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The digital thread helps companies realize the full benefits of the Industrial Internet by helping them improve productivity and drive efficiency at a lower cost with higher quality. Image: GEThe marriage of modern Internet technologies such as Cloud and mobile computing, advanced analytics and ubiquitous connectivity with traditional plant systems, people, equipment and sensors is the Industrial Internet. And it’s leading to significant improvements in asset and operational performance, an uncharted territory to manufacturers.

Many challenges relative to connectivity, security, deterministic control, isolation of plant networks, employee productivity and the long useful life of plant equipment, have led to the slow adoption of modern Internet technologies by manufacturers. “Until recently, manufacturers used the Internet primarily as an information source for research and planning outside the plant floor,” says Rich Carpenter, Chief Technology Strategist at GE Intelligent Platforms Software.

This trend is changing as companies begin to realize the better decision-making potential (by people or automated machines) with the information aggregated and analyzed at a more ecosystem level.

“Customers are moving quickly to get their equipment connected to the Industrial Internet,” says Carpenter. “This is true whether it’s in a single plant, a fleet of plants or a highly distributed set of remote equipment.”

Overall, organizations are using Industrial Internet technologies to connect to manufacturing equipment, bring the data to a central location, analyze equipment downtime and efficiency and share this information broadly across the enterprise to drive efficiencies. “Having this information centralized is leading to new insights further improving company performance,” says Carpenter. And as businesses collect and organize this data in a way that can be re-used, the collective knowledge and domain experience of the enterprise “is being shared broadly in the spirit of a true learning organization,” says Carpenter.

The importance of the digital thread
Many companies have fully realized the benefits of Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma and other initiatives driven to improve manufacturing productivity. These initiatives are focused on driving efficiency in manufacturing to deliver production goals at lower costs with higher quality. “It’s the digital thread that takes these principles to the next level,” says Carpenter.

The digital thread helps to lean out the new product introduction cycle from initial product concept and design, through manufacturing, the supply chain and, ultimately, through operations, maintenance and service. However, to leverage the digital thread’s full potential requires connecting previously islanded systems such as PLM, ERP, EAM, MES, M&D and supply chain systems.

The main benefits of the digital thread include faster product cycles, high-quality products and lower manufacturing costs. Other benefits also include built-in feedback loops between the traditional silos leading to faster response to real-time changing market dynamics.

The digital thread can enhance manufacturing in many ways. “For example, a great new product may be sent to manufacturing where it is determined the product can’t actually be built in volume,” says Carpenter. “This may be because parts with the right specifications can’t be acquired cost effectively, or state-of-the-art equipment can’t make the parts.” Traditionally, this is a very long process of discovery, re-work, escaped product defects and re-designs.

“When the digital thread is connected, the design from the PLM system can lead directly to a manufacturing plan,” says Carpenter. And that plan can automatically produce the manufacturing execution system configuration and bill of materials.

“Quality can be collected in the context of the design,” says Carpenter. And, if during manufacturing, non-conformances are identified, they can immediately be sent back to engineering for resolution. This closed loop, continuous feedback loop helps to ensure quality products are built and the risk of recall is minimized.

The digital thread and big data
Big data is a ubiquitous challenge for organizations. Many organizations are beginning to use Industrial Internet technologies to get insights from this data.

“The digital thread creates new challenges in the big data area as the data comes from many sources—documents, sensor readings, event logs, Internet pages, databases, transactions logs—and in many forms,” says Carpenter. “The new challenge this creates is one of data variety all managed in a way that customers can generate insights across the data.” However, this is needed in order to get a true 360-degree view across plants and equipment from product concept and design through service and disposition.

“For example, if there is higher level of maintenance for a given product line, it becomes possible to trace that to a change in suppliers, or perhaps ambient or other operating conditions,” says Carpenter. And these correlations have been difficult for organizations in the past.

The future of the Industrial Internet
“We are at the very early stage of a massive change in process with the Industrial Internet,” says Carpenter. “We are collecting and organizing the world’s industrial knowledge in a way that makes it accessible to the broad community of businesses, thus creating a form of industrial ambient intelligence that is always available.”

The Industrial Internet, in the future, can be used to make better day-to-day production decisions, help new employees catch up quickly in new roles and find correlations across unknown processes. The economic and business impact in terms of productivity is significant, and organizations will continue to seek the benefits of the Industrial Internet in their manufacturing cycles.

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