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Opinion: The Digital Thread In MRO

Big chains are a big deal, and here’s why.

Printed headline: Overnight Sensation?

Digital threads will be more than short-term wonders—they will enable action

We instantly recognize the value of many technologies, be they light bulbs, telephones or elevators. Other technologies are less captivating at first. More than innovative technology was needed to move from horsepower to steam and from analog to digital imagery. The adoption of technologies often rests on answering a basic question, “So what?” As aviation aftermarket executives push their digital agendas, they are frequently asking this question of an emerging concept, the digital thread.

The term “digital thread” often means different things to different people. At Accenture, we define the digital thread as a set of connections that extend a digital product model into a physical product’s entire life cycle; from idea through design, engineering, supply chain, manufacturing and the aftermarket. The connections within the digital thread are based on new technology platforms, data architectures and applied intelligence. These technologies enable three sets of new opportunities: building new customer-service experiences, enhancing customer operations and improving safety and compliance.

OEM and MRO provider investments in digital aftermarket services will mean little if operators neither buy nor renew them. These outcomes depend on the relevance of the experience services deliver and of the data they provide. To deliver a customer-service experience relevant to individual operator fleets, tail numbers or roles in an operator’s organization, an OEM or MRO must connect, analyze and present information from across manufacturing, engineering and aircraft operations. The thread’s ability to tie together data from across the value chain makes it an invaluable component of emerging aftermarket OEM and MRO strategies.

Manufacturers and aftermarket specialists are also using digital services to help airlines transform their operational efficiency. Doing so requires OEMs and MROs to apply their understanding of an aircraft’s engineering, manufacturing and maintenance history to how it is performing in service. Enter the digital thread. By overlaying aircraft performance data on digital mockups, linking configuration data with operating conditions or combining other aspects of operations, design and manufacturing, OEMs and MROs can use the digital thread to bring critical percentage-point improvements in operator cost and asset availability.

Then there is safety. The pace at which an OEM can move from identifying a manufacturing nonconformance to pinpointing the tail numbers it affects matters—as does the speed at which technical directives are implemented. Because multiple systems must be traversed to obtain this information, these critical tasks often take far too long, increasing exposure to risk and reducing operational availability of assets. But by providing linkages between multiple systems, the digital thread speeds resolution of such issues. 

These three areas of opportunity can drive significant benefit in the aftermarket, but how do digital threads get enabled? How are their data managed? How can decisions be made and acted upon? Because digital threads cut across business functions and their supporting IT systems, it is imperative that business and IT organizations work closely together to prioritize the business processes and systems within each company’s digital thread. Accenture’s research indicates that fewer than 30% of organizations have shared ownership of digital thread initiatives between business and IT. This will need to change for organizations to recognize the value of the digital thread.

The second key piece of “how” is data. Accenture’s research shows that 43% of aerospace and defense companies favor “distributed” digital threads in which data stays near its source (e.g., at a supplier or operator), while 47% are looking to manage data centrally. Although the distributed model has advantages in terms of data freshness and relevance, it brings additional challenges of security and data veracity. Technologies such as blockchain, combined with basic data management discipline, will be central to ensuring the security, authentication and traceability of data across distributed digital threads.

Ultimately, the digital thread reveals itself in a physical action. Through the window of analytics and data visualization, the related data elements of the digital thread can become the basis for decision-making for specific assets in their operational context. Digital threads will not be an overnight sensation. They will create value incrementally, as new use cases are proven and new connections are made between digital models and the real-world assets they represent. “So what?” one might ask. The answer is that the digital thread will be the foundation of the next generation of digital aftermarket services. 

Craig Gottlieb is a principal director in Accenture’s aerospace and defense practice, focused on innovation in aftermarket services.


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