Data is a new oil. Some people like this analogy and some don’t. However, the fact is that manufacturing companies are drowning in data. CAD files, requirements, spreadsheets, multiple legacy databases – this is only a shortlist of data you can find engineering departments. If you move outside of engineering beyond the traditional scope of PLM systems, you will find even more data – maintenance, support, product sales, configurations, customer reports. There is a gigantic amount of information. At the same time, a very small amount of this information is actually making its way to PLM databases. There multiple reasons for that – historical complexity of PLM, focus on engineering and design, old infrastructure, high cost of licenses. I’m sure there are other reasons.
PLM vendors are changing their approach with regards to the data. PLM is expanding and including even more connected islands of information – requirements, system engineering, customer information, connected products, electronic, software.. what else? You can see companies focusing on connecting sales and customer information to PLM systems as well.
I can see how PLM is rebranding into Digital Thread. While the rebranding is very exciting, I not sure many customers are realizing the importance of the change and the critical aspects of pulling additional information into PLM infrastructure. How PLM companies are focusing on one aspect of the digital thread – data life cycle. Unless you lived under the rock for the last few years, you’ve heard that as much as data is fast becoming one of the most valuable assets, it is also driving huge demands in terms of how to manage this data asset.
The in a Digital Thread is combined from product data, history of changes and also data produced and acquired from customers. The data is intertwined together – connected, processed and used. Which demands a question – how all these data placed in PLM infrastructure (usually SQL database) will be safe, managed and controlled?
So, before PLM marketing will sell you the next Digital Thread solution, here are few questions about data lifecycle management, you need to ask them.
1- How PLM vendors are managing the process of data acquisition
The data must be obtained by the PLM system, but this is a process that must be carefully controlled. Requirements, customer reports, information about the product as it was shipped to the customer – all these chunks of information have their owners and if data is acquired by “digital thread”, the system should validate the data and check the legal and other obligations about related to customers, partners and other data sources.
2- How PLM vendors are storing customer and other related customer data
The efficient storage of data is important as the Digital Thread system is acquiring more data about the product and its lifecycle with the customers. How PLM companies are storing these data and how they following regulation about data storage in different countries. It can be important and might require to separate data into multiple databases and not store it in a single location.
3- Will the Digital Thread system sell customer data?
A very sensitive question these days – will digital thread systems sell customer data and history about what happens with the products and their usage. This is not a joke at all. Digital Thread systems are acquiring data and turning this data into an intelligent asset. To whom this asset belongs to? Will Digital Thread systems be able to sell this information to somebody else? Will Digital Thread systems be able to sell this information to you (company that provided this data)?
4- Can you clean Digital Thread?
Finally, also a very important question – what if a company wants data to be forgotten. Is it possible to clean particular segments of digital thread? What if some customers of manufacturing companies will demand from OEMs to destroy some portions of the data? It is similar to asking IT to wipe your hard disc before selling your computer. Customers might demand from OEMs to clean some of the information about the product when this product is sold and acquired by somebody else.
What is my conclusion? Digital Thread is a great idea, but it will bring a lot of complexity. In fact, most PLM systems are glorified SQL databases with the data sitting inside of SQL tables without any way to realize what portion of the data is historical thread and what portion of the data is produced out of the data created and collected from customers. Most of the existing PLM technologies were created at the time when nobody was even thinking about the complexity of the product and customer data lifecycle. So, before buying into the Digital Thread marketing story from a PLM vendor, you need to check what system infrastructure will be used for that and how IT of your company (or hosted PLM system) will be able to ensure that the data is safe and managed in an appropriate way. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing cloud-based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups, and supply chain. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.