Beyond digital twins: Follow the digital thread with blockchain

Beyond digital twins: Follow the digital thread with blockchain

We talk to Accenture’s Craig Gottlieb about how blockchain and the digital thread could cut production and maintenance costs in aviation, verify the authenticity of parts and more.

Beyond digital twins: Follow the digital thread with blockchain

A recent Accenture survey of aerospace and defence organisations revealed that 97% were using or evaluating digital twin technologies as a core component of their product innovation process. Using data, digital twins create digital representations of physical entities.

Blockchain technology could help companies take this even further – by unlocking the power of the “digital thread,” Accenture says.

Craig Gottlieb, Principal Director, Aerospace and Defense Practice, Accenture, explains: “The question that people are now asking is, ‘If I have the very rich digital twin that I can do simulation on etc. and I'm now getting information on it as I'm going through the manufacturing processes, the supply chain processes, and maintenance processes, can I tie those things together to make intelligent decisions that help me be more efficient in how I make it? How can I be more responsive to my customers in how I service it because I can understand the behaviour and need of that asset as it's being manufactured and as it's being operated under certain conditions?”

The digital thread could allow companies to do this and Accenture sums up the concept like this:

“The digital thread enables the flow of information across the entire value chain from OEMs to suppliers, partners and operators. The digital thread effectively enriches the digital twin and enables key insights.”

The advantages include faster and less expensive production, superior maintenance, and on-time upgrades.

Enter the blockchain 

Despite the potential, realising the digital thread is easier said than done. It requires multiple organisations to share data -- data which is often complex and unstructured.

Accenture’s survey of aerospace and defence OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) and major suppliers found two evolving approaches:

  • Centralised: Digital threads that are centralised and managed by the overall design entity
  • Decentralised: Digital threads based on shared data ownership across the extended enterprise

The centralised model is costly and complex to maintain due to the number of separate platforms with point-to-point integrations which are typically implemented in aerospace and defence organisations.

The decentralised model is seen as more viable.

Gottlieb says: “If I choose that second [decentralised] option, I need a mechanism to say: ‘Do I trust those data? Can I be assured that those data are coming from the sources that we believe they're coming from? Can I be assured that those data are relevant, that they tie to the assets that I'm talking about?’” 

Blockchain, which is a distributed ledger, could be the answer because it “was inherently designed to take disparate sources of information, and provide a degree of authentication, auditability, trust, etc.,” Gottlieb says.

For example, some of the features of blockchain are that it is immutable – a ‘single source of truth’ (so supports the sharing of highly trusted product data across suppliers and operators); it’s automated (accelerating the speed of data exchange); it eliminates intermediary costs; it is decentralised (so enables multi-party data-sharing where parties retain ownership of their data); and it is highly secure as it incorporates public-key encryption and there is no single point of failure.

In action 

Because of these characteristics, blockchain can support manufacturers and suppliers to exchange data and collaborate on design and engineering.

Early examples of the blockchain-enabled digital thread are emerging, Gottlieb says, such as blockchain being used to tie together data to guarantee the certification of parts in the manufacturing supply chain.

In another example, an OEM is using the blockchain-enabled digital thread to ensure that the parts they’re receiving from a supplier are trusted and certified, thus avoiding risks of counterfeit parts.

 “That's a huge use case,” Gottlieb says. “We enabled it for an original equipment manufacturer but we have many clients in the aftermarket who are very keen to build on that as well.”

Other opportunities include implementing engineering change notices or quality notices – ensuring it’s clear which assets are impacted and that the changes are rolled out in a cost-effective and operationally effective way for the airline. 

Gottlieb added: “Blockchain, like the digital thread concept, is rapidly evolving and we expect that even though people are beginning to do smaller scale work today, we will see a fairly rapid expansion in the next 12, 18, 24 months. So, we're at a launching point for all the technology.”

Accenture will be running a number of demos related to blockchain and the digital thread in aerospace at Farnborough Airshow next month.

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