Diversifying the Digital Thread

Could product lifecycle management evolve to support the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries?

Diversifying the Digital Thread
Diversifying the Digital Thread

We hear a lot about how product lifecycle management (PLM) can help automotive and aerospace industries, but with more and more emphasis on the “digital thread,” that invisible data string that ties everything together from product design to production and aftermarket service, I’m wondering how process industries can also benefit from this enterprise software.

The thought crossed my mind this month while I was attending two separate PLM events. Of course, many PLM providers are focused on the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space and even food and beverage, but often the emphasis is on the pretty package. That’s because, the core of PLM is the ability to manage parts and assemblies in a central location so that all stakeholders have access to the latest information associated with a design, a bill of materials or engineering change orders, for example.

This closed loop, called “digital manufacturing,” is the ability to create a digital version of a component that can be tracked and manipulated—or innovated—throughout the manufacturing cycle. Now, the Internet of Things (IoT) extends the digital thread further to track a product through distribution and into the hands of the consumer.

It’s obvious to me that PLM is a valuable tool in discrete industries. But what about innovating a recipe based on customer feedback or tracing an ingredient back to its source? What about managing the lifecycle of a drug from R&D through clinical trial and commercialization, or ensuring the authenticity of medicine when there are counterfeits in the market?

Given the regulatory pressures, shorter product lifecycles, and the need for traceability across the supply chain, it seems that optimizing PLM for the process industries is in order. The difference here, however, is that once a food product or drug is processed, it can’t be broken back down into individual components – or can it? I would guess that now, with the arrival of Big Data, the cloud, and IoT, it sure can. Not to mention that groups like the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) and the Industrial Internet Consortium are working on connected frameworks that would serve as a vehicle for the digital data thread, right down to a tomato in the field.

To that end, my theory got more interesting when I heard of Autodesk’s acquisition of SeeControl, an IoT cloud service provider specializing in data collection and analytics for machine monitoring and maintenance workflow. One of SeeControl’s customers is California Tomato Machinery (CTM), a maker of harvesting equipment. SeeControl monitors engine performance, equipment productivity and operator compliance in real-time to deliver predictive analytics for the machines’ diesel engines.

I know what you’re thinking right now: This is still an industrial machinery example—not batch processing. But—the CTM system also records the types of tomatoes picked. What’s stopping the food processor from leveraging that information for traceability or other quality control applications?

Perhaps I have my head in the clouds when it comes to my vision for PLM. So, to bring me back down to earth, I called Julie Fraser, principal of Iyno Advisors, and an expert in this area, and I asked her—is this too much of a stretch?

“I think your vision is on target,” she said. “There is an opportunity for expansion in the market…it’s just a question of when.” Fraser pointed out that we are starting to see new types of acquisitions that play directly into this area. Last year, Dassault Systemes acquired Accelrys, a provider of scientific lifecycle management software focused on chemistry. And, Aras has a reputation for partnering with companies with domain expertise in food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries.

“I expect to see folks with a deep understanding of formulation management and recipe management teaming up with PLM companies to figure this stuff out,” Fraser said.

So, there you have it. The digital thread is stitching a new path for itself, as it can—and will—go in many different directions in the near future.

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