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New Documentary Series Explores Potential of Digital Thread

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.– A new video series from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte brings a groundbreaking concept–the digital thread–to life by following a manufactured component along its own digital thread, from initial design to deployment.

The digital thread is a single seamless strand of data that stretches from the initial design to the finished part. It is a key concept supporting advances in additive manufacturing and in moving the design, manufacturing, and testing of industrial parts and machines completely into the digital sphere.

Hosted by Mark Cotteleer, research director for Deloitte's Center for Integrated Research, Deloitte Services LP, the eight-part series takes a comprehensive storytelling approach by detailing the evolution of a bell crank created at One Aviation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cotteleer shows how this critical piece of an aircraft's landing gear moves along the digital thread as it evolves from design concept to an actual physical part.

The series follows a piece of aerospace equipment; however, the digital thread will have ramifications for nearly all industries. Along the way, Cotteleer is joined by an array of subject matter experts from America Makes, M7 Technologies, Siemens PLM Software, and Youngstown State University.

"What we set out to do with this project, is to detail this extraordinary new enabling technology," said Cotteleer, in a press release. "Most people have never actually seen it in a realized state. This series allows us to demonstrate the game-changing nature of an interconnected digital thread and the ways in which it can quickly and radically transform organizations across many industries."

The videos are each three to five minutes in length, and make the tech concepts accessible to a general audience. The series is aimed at business leaders working in manufacturing companies, but is also a primer for anyone interested in emerging tech.

"While the series takes a close look at a technology born of a manufacturing context," said MIT Sloan Management Review Editor in Chief Paul Michelman in his video introduction, "the technology has, we believe, ramifications across industry, across organizational function, and even across individual roles within organizations."

As Cotteleer and the team explain, the digital-thread journey begins with the design of the part. To get there, the designer may scan an existing bell crank or draw a new part to create a 3D modeled, optimized part. A process called topology optimization allows engineers to create or redesign a part to dramatically improve the structure and performance of the part in line with the unique loads, stresses, and general constraints for that part's function.

"The impact [of topology optimization] is going to be enormous; it will change the industry," said Barry Chapman, vice president, Aerospace & Defense, Federal and Marine Industries, Siemens PLM Software, in the press release. "Topology optimization will allow parts to be created like they've never been created before. Which means they will be lighter weight, they will be stronger, and you're able to do that in a way that the mind couldn't do before."

Next, advanced digital engineering simulations test the bell crank design for stress, load, and function, in answering the question "will it work?" within the context of the entire system. Only then will an additive manufacturing process build the prototype, layer by layer, using a 3D printer. During that process, sensors measure every layer of the build, for analysis that can drive "smart inspection" (among other things) after the build process is complete.

But the story of the digital thread and this bell crank does not end there, for the digital thread captures the data that comprise the part's design, build, and real-world performance – its "body of knowledge." All of this can help improve future designs of the part at a faster rate than ever before possible.

The result of the digital thread journey is a better part that is cheaper and faster to make – with nearly limitless geographic flexibility and ever-improving design potential.

"These new technologies allow us to use data to design faster, better, and cheaper airplanes with a night-and-day difference," said Alan Klapmeier, CEO of ONE Aviation, in a statement. "It changes the 'what ifs' that could have had iterative cycles of weeks or months, into perhaps hours, minutes, or seconds. You can take that next unique idea and apply 'what if' in nearly real-time. There are ways to consider possible analytical and manufacturing impacts to predict how parts fit or conflict with other things. This is where the world really changes."

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