3 Reasons the Customer Needs to Pull the Digital Thread

Jack Baker / April 28, 2017

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of representing GoWesty as a MakeTime customer on a panel discussion at the 2017 Model Based Enterprise (MBE) Summit in Maryland. The summit was about how engineering data — tolerances, materials, manufacturing processes, etc. — embedded into a 3D CAD model at the design phase can make the entire supply chain more efficient. As esoteric and niche as it sounds, the idea affects almost everyone in manufacturing, especially because the whole idea is to get rid of 2D-printed engineering drawings.

MBE summit 2017

Why should we get rid of 2D drawings?  Because 2D drawings leave too much room for misinterpretation, and more importantly, because software can’t reliably harvest data from a 2D print, and data is becoming more important by the second.

Take MakeTime’s business model as an example, which is based on efficiently matching CNC machining jobs with competent machine shops. If critical information, such as tolerances and material type, is only available on a 2D print, it’s impossible to know how difficult or expensive a part will be to machine without an actual person reading it. For a company that wants to effectively and automatically match thousands (and eventually millions) of CNC jobs per day without hiring an army of people to review drawings, it ain’t gonna happen without the digital thread.

The Digital Thread

The digital thread is a way of thinking about maintaining a product’s information across its entire life cycle, from design to manufacturing to use to retirement. Given advances in cyber-physical technologies and cloud computing, it’s actually possible to do, not just think about. Anytime you cut that digital thread, you lose data continuity, and inefficiency and waste arrive. Keep it continuous, and everyone — and everything — benefits.

  1. It’s better for customers
  2. It’s better for manufacturers
  3. It’s better for the environment

There’s a reason the first benefit is linked to customers. The only reason we’re making parts in the first place is because somebody somewhere wants to actually buy it. The beauty of the customer pulling the digital thread is that it leads perfectly to mass customization.

Getting From Point A to Point Z

History time: A couple hundred years ago, all products were custom-made by craftspeople using manual tools. This process allowed for bespoke products, but everything was expensive because the tools and processes were slow.

Enter the industrial revolution and mass production. It’s now really quick to make standardized parts and products are cheap. The downside is that there’s little variety so customers are forced to choose from a small finite set of options. Custom choices still exist, but they’re usually expensive like they were 200 years ago.

GoWesty Van

Now we are entering the era of mass customization. Anyone can get custom, bespoke products at prices that were formerly reserved only for mass production. Of course, near-infinite choice can be overwhelming unless you have design skills or a design assistant. Customers will soon share similarities to designers, and software will act as a sort of design assistant to help guide them through the decision-making process. MBE and data harvesting will serve as that design assistant.

The Customizing Customer

Customers need to pull the digital thread so they can get what they’re willing to pay for. Manufacturers want to let customers pull the digital thread so they only make what customers actually want. The concept of the digital thread isn’t totally new; essentially it’s another way of thinking about lean manufacturing and pull production. Toyota developed and popularized these ideas in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the Toyota Production System. The idea — as now — was that a customer’s desires would reach into the factory and design studio and pull what he or she wanted off the shelf as efficiently as possible.

The ultimate realization of this new era of mass customization will be stores stocked only with samples, not actual inventory. A customer will sample a product, decide if he or she wants to make any custom changes with the help of a software design assistant, and then place an order.  Only at that point will the production of the custom product begin. The manufacturer will already have the money and will begin the process of transforming raw materials into finished goods.

This method is far superior to just making products customers will hopefully want. If the customer changes their mind? It ends up being a waste of their time and money and energy.

Customers need to pull the digital thread so they can get what they want, and so manufacturers can only make what customers want. By only making what customers want, manufacturers will make more money by avoiding undesirable products and the time and materials embodied in them.

Customers get what they want. Manufacturers make more money. The environment is less negatively impacted by unnecessary expenditures of energy and use of raw materials. It makes sense.

Customers need to pull the digital thread.