For executives at PTC, the company’s Creo software isn’t just a computer-aided design (CAD) tool that product development engineers use to model new components and parts. It’s also the birthplace of the ‘digital thread’ - a continuous, seamless strand of data that connects each stage of a product’s lifecycle, from design through to manufacture and onwards to maintenance and repair.
This idea of a ‘digital thread’ is not unique to PTC. As previously reported by diginomica, executives from Oracle and GE are also fans of the concept, with its promise to manufacturing companies of increased productivity, improved product quality and reduced costs, driven by everyone working from the same data about a product and its constituent parts.
But it’s certainly an idea that plays particularly well with PTC’s overall corporate strategy, as it continues its expansion beyond its heartland of CAD and product lifecycle management (PLM) software (with Windchill), and into the worlds of industrial IoT and augmented reality, with ThingWorx and Vuforia, respectively. As PTC CEO Jim Heppelmann said in his keynote speech at PTC’s LiveWorx conference in Boston last week:
A digital thread means that information that was originally created for one purpose - say, an engineering prototype - gets reused for many different purposes. In this way, the digital thread weaves its way across the value chain.
Design, build, inspect, service
A good chunk of Heppelmann’s keynote was given over to describing how the digital thread is being put to work at customer Volvo Group, the manufacturer of trucks, buses, construction equipment and industrial engines. He was joined on stage by Volvo’s manufacturing innovation and technology manager Bertrand Felix and manufacturing technology manager Geoffrey Blanc. As Felix explained:
There are two main reasons for our interest at Volvo Group in the digital thread. The first is quality, which has always been a major focus for our company, and the second is the cost of managing great product diversity.
We are convinced that, through a solid and trusted digital thread, with consistent data from design to production down to after-market, we can enable operators to receive the right instructions, at the right time and matching the right product. And, in the meantime, we can use the power of the thread to implement interfaces and data flows in order to optimize processes and decrease the costs of managing [product] diversity.
So what does this digital thread look like for Volvo Group? First, designs for many truck components start life in PTC Creo. The software is being used, for example, to reimagine designs for the SuperTruck II initiative, a US Department of Energy competition to create more energy-efficient tractor/trailer combinations for hauling goods around the United States.
From there, the data in this digital thread flows into PTC Windchill, with the PLM package providing a universal, consolidated view of all the parts and components that make up each and every product. That’s particularly important for Volvo Group, said Felix, since the company built some 260,000 trucks in 2018, with almost every truck configured slightly differently. In effect, Windchill provides Volvo Group with a ‘recipe’ for each and every truck.
PTC ThingWorx, the company’s industrial IoT platform, is then used to integrate information: with data from other business systems, as well as manufacturing equipment, joining information from Creo and Windchill in the digital thread, as Geoffrey Blanc explained:
At Volvo Group Trucks Operations, we have a lot of homemade execution systems, so we had to integrate everything, and we decided to use ThingsWorx as much as we can to make critical connections and ultimately achieve a digital thread across our operations.
Launchpad for innovation
This thread, in turn, will provide a launchpad for many kinds of innovation, according to Felix and Blanc. In future, it could provide the basis for explorations into digital twins, helping engineers to provide services such as predictive maintenance.
More immediately, there’s the company’s piloting of augmented reality in quality-control tasks on the factory floor, using PTC’s Vuforia AR software. This pilot involves enabling workers armed with tablets to view physical engines, with their view overlaid with data about the engine’s components, along with instructions for performing quality-assurance inspections specific to the configuration in front of them - data gleaned from the digital thread.
This application also supports a feedback loop: if defects are found, inspection staff can quickly capture these, using the tablet, and send them back upstream to engineering and manufacturing staff to rectify.
According to Bertrand Felix, with an average of around five to seven quality stations per plant, across 20 plants, Volvo already anticipates savings of thousands of euros per year,
But the bigger reward will come when we can remove the quality stations, due to the fact that we have integrated more deeply with a digital thread we trust, in order to have inspection instructions fed up to operators further up the line, when they are actually assembling a truck.