

Defining Design for Service

What does design for service mean? Well, I can give you an example of what it does not mean. Recently, I needed to remove the alternator on the port motor of a boat. After a little investigation, I realized that you cannot remove the alternator without first removing the raw water pump. The raw water pump cannot be removed without rebuilding it, because it has a special seal to prevent the raw (salt) water from leaking. This system was obviously NOT designed for service. A minor modification in the design of the alternator bracket would have alleviated the need to remove other parts to access it, but the people who designed the motor, back in 2000, did not take servicing of the components into consideration during the design stages.

A few decades ago, manufacturers began to break complex assets down into identifiable subsystems. Those subsystems were, in turn, re-engineered into easily accessible modules that could be swapped out by technicians at the job site, or FRUs (field replaceable units). Fewer component-level repairs and faster module swapping led to far better technician utilization and lower costs. These FRUs initially sparked an increase in Depot Repair operations, as FRUs were swapped by technicians in the field and sent back to the manufacturer to be repaired in a depot and then returned to inventory. Now as we have continuously improved the manufacturing process and reduced the costs of materials, many of those FRUs have become consumable items that are discarded in the field.

Beginnings of the Digital Thread

Over the past few years, manufacturers have also made accessibility, ease of disassembly, and simplification of repair strategic objectives to ensure the longevity and availability of their products. This has coincided with manufacturers shifting from status meters and condition indicators physically located on assets to sensors feeding remotely accessed data streams. This allows services organizations to remotely monitor the condition of the assets, and their associated sub-assemblies, modules, and FRUs, in order to determine the health of the asset in the field.

This digitally enabled remote monitoring—the beginnings of the digital thread—provides the opportunity to identify and diagnose a problem before it causes an equipment outage in the field. That is crucially important, as service organizations can now schedule maintenance activity rather than react to service failures. Reactive maintenance can be 7 times more costly than planned maintenance and can significantly reduce the economic output, economic life, and overall value of a complex asset.

Ease of service, simplified repairs, and a deep understanding about the condition of the asset in the field have made manufacturers more efficient, extended the economic life of their products, and cemented the value that service organizations bring to the table. Operations data is key to the maintenance of equipment for extended operations in the field. The digital thread enables this by providing operational information to the manufacturer or service provider regarding the health of the asset in the field.

Tying in Right to Repair

Recently, governments have begun to investigate asset and equipment sustainability, serviceability, and their associated environmental impact. They have also started to legislate the buyers’ “Right to Repair” for products purchased. This gives owners the legal right to modify, repair, and utilize vendors other than the manufacturer to repair. It also restricts proprietary tools and software and prevents manufacturers from limiting access to repair information.

This reduces the obstacles that equipment manufacturers can place in the way of their customers finding the most cost-effective and beneficial repair services for their equipment. It also opens equipment and asset repair and maintenance services to many alternative suppliers. The digital thread allows manufacturers the ability to deliver the best of all possible worlds to their customers while ensuring that they can comply with legislation that restricts their ability to control the maintenance process. The operational data has significant value, regardless of who is doing the maintenance.

Complex equipment that is designed for service, with remote monitoring capabilities incorporated as part of the initial design and build, has a longer life, better uptime, is less expensive to service, and results in extended economic output at a lower cost and higher margins for customers. It is the new cost of entry into complex asset sales and servicing.

To learn more about the digital thread, watch Neil Barua’s keynote, A New Vision for Service.

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.