DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK
Enabling the Electronics Digital Thread
Model-based enterprise initiatives often ignore electronics.
Reams of presentations and data support efficiencies gained by digital thread initiatives, but much of the dialogue is driven by mechanical design processes with little regard for the electronics components of a product being developed, deployed and maintained. To review some of these basic concepts, see Figure 1, which starts with model-based design as a foundation of a model-based enterprise. This enables a robust digital thread that feeds into Industry 4.0 with smart factory initiatives under a framework of communication and collaboration that is defined as intelligent information management (IIM).

In particular, the digital thread is focused on breaking down the data and workflows that are siloed inside of and among companies that need to be connected in the product lifecycle. This enhances organizational decision-making by getting the proverbial right information to the right people at the right time. For electronics, however, engaging these initiatives is not a simple matter. To understand the problem, Google the phrase “model-based definition” and you would be hard-pressed to find electronics. Mechanical design was the leading edge of model-based practices starting 10 or more years ago, and accordingly, the search results still show pages of MCAD images and GD&T samples, along with tons of conversations related to MCAD system best practices for eliminating traditional paper and 2-D drawings to improve communication and efficiencies.

Today’s complex products are not just composed of machined parts. A properly connected digital thread relies on access to the electronics information. If an entire domain of information in the digital thread that defines a product is missing, the digital thread could unravel.

The solution to this problem seems easy, right? The perfect provider will offer best-in-class design solutions for MCAD, PCB and wire harness, all under the umbrella of a seamless data management system perfectly synced to the best ERP, MRP or supply-chain systems. Those who have tried to accomplish this have mostly been more vision than reality. Interoperability challenges, changing software releases, legacy vs. modern data needs, mergers and more hinder the integration of common functions and make communication and collaboration between organizations and product domains difficult.

Model-based enterprise
Figure 1. Model-based enterprise as a foundation of intelligent information management.

A proper digital thread solution will be able to access authoritative information, regardless of whether it is legacy or modern MCAD/ECAD, and publish it with value-added inputs from other user segments, such as sales, sourcing and manufacturing. For electronics it starts with a better understanding and visualization of PCB or wire harness information using a neutral browser-based approach that anyone, not just design tool experts, can access, comment and collaborate with (Figure 2). This content must be controlled such that only the appropriate persons can view and mark it up as needed. This is all part of IIM, providing a visually collaborative environment based on standards such as STEP, IPC-2581, HTML5 and more.

PCB, schematic and reference designators
Figure 2. PCB, schematic and reference designators can be visualized in a neutral browser.
Work instructions combining PCBs and their form factors
Figure 3. Work instructions combining PCBs and their form factors can be demonstrated in a video animation.

A suitable visual collaboration solution will merge the mechanical and electrical functions, which is critical to best understand packaging and work instructions (via animation and other techniques) to show how a complete system is assembled. For example, a work instruction step can show how the electronics subassembly is mounted into the product and tested (Figure 3). With a consistent browser-based interface, electrical-mechanical processes can be executed, tracked and verified with all the details synced to background manufacturing, quality and supplier systems, as needed. When any changes are needed in the presentation and type of information from authoritative systems, the impact to the combined electric-mechanical presentation of information is minimal. This is the definition of a flexible and resilient digital thread that fully represents today’s complex products.

Even high-reliability, documentation-intensive customers ranging from aerospace to defense to automotive can use such a platform to visualize wire-harness 3-D work instructions for manufacturing or field maintenance. In the past, these same clients were exchanging paper, checking documents, coordinating between mechanical and electrical designs and could waste more than 50% of their time figuring out what needed to be done before they could start work. A tablet PC with the information at their fingertips greatly improves productivity and reduces costly errors. Streaming this type of information to wearable devices for hands-free work further improves the situation.

For a true electrical-mechanical intelligent information management approach to work, it is necessary to face the challenges of organizational culture. Digital transformation can be accelerated by standards-based solutions, but changing any process, especially a closer intermingling of the silos where mechanical and electrical have traditionally existed, requires management support and a vision that spanning domains will result in better products. A solution that reuses and maintains your existing authoritative data will make it easier to overcome organizational resistance and rapidly accelerate companies to a true digital thread solution that fully includes electronics.

Author Jim Martin
Jim Martin

is director of marketing & sales enablement, Anark (anark.com); james.martin@anark.com.