The Digital Thread: Weaving Through the CAD Industry

Updated Mar 28, 2024
The Digital Thread in CAD

Companies are increasingly embracing digital transformation to enhance organizational and technical performance, scheduling efficiency, and the cost-effectiveness and execution of programs. Usually, such companies can choose one approach from a few alternatives. They can adopt the concept of digital twins. Digital twins represent a type of digital transformation initiative that transitions from fragmented, isolated, and physical representations of processes, environments, and products to accurate digital counterparts. Alternatively, companies can transform manual, email-based, or paper-based activities and processes into digital, automated ones as part of an innovative concept known as digital threads. The third option combines comprehensive digital twins with digital threads within the same improvement initiative.

Each of these approaches has its own advantages, disadvantages, and roles. And in this article, we will explore the digital thread, an alternative that connects multiple aspects of an organization’s operations. We will discuss what a digital thread is, its benefits, and its role in different industries/spaces. Additionally, we will map out the digital thread’s journey in a digital enterprise and how it ties together the various processes in an asset’s life cycle. Lastly, we will detail the challenges associated with implementing the digital thread. Let’s get started.

Understanding Digital Thread

Every process has a beginning and an end, naturally encompassing numerous steps and strategies along the way. Each step may generate data and require data generated in the preceding step or steps. In the context of a complex enterprise operation, ensuring that data reaches its intended recipient at the right time can be challenging. Fortunately, the digital thread has been advanced as a formidable solution to this problem. As a result, it plays a foundational role in enabling enterprises to adopt and implement digital transformation.

What is Digital Thread?

A digital thread is a communication framework that creates continuity across people, processes, and products by facilitating data flows both upstream and downstream, and also enables enterprises to maintain an integrated view or record of the entire lifecycle. The data flow occurs across interconnected informational nodes and data storage units. To paint a clearer picture, you can think of a digital thread as a chart that shows the data flows and the links connecting the nodes and repositories (data storage units). This chart not only captures these interconnections but also all the decisions made throughout the asset’s life cycle. 

Functioning as a clear map, the digital thread enables enterprises to integrate various chosen data sources across multiple operations. This way, it eases access to data that was previously siloed and challenging to access. As a result of this integration and bi-directional data flow, the digital threat propagates changes made to data in one CAD model, design, or simulation to all the other stages of the life cycle. 

Implementations of the Digital Thread

The most common implementation of the digital thread is a thread of a product or system that weaves through its lifecycle from conceptualization, design, engineering, and product lifecycle management (PLM) through manufacturing, customer use, and decommissioning. This thread records the sequence of discrete, traceable, and linked activities in a product’s or system’s life cycle. In this regard, this implementation of the digital thread enables enterprises to track the progression of the product and relay that information both upstream and downstream of where the product is in its lifecycle. 

By propagating the latest information across the lifecycle, the digital thread ensures all participants are up to date with the most current data. For example, it alerts stakeholders of key decisions or activities that may be behind schedule. In this regard, the digital thread helps them prepare for any eventuality, anticipate the next steps, or react to changes as they emerge. 

It is vital to mention that the other less common implementations of digital threads cover operational environments and processes.

History of Digital Thread

The term digital thread was coined during the development of the F-35 Lightning project. The project was a joint effort by Lockheed Martin and the United States Air Force. (For context, the project started in 1995, with the full-rate production phase beginning in 2010.) Some sources nonetheless state that the concept was originally developed in the mid-2000s.

Within the context of the project, the term generally referred to the continuous data link between the original 3D CAD model and the finished product. There was nonetheless a more comprehensive definition. The phrase described the way to use 3D CAD data directly in manufacturing, for computer numerical control (CNC) machining programming, composite programming systems (CPS), inspections, and tooling, as well as training and maintenance. This allowed for the finished product to be traced back to the original CAD model.

Since then, the meaning of ‘digital thread’ has evolved to its current definition. 

Digital Thread vs. Digital Twin

The concept of the digital thread is far newer than that of the digital twin. A digital twin is a computer-generated replica of a product, process, environment, or task. On the other hand, as we have introduced earlier, a digital thread is a record or chart that connects data, activities, and processes that are integral to creating a product or system. It’s important to highlight that prior to the adoption of digital threads, these activities, processes, and data existed in isolation.

While their definitions are expectedly different, digital twins and digital threads are tied. How so? A digital thread aids in creating, maintaining, and utilizing a digital twin. It achieves this feat by linking data and information collected from physical entities, via sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, as well as virtual systems such as CAD software. It subsequently uses it to update and enhance an asset’s digital twin. Moreover, the digital thread stores this data within the digital twin. This connectedness allows for seamless data flow across different stages of the product life cycle, from inception to disposal.

It is worth noting that individual digital threads or multiple linked digital threads can build a comprehensive digital twin over time. At the same time, digital threads influence the continuous real-time evolution of the digital twin model. It ensures the model reflects and stores the latest data.

Digital Thread vs. Digital Web

Industry experts, including professionals at Dassault Systèmes, suggest that a relatively newer concept known as the digital web is replacing the digital thread. They argue that in a digital thread, the data and processes are interconnected via a single link. Yet this is not an accurate representation of the reality today. Instead, the digital web accurately represents the interconnections in digital enterprises. 

As the name suggests, a digital web is a collection of multiple digital threads. A digital thread’s nodes are each connected by a single link. By contrast, the digital web’s nodes are connected by multiple links. 

Mapping the Digital Thread’s Journey in Digital Enterprises and CAD Projects

What is a Digital Enterprise?

A digital enterprise is an organization that has adopted and implemented digital transformation. Such an organization has fully integrated digital technologies and tools across all facets of its operations. It, therefore, goes without saying that a digital enterprise is one that has incorporated digital CAD models, visualization, simulation, and analysis tools, as well as the digital twin and digital thread concepts and approaches. 

It bears emphasizing that a digital thread provides a record of the activities, data, decisions, and processes that form part of the asset’s life cycle. And given that digital enterprises have to integrate multiple areas and processes, from design and customer relations to logistics, supply chain, and manufacturing, just to mention a few, it is easy to establish how such organizations use the digital thread concept. 

Against this backdrop, it is equally easy to map the digital thread’s journey as taken by digital enterprises. Similarly, given that most human creations start their lifecycle as CAD designs, it is also worth looking at where CAD, CAE, and CAM fall within this journey. 

Digital Thread in Digital Enterprises

Typically, the operations of industrial enterprises cover multiple areas that must be integrated for the smooth running of the companies. These areas include engineering, commercial, sourcing, supply chain, and services. Engineering covers design, modeling, simulation, and analysis. The commercial aspect covers all the activities a company performs, from inquiry to order of materials, while sourcing includes the activities conducted around ordering raw materials. The supply chain is concerned with activities around manufacturing, while the last area covers all services, from logistics to customer relationship management.

To gain an informed view of each of these areas, companies use enterprise platforms such as: PLM, Electronic Design Automation (EDA), Product Data Management (PDM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Supply Chain Management (SCM), Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), Totally Integrated Automation (TIA), Total Quality Management (TQM), Asset Performance Management (APM), Asset Lifecycle Management (ALM), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supplier Relationship Management (SRM), and more.

In an ideal situation, a digital thread has to connect all these platforms and, by extension, the activities they support. So, the digital thread begins its journey at the PLM stage and weaves through the other stages. 

Benefits of the Digital Thread

A digital thread offers numerous benefits, which, combined, increase business value. The benefits of implementing the digital thread include:

Digital Thread and CAD Collaboration

Today, many manufacturing companies have multiple manufacturing facilities and service centers detached from the head office. Despite their location in different regions of the world, these entities must work in congruence, with multidisciplinary teams collaborating on projects. The optimal situation calls for designers and engineers to receive prompt feedback on their designs. Additionally, the CAD designs and materials have to reach the factory floor on time. And the manufacturing teams must be capable of monitoring the machining and manufacturing operations. 

However, traditional approaches that were anchored in siloed operations have long struggled with orchestrating the various operations. The separated nature of processes that should ideally be interconnected has traditionally made collaboration difficult, dramatically impacting productivity. But this is no longer the case with the digital thread. 

The adoption of the digital thread in CAD design, as well as other processes in an asset’s life cycle, has dramatically boosted collaboration. It enables real-time synchronicity of data from different repositories or nodes/sources. This means when one person performs a process integral to the asset’s life cycle, the thread updates all downstream and upstream parties. The result is improved worker productivity and cooperation.  

Increased Market Agility

Companies that embrace the digital thread concept can more quickly design and build customized products. This benefit is linked to the fact that the thread, which links CRM systems with the CAD design and engineering systems, enables the free flow of data. As a result, designers and engineers receive customer feedback or requests much faster. Therefore, they can tweak their designs per their customers’ demands. 

Better Decision Making

A digital thread is an authoritative source of truth throughout the asset’s life cycle. Moreover, it facilitates continuous feedback between and among teams, enabling them to choose the best CAD designs, materials, and manufacturing processes that meet the program’s goals and constraints. This way, it helps the teams make better and more informed decisions in what improves performance and reduces cost.

Enhancing Quality in Design and Manufacturing

The digital thread enables organizations to identify and correct errors early in development. This capability stems from the seamless data flow and connection. Little wonder, then, that companies have implemented digital threads to streamline quality control and quality assurance processes. It is quite common for enterprises to use augmented reality (AR) technology to compare data collected from physical assets, such as prototypes or the initial manufacturing batches, with the digital twin’s parameters. If the properties of the physical asset and virtual model do not align, then that indicates issues that need correcting. 

For example, while manufacturing the F-35 Lightning II fighter, Lockheed Martin uses lasers alongside the digital twin to identify interference issues early on in the asset’s lifecycle.

The F35 Lightning II Fighter Jet

The F35 Lightning II Fighter Jet


Boosting Manufacturing Efficiency

The digital thread has also made it possible for companies to perform cost-effective manufacturing and machining processes that may not have been possible before. It has also facilitated automation and reduced downtime. Still on the F-35 Lightning II project, the digital thread technology enabled Lockheed Martin to implement automated drilling, which improved quality, saved time, and, more broadly, enhanced the quality of the manufacturing process. 

Role of the Digital Thread

Digital Thread in Manufacturing and Packaging Industry

Manufacturing companies use digital threads to:

  • Coordinate the activities of global teams
  • Democratize and streamline processes and data
  • Improve quality control and quality assurance
  • Enrich their digital twins, which provide better end-to-end visibility of operations and enhance transparency 
  • Realise the vision of a model-based enterprise (MBE)
  • Some enterprises implement digital threads with technologies like AR to onboard new employees. This is because the digital threads digitalize traditional procedures.

Digital Thread in Aerospace and Defense 

The United Air Force developed the digital thread analytical framework to offer engineering analysis capabilities and support the military organization’s decision-making over the lifecycle of airplanes. This digital thread merges data, 3D modeling, and simulation to generate an authoritative digital twin for each of the processes of the vehicle. The use of the digital thread aims to ensure the timely and cost-effective acquisition of military systems.

Similarly, the design and development of the F-35 Lightning II took advantage of the digital thread technology to connect engineering and manufacturing nodes. As a result, the program expanded automation of the fighter jet’s manufacturing and assembly process. Other notable advantages of deploying the digital twin included drops in tool rework, better first-time part fit, and substantially fewer reconfigurations on the part of suppliers.

Digital Thread in Compliance and Standards

The certifications, compliance regulations, and standards are all about safety assurance and protection of the public. These spaces are, however, not immune to the influence of digital threads and could, in fact, greatly benefit from the concept. The reason for this is simple. Usually, regulatory bodies enforce a lot of requirements, which include mandatory processes and steps. This, therefore, means companies must fulfill the requirements before receiving a certification, standard, or regulatory approval for their products. 

These processes ordinarily involve multidisciplinary teams. However, these teams can sometimes be drawn from different companies, such as the contracting organizations and their preferred suppliers. These teams must collaborate internally amongst themselves as well as externally with the regulatory bodies and vice versa. The pathway to regulatory approval requires the documentation of all steps taken. Therefore, having a convenient tool that facilitates the flow of data through each step makes the process relatively seamless. And that is where the digital thread comes in. It provides a record of all the procedures a company performs.

Regulatory bodies can use the digital thread for aircraft certification and the approval of medical diagnostics tools, therapies, and vaccines.

The Backbone of Integrated Systems

As introduced earlier, a digital enterprise connects various enterprise platforms and applications, including PLM, EDA, PDM, ERP, MOM, MES, TIA, TQM, APM, ALM, CRM, ALM, SCM, SRM, and more. While the acronyms can be confusing, they all serve a vital enterprise function. And as digital transformation continues to have a firmer grip on operations across the entire enterprise, new models integrating two or more platforms across the entire digital thread (i.e., both downstream and upstream) are becoming more widely accepted and common. 

While technical issues often make it challenging to integrate these platforms, software publishers and vendors have developed and offered a number of working alternatives. For example, PLM, ERP, MES, and enterprise software vendors provide APIs and connectors that facilitate the integration of their solutions with third-party applications. 

Moreover, some software publishers have joined forces to create tailor-made solutions, i.e., integrated systems, that seamlessly bring together two otherwise separate platforms. At their core, these solutions are essentially end-to-end integration of systems and data. They are intended to provide insights into operations and promote traceability. It is worth pointing out that the process of building such solutions is known as building digital threads. And several companies have taken this second route. 

Examples of Integrated Systems

Siemens and SAP entered a strategic alliance to build an interface that connected their PLM and ERP platforms. This move enhanced data continuity, an integral piece when building a digital thread. Similarly, Siemens and IBM collaborated to build a holistic digital thread that covered product development, production, operations, and asset maintenance. 

The Siemens-IBM partnership combined IBM’s Engineering Lifecycle Management, Engineering Systems Design Rhapsody, and Maximo with Siemens’ Teamcenter, Capital, and other solutions under the Xcelerator Portfolio. Teamcenter is a platform that integrates product design, innovation, and CAD and feeds that data into downstream systems.

It is clear these companies’ strategic alliances aim at using integrated systems to build digital threads across discrete enterprise platforms. These integrated systems help accelerate the adoption of the digital thread concept by collating information from multiple connected business platforms. This way, they break siloed operations that impede effective product innovation. 

In the same vein, the digital thread provides a basis for creating a functional integrated system. It defines which platforms should be connected to create efficient upstream and downstream data flows. Thus, we can accurately say the digital threads, which weave across the various enterprise platforms and operations, is the backbone of integrated systems. This is particularly so within the context of digital enterprises

Challenges of Implementing Integrated Systems and Digital Threads

There are a few challenges that can impede the implementation of digital threads and integrated systems. These include:

  • Technical issues: Integrated systems are not easy to implement. They require professional teams to make plenty of considerations and adopt technical solutions. What’s more, for the best results, a team of professionals with the requisite expertise should implement the digital thread.
  • Differing goals and scope of projects: A one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. Instead, companies must customize the digital thread per their unique needs. This calls for enterprises to identify what works for them and build their solutions around this discovery. They should also pursue achievable goals and scale appropriately.


The digital thread is a proven approach to helping companies implement digital transformation. It achieves this by connecting the nodes that generate data, facilitating the two-way flow of data. As a result, it makes it possible for the design and engineering team to receive feedback from different stakeholders instantaneously in what allows them to make the changes. It also allows the engineers and designers to send their CAD data to the factory floor. Simply put, the digital thread enables all stakeholders to read from the same script. The benefits that abound are quite a number. They include better quality, improved manufacturing efficiency, increased market agility, and better decision-making, to mention just a few. And while implementation of the digital thread is not without a few challenges, they can be dealt with strategically.

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