Digital Thread Initiative: Unlocking Business Value for Raytheon

Corporations such as Raytheon have accumulated large amounts of non-discoverable knowledge assets such as content files, isolated models and single purpose databases. Emerging technologies are providing a means to uncover and re-assimilate this extremely rich bounty of information, and then link it into a “connective tissue” to place it within context of the hardware and software deliverable products they support. The Digital Thread approach of linking information across the full product lifecycle, in context to the defined and controlled products, makes this information far more discoverable and relevant. This not only maximizes its use later in the program or lifecycle of the product, but also paves the way for reuse in future products.

Imagine if through machine learning and reasoning technologies a company could unearth and catalog all of its existing knowledge assets across past and current products, and bring that information to bear on future proposals and programs, independent of where the asset was created and who created it. Imagine the acceleration in time to market if proposal and design teams could maximize reuse of time tested products with all supporting work products, eliminating the re-creation of information gaps and allowing them to focus on the innovation. The Digital Thread environment makes this possible, creating a gravitational pull of unstructured, orphaned information into a well-organized and user friendly form, making it easier to manage, track and consume billions of knowledge assets over time for better decision making and acceleration of current and future products.

A Digital Thread is a weave of information and services that contains all the information about a particular system over the life of that system, from conceptual design through end-of-life. This includes the original proposal, design trades, analysis, models, drawings, software, manufacturing notes, any changes made on the production floor, and all services that the system has undergone. A Digital Thread is unique to every delivered product and is linked to the Digital Threads of other “like” products to ensure that information associated with actions performed on any one product in a family of products is available to the entire product family. Additionally, sensed state changes from fielded products can be compiled along with the design analysis and production information, and be readily available to help diagnose and improve system performance in the field. Throughout the lifecycle of a product, the availability of this amount of historical and current knowledge contributes significantly to lower lifecycle costs, improved maintenance practices and more efficient system updates and upgrades.

As late as the 1980’s, the major aerospace companies were still working with ink on mylar drawings. Although archaic by today’s standards, there was an advantage to this simplicity, as you always knew the mylar drawing was the controlling master of the product’s definition, while the blueprint was simply an uncontrolled copy. Since that time, the industry has experienced numerous technology explosions, due primarily to the exponential increase in computer power driving digital or model based solutions. This has resulted in the undesirable effect of perfectly mass replicating native authoring files, creating a tremendous amount of ambiguity on what constitutes the controlling master file as well as where it is located and how it’s governed. Many companies today use single purpose, siloed databases and libraries tied to functionally specific authoring tools, along with other relevant product data that is completely disconnected from the product’s definition in its Authoritative System of Record. Additionally, digital formats are not naturally immutable, leading to a practice called “clone and own” between system owners, who modify the data and content in the system they own and don’t push the changes back to the source systems. Before long, there is an inability to digitally trace information across isolated infrastructure systems. This creates a major data issue, defeating the automation of digital transactions and end-to-end traceability of information. While business automation and digitization can increase speed to market, reduce operational costs and contribute to margin growth, the required data cleansing and well-meaning point-to-point system integration can become a never ending and very expensive approach to creating a Digital Thread.

Product information should be treated the same as other company assets. It is important to understand how much there is, how healthy the information is, and how to use this information to create business value. Several themes should be addressed in a strategy to maximize the benefits of the Digital Thread, including a more holistic approach to solutions which avoids “path of least resistance” methods to accomplish near term tasks. Also, configuration management, content management and a common framework are necessary to ensure that information is traceable, native files are linked to the product they support, and data from trusted sources are available when and where needed. Finally, process visibility across product lines, systems and tools to support consistency in design, operation and production must be employed in order to troubleshoot the system and drive a reduced time to market.

The need to adopt a coherent product information strategy that is visible, automated and governed across the enterprise is paramount because of the growing volume, velocity and variety of information over time. A coherent approach enables accelerating the execution of all programs, improving speed to market. Eliminating the gaps in availability of this digital product information paves the way to systemically leverage emerging technologies such as Digital Automation, Model Based Engineering (MBE), Intelligent Business Process Management (iBPM), Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented & Virtual Reality (AR/VR) and Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning (AI/ML).

Raytheon is engaged in “Digitizing the Business.” This digital transformation has multiple aspects and focus areas. Digital control of the product definition and identifiers starts in the proposal phase and continues through operations, procurement from suppliers and customer support. From the system level down to the lowest element of a specific line of code or circuit card resistor, creation of a complete digital record has immediate benefit toward converting manual tasks to automated tasks, reducing errors, and establishing navigation lanes for core product digital information.

Knowledge asset creation is enabled through the enrichment of information brought into the proposal and design phase to speed up design convergence. The Digital Thread automates the collection, characterization and alignment of system and product information and associates these functional and performance attributes with existing product identifiers representing assemblies, modules and components for the purposes of search, selection, trades and eventual use/reuse in design solutions.

In order to effectively harness the vast wealth of information that has been created and digitized over the past 25 or more years, much of it in unstructured data types and objects, new technologies need to be developed, matured and/or adapted (Figure 1). One of these is Semantic Technology, which is the ability of a computing system to understand words based on their usage and context. Semantic Technology improves search accuracy by understanding a user’s intent and contextual meaning. It uses Semantic Annotation and Tagging to categorize data assets by content and by relationship. Semantic Technology has been around for several years, and while it is easy to see how this technology could be very useful to the Digital Thread, it has been slow to develop and expensive to adopt until recently.

Figure 1: Technologies used to enhance Digital Thread capability

Graph Visualization and Modeling, a common modern analysis and machine learning technology, can contribute greatly to the Digital Thread. It enables the modeling of the data’s logical connections to produce a physical model that allows connections to be visualized. Tying together the content with semantics allows for a two-directional flow of information that can be used to create Digital Threads.

Raytheon delivers many products to many customers. Initial studies and application of Digital Thread methods have shown significant potential for the quality and availability of system information to support improved design, development and delivery of these products. The goal of the Digital Thread Initiative and its associated product information management is to solidify the “connective tissue” between the vast amounts of information available, relative to product development, delivery and maintenance, in such a way that efficiencies in process time, energy and material usage across the product’s lifecycle can all be improved. Digital Threads can provide insight into areas for product improvements that may not be readily apparent in some work environments. They can also be a catalyst for the next generation of Model Based technologies. Digital Thread solutions will be most effective when they are logical and compelling enough for even the occasional user to confidently and adequately capture, manage and retrieve the right information at the right time—setting the stage for future “Digital Business” and “Digital Twin” models where intellectual property and information are key assets for Raytheon, its products and its customers.

— David Slader, Greg Piper & Ron Williamson