Digital Thread for electrical engineering

The Digital Thread for Electrical Engineering


Products are getting smarter by the day, allowing customers to do almost anything from anywhere. Organizations developing these marvels, though, must do the difficult work of producing them. They have to pack more physical components into smaller spaces. And that’s not all. Thanks to advancing digitization, they also have to integrate more electronic hardware, electrical systems, and embedded software than ever before. There’s no doubt about it: products have become incredibly complex.

In response to this rising complexity, many organizations are deploying formal digital thread initiatives. This post explains what a digital thread for electrical engineering is and how it’s used across design, procurement, and manufacturing departments.

What is a digital thread?

Today’s products include a variety of items and systems that digitally mature at different rates during the development process. Furthermore, these items and systems are interconnected, so one might influence the design of another. The definition of the overall product depends on the interaction of all these systems and components.

During development, teams need to understand the current state of the product, each system, and each component at all times. Otherwise, they don’t know which version is the most recent one, which version has been released, which version has problem reports against it, and so on. With an accurate view of this information, teams may work with outdated information, order the wrong parts, or prototype and test the wrong systems. It’s an incredibly risky way of working.

A digital thread initiative eliminates this risk by tracking and managing the different versions of a product—and all its systems and components—across its development lifecycle. Every change is recorded so there is a clear account of what changed, when. As a result, companies see the product’s entire configuration at any given moment. Additionally, because this audit bears a timestamp, teams can view earlier configurations and versions of products, systems, and components. 

That’s the digital thread for electrical engineering.

The digital thread in design

The digital thread starts in engineering, with the creation of the initial version of every system and component. While teams can reuse existing component designs with existing digital threads, this is where product-level and system-level digital threads begin.

The digital thread is key during these initial design stages. Design teams use the latest product or system configuration in the digital thread to verify requirements, simulate performance, build prototypes, and test them in the real world. The digital thread allows the engineering team to attach specific outcomes—successes and failures—to different versions. That way, they will know which version of the product has succeeded in fulfilling specific requirements and which versions have failed.

The digital thread is also fundamental to all design-for-x initiatives, where x represents targeted requirements for each phase of the lifecycle. Tooling designers and machinists provide manufacturability feedback in relation to one configuration in the digital thread. Maintenance engineers give similar feedback regarding the product’s serviceability after delivery to customers.

The digital thread in procurement

Few organizations manufacture all of their products’ systems and components internally; most rely on external suppliers to produce and deliver them. Therefore, the digital thread expands significantly when it hits the procurement department. The procurement department uses a request-for-quote (RFQ) process to obtain bids from suppliers for each item.  Buyers or procurement agents create a technical data package (TDP) that contains a complete description of the item, including its legal documents and specifications.

On the basis of this information, suppliers mock up the steps and assembly required to make the item so they can develop an estimate and proposal. Their bid will depend on their internal processes and the resources available to them. The buyer or procurement agent evaluates all bids and awards the contract. 

The TDP and bid are the basis for the contractual agreement between the organization and the supplier. The item’s development record includes the TDP and all bids, resulting in an unbroken digital thread that stretches across the organization and its external suppliers.

The digital thread in manufacturing

When manufacturing items internally, the organization must design and develop the relevant tooling and operations. At this point, the manufacturing department receives a specific configuration from the digital thread.

Tooling designers and machinists receive a series of engineering deliverables, which describe the part. They take these digital definitions of the product, systems, and components and create digital deliverables for the tooling. These deliverables may include the tool designs, jigs, and fixtures. Tooling designers and machinists may also create a 3D model of the part to help generate the geometry of the tool or develop a manufacturing model to simulate and analyze the NC tool paths. Each of these deliverables joins the digital thread.

As this process reached completion, each deliverable expands the digital thread a little more as it builds on the original definitions created in engineering to move the product closer to production. 


  • Today’s products integrate a wide range of mechanical and electronic components to deliver the ever-increasing number of features that customers demand. To manage this growing complexity, many organizations implement a digital thread initiative.
  • A digital thread tracks and manages a product’s configuration and versions across its development lifecycle. As design teams create different versions, they become part of the digital thread, which allows the organization to view a product’s configuration at any point in the past. 
  • The digital thread starts in the engineering department, where system and component designs are created and evaluated against requirements. This aids design-for-x initiatives, allowing tooling designers and maintenance engineers to provide valuable feedback.
  • During procurement, potential suppliers receive a TDP so they can develop an estimate and proposal for the item’s manufacture. A buyer or procurement agent awards the contract to the best supplier and all bids are part of the digital thread for electrical engineering.
  • A digital definition of an item passes to tooling designers and machinists. They then use this information to create digital deliverables for tools. Each digital deliverable joins the digital thread, providing the organization with an interconnected set of deliverables across the entire product development process.

Read more of our Digital Engineering blog posts here!

Written by

Chad Jackson is the Chief Analyst and CEO of Lifecycle Insights. He leads the company’s research and thought leadership programs, attends and speaks at industry events, and reviews emerging technology solutions. Chad’s twenty-five-year career has focused on improving executives’ ability to reap value from technology-led engineering initiatives during the industry’s transition to smart, connected products.

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