The digital thread: Make your smart factory smarter

Posted on 22 Nov 2022 by The Manufacturer
Partner Content

Smart factories are built on Industry 4.0 technologies that combine cyber digital and physical systems. These new technologies can be incorporated into every aspect of the product lifecycle but are too often operated in isolation. They can bring even greater value if they are connected through the digital thread - a single, seamless strand of data stretching from the initial design of a product through to its operation.

This article explores how the digital thread can make your smart factory smarter.

Data siloes

The lifecycle of a product can be broken down into four key stages: product design, manufacture, delivery to an end user, and operations.

Advanced technologies have made headway in optimising these four stages. For example, creating digital twins of products during design; digitising manufacturing processes; and exploiting data to improve product operation and service.

However, data can remain isolated in the different stages of the product lifecycle and moving it between them can be difficult and inefficient. For example, data doesn’t easily move across the key enterprise systems used:

  • Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) – a platform to collaboratively plan the product and manufacturing process from cradle to grave
  • Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) – a system to optimise the manufacturing process
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) – a system to integrate data from suppliers, material availability and production capacity to execute product manufacturing
  • Asset management tools – technologies that use real-time data to improve product use and maintenance.

This discontinuity means that data and the digital twin may not be able to inform decisions and drive improvements effectively across the whole product lifecycle. This is increasingly an issue for manufacturers in industries with rigorous compliance requirements, ever-increasing customer expectations on new product development, and increased combination of hardware and software.

The digital thread

The digital thread connects all the stages within the product lifecycle in a single, seamless strand of data stretching from the initial design to operations.

At each stage, valuable information is collected, managed and analysed to optimise the product and increase efficiency, while also considering cost reduction, end quality and user experience.

Connecting the design and manufacturing domains is crucial. This connection allows the product to be analysed and validated against the original design and bills of material to make sure it meets the performance and quality requirements. The flow of data also enables defects to be instantly fed back to the design domain, enabling them to be quickly reflected and addressed in a virtual environment.

When the product is in operation, performance and usage data is fed back instantly to drive decision-making in the design and production domains.

The data captured throughout the product lifecycle can:

  • support the continuous improvement of each product iteration
  • lead to a more efficient manufacturing process
  • enable greater product control to meet higher end user expectations.

From linear to smarter

The digital thread stimulates a new way of thinking about product lifecycle management. It helps shift away from traditional linear models to a system where each domain in the product lifecycle constantly communicates and allows a ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach until the product and process are optimised.

A good starting point is to connect the PLM, MES, ERP, and asset management toolsets. The continuous and coherent flow of data between these systems forms a body of knowledge that helps maximise quality, efficiency and compliance.


Industry 4.0 technologies facilitate efficiencies throughout each domain of the product lifecycle. However, the true value is realised when data seamlessly integrates these technologies to optimise the full product lifecycle.

Please read our other articles such as Cyber security in smart factories: Is zero trust the answer? ( and The 7 sins of a smart factory journey ( that build on content the Deloitte team presented at the Smart Factory Expo in November 2022.

About the author

Stacy Dyer is Deloitte’s European Product Development leader. He is based in the UK and has over 20 years’ experience in large engineering global transformation programs across multiple industries. His expertise includes continuous improvement, configuration and requirements management, global IT software implementation (ERP, PLM and Doc Mgmt), Systems engineering and hybrid project management.