The digital thread: how smaller manufacturers can win

Posted on 10 Feb 2023 by The Manufacturer

If you’re a manufacturer using legacy technology and systems to run your business, your business isn’t on the competitive stage. Legacy systems are difficult to automate, unable to share data and are, by definition, outdated. Typically, companies prop these up with paper-based workarounds and generic productivity tools to keep things moving, but the price is paid in the experience to the end consumer and profit margins. Vaibhav Vohra, Chief Product Officer, Epicor explains.

Whether you’re a small independent manufacturer or a globally recognised brand, consumers desire certainty and predictability in return for their loyalty, trust and repeat custom. However, we live in uncertain and turbulent times with fragile and complex supply chains, rising energy costs and competition working against us. Those companies that can harness data, react and leverage the right technology for digital manufacturing are the ones that will reset expectations, build trust and ultimately win in the mission to attract and retain business.

The rise in cloud computing has made scalable software solutions easily accessible to small businesses

Digitisation is not new but it’s also not binary, and having an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is not the same as having the right ERP system for your business, in the form of an evergreen, ‘fit-for-purpose’ industry solution. Companies must adapt.

Our latest Epicor survey of 1,350 small and medium-sized businesses across a number of industries, including manufacturing, found that 82% are operating in a hybrid cloud environment already. However, what does that really mean? The key is knowing which digital technologies to invest in that will make life easier and not more complex. However, this is difficult enough for larger companies with big teams, let alone smaller companies where the IT person is wearing many hats.

At Epicor, we believe that the key to success starts with the right solution – one that not only provides a digital foundation for everything you need but can easily integrate and be automated to drive differentiation within your market. It’s about the right tool being used in innovative ways.

A digital foundation enables you to optimise the lifecycle of a product, with a ‘digital thread’ enabling a fully integrated, collaborative manufacturing system that can respond in real-time as demands, conditions and needs change. This allows promises to be kept and the right expectations to be set or re-set with customers and suppliers when things change.

Implementing a digital thread means interchanging data and automating systems, allowing for increased visibility, predictability and traceability

Blending physical and digital worlds 

The physical world of manufacturing is complex. Products, components, equipment, manufacturing locations, supply chains, people and infrastructure all require a delicate balance of orchestration and scheduling, and manufacturers often operate across multiple systems producing significant amounts of data that must be interpreted, recorded and distributed across the supply chain.

A digital thread connects all elements within the manufacturing process, so businesses can simulate and predict a product from conception to delivery, and then transmit the right information to those that need it in a secure and efficient way.

Implementing a digital thread means interchanging data and automating systems, allowing for increased visibility, predictability and traceability. As things change, ripples in the supply chain can be buffered and forward planning or scheduling tools can reduce the volatility to the end customer. Speed and efficiency are more important than ever, so saving valuable time in the manufacturing process is crucial to remaining competitive, especially as small businesses look to compete on a larger playing field.

Quality, adaptability and planning for the future

The most important benefits of building end-to-end digital thread capabilities fall into four main areas:

Higher product quality

The ability to manage large amounts of data from various stages across the supply chain is a game-changer for manufacturers. It proves particularly useful for those that are operating within industries with stringent regulation and compliance standards, such as aerospace and automotive, where high quality product specifications must be met and adhered to. By using accurate, on-demand data, manufacturers can minimise rework and ensure compliance.

Ability to adapt

The pandemic created barriers between countries, slowing production to a halt, while current geopolitical tensions continue to fragment global supply chains. Fulfilment is already challenging, and businesses must be agile to adapt to unpredictable obstacles or circumstances. The availability of data and increased visibility a digital thread enables is key to this, and the connected flow of information allows teams to work faster and more collaboratively across the entire supply chain.

Better planning for data accuracy

The digital thread is fundamental to accurate data transmission, allowing manufacturers and companies to access an interconnected flow of data on product status and performance across the entire supply chain, whenever and wherever. With this increased traceability, businesses can draw conclusions for future planning and analysis. In doing so, they may be able to avoid supply chain delays, assess statuses for greater availability, examine costs to maintain healthy margins, make decisions when production needs to be halted ahead of delays, and perform more ‘what-if’ simulations.

Industry 4.0: the digital factory

Intelligent, digital factories that are ready to adapt by using interconnected processes are enabled by the right ERP solution. The digital thread is a critical element in the move towards a digital factory, whether that’s by the implementation of visualisation or computer aided manufacturing tools, shop floor data collection systems or Artificial Intelligence. When properly integrated, this digital thread of information flowing from sourcing to product conception, through design, prototyping, and manufacturing sets the pace of the business.

Industry specific cloud solutions and digital threads 

The rise in cloud computing has made scalable software solutions easily accessible to small businesses. With industry specific ERP software solutions serving as the backbone of digital transformation for many manufacturers, pairing a cloud solution of choice with digital threads is the logical next step for optimised manufacturing.

NIST, the National Institute of Standard and Technology in the US, has been researching digital threads within manufacturing for a number of years, looking at various proof-of-concept studies to enable the vision of a fully integrated, collaborative, manufacturing system that responds in real time to changing demands in the factory, the supply network and customers. At Epicor we follow these areas closely and agree with their intent. A more efficient and resilient manufacturing backbone is instrumental to ensuring the future of small businesses, and those that adapt successfully will survive the test of time.

Vaibhav Vohra, EpicorVaibhav Vohra is responsible for Epicor product strategy and management, learning, and design. He brings deep enterprise SaaS transformation and product development experience working across a variety of industries including manufacturing, retail, and aerospace. Prior to Epicor, Vaibhav built and scaled startups including the largest consumer facing robotics/artificial intelligence deployment in the U.S. He also held executive roles at SAP helping manage the company’s ERP product portfolio, SaaS transformation, and incubation of new businesses. Vaibhav holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Washington Univ. in St. Louis, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Univ. of Southern California (USC), and an MBA from Univ. of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

For more stories on Digital Transformation click here.