Boosting engineering efficiencies with digital threads

Accelerating traceability across the product development lifecycle

By | 2 minute read | February 1, 2022

As the demand for agile development grows, so does the demand for digital threads. But what are digital threads, and what is their value?

Digital threads enable a product’s development through its lifecycle domains to be digitally traced. The tracing can be in either direction, upstream or downstream in the product development lifecycle.

“Digital” means that all the paths are electronic — no one is searching through filing cabinets looking for requirements or test documents. “Thread” means there is a traceable path that anyone can follow between processes and across data domains.

The value in digital threads is the ability to quickly trace an entire development process, digitally identifying causalities between the processes and ensuring that their datasets are consistent. When there is a product quality issue, the digital thread allows for the part or subsystem to be traced back through its lifecycle. Original design concept, requirements, test cases, quality checks, and signoffs are all available to the engineering team diagnosing the quality issue. If a requirement needs to be changed, that change’s impact can be determined digitally by its logical thread.

The need for digital thread enablement has been amplified by growing market pressures for development to be more agile, as well as the increasing software integration in “smart products.”

Digital threads in agile development

The need for agility is especially clear when dealing with supply chain issues. Companies need to know the dependencies in product design for every part and subsystem.

This is important for accelerating reaction time, for instance, when a delay from one vendor forces the substitution of another vendor’s part. Leveraging a digital thread helps companies automate changes and execute them faster. Manually managing changes can make an organization subconsciously adverse to change, which is completely averse to the concept of being agile.

Digital threads in software integration

The increasing integration of software introduces a new market model for many companies, and it increases the need to track and maintain their products in market. Software offers an attractive potential revenue stream through in-market upgrades and enhancements. Maintaining a digital thread helps engineering teams automate necessary processes and leverage data analytics for better insights to proposed changes, such as optimizing the release of fix-packs, retro-functions, and incremental enhancements.

The digital thread is incredibly valuable in the development process. It enables decision-makers to analyze the impact of changes before they are made, establish cross-functional KPI’s for measuring readiness and progress, or more readily respond and report on cross-functional compliance requirements.

IBM designed the Engineering Lifecycle Management portfolio on a digital foundation that not only leverages a single view of digital development data, but also leverages an industry-standard, open exchange format of Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration (OSLC). The IBM Engineering requirements, test, and workflow management tools, as well as the systems/software modeling tool, all leverage this digital foundation to establish traceability across the development environment. This ELM digital foundation can be leveraged via its OSLC architecture by third-party tools and other domain applications, further extending the capabilities of ELM’s digital thread services. This would allow a manufacturing management system to extend the digital thread traceability across development into the actual product’s manufacturing.