The Future for Aerospace and Defense: The Digital Thread and Smart Factories

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A recent Deloitte study1 into manufacturing found that;

“30% of US manufacturers surveyed reported they are currently implementing digital thread initiatives.”

That was in 2019. And that percentage will have increased even more since then, thanks to all the time the pandemic has given industry to take stock and make plans. Unsurprisingly then, the two areas that loom largest for the Aerospace and Defense (A&D) sector, according to Deloitte’s ‘2022 Aerospace and Defense Industry Outlook’2, are the digital thread and smart factories.

What is ‘digital thread’?

All products and services start out digitally, as plans or ideas. They then get made physically, bringing them into contact with people, materials, places, and processes. These interactions then get tracked digitally, and are often improved on through technology, thanks to the likes of Artificial Intelligence, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality. The data around which then gets fed back into the shop, to help improve future plans and ideas.

The digital thread is the positive feedback loop that results from this back and forth between the digital and physical worlds, as a product’s data is tracked through each of the different stages of its lifecycle. Which are then improved on and speeded up, because of the way in which all that data have now been connected and made visible.

All of which is transforming the way that products are being engineered, manufactured, and serviced.

Digital thread in Aerospace & Defense

There are any number of improvements that shops in A&D are going to be looking to gain from digital thread. Broadly speaking, it gives you real-time information that’s permanently updated. Which massively improves your capacity for decision making.

Specifically, it hugely improves supply chain visibility, which will significantly help with the all-important supply chain planning and supply chain synchronization. And few manufacturing sectors will benefit as palpably from that heady mix of AI, 3D, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the promise of being able to;

“Leverage data aggregation technologies with predictive analytics, cognitive, and machine-learning capabilities to improve forecasting accuracy and predictive modelling.”2

All of which will mean you’re much better equipped to assess how your products perform for your customers, and how therefore to mold and re-imagine your aftersales services and products.

And crucially, of course, you’re constantly gathering feedback at every stage of the way.

Smart factories

Smart factories are one of the components that make the digital thread possible, connecting people, material, machines, and data, both on the factory floor and between those factories.

“Cloud-based dynamic scheduling solutions that identify where people are working, where materials are located, and the ways to synchronize them should unlock A&D factories’ potential to meet changing customer demands.”2

This will help to better match labor and non-labor resources, which will reduce costs, minimize delays and unplanned downtime, and optimize production. Which in turn will reduce waste and lower your carbon footprint.

And the advantages of being able to harness big data, advanced analytics, and machine learning on the factory floor will create its own positive feedback loop. As competitors see the benefits that result and increase their investment in the technologies that make all that possible. The revenue from which will then get fed back into those technologies, further enhancing the advantages they bring.

The challenge for A&D: Connecting and centralizing data

The biggest challenge facing the A&D sector is managing the sheer quantity of data it produces. There’s product design data, manufacturing process data, updates on supply chain data, IoT data from products in the field, and customer and client feedback data. All of which have to be analyzed, managed, and made available across departments and throughout the organization.

The way that much of that is done will be through independent, unconnected software packages. So all of those processes and disparate systems will need to be streamlined and consolidated. And the only way to do that is by finding a software solution that’s designed to centralize and coordinate all of that.

Now that the global economy is opening up again after the hiatus brought on by the pandemic, the Aerospace and Defense industry will be looking to make up for the revenue and potential revenue lost over the last two years. Fortunately, manufacturing is one of the areas that has benefited the most from the explosion of digital technologies. Especially in the A&D sector, with its inherent reliance on technological advances and innovation.

So A&D shops are going to have to think very carefully about the software system they employ internally to manage all of that data. Because it’s this that will distinguish them from their competitors and guarantee those all-important margins.


1 /us/articles/6276_2019-Deloitte-and-MAPI-Smart-Factory-Study/DI_2019-Deloitte-and-MAPI-Smart-Factory-Study.pdf

2 Deloitte’s “2022 Aerospace and Defense Industry Outlook”

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