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Digital Thread for Smart Manufacturing


The Digital Thread for Smart Manufacturing Systems project will deliver methods and protocols that extend and complete the digital thread for information running through design, manufacturing and product support processes, enabling integration of smart manufacturing systems. The results of this project will accelerate the design-to-production timeline at reduced costs. We live in a new manufacturing era that has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is characterized by the digitization of manufacturing. In this era, information plays a central role. How the product’s design and manufacturing information is authored, exchanged, and processed is critical to competitiveness in this era. Information ‘silos’ for various life cycle processes are slowly being connected to form a ‘digital thread’ of information that is envisioned to integrate and drive modern design, manufacturing and product support processes. Yet today, information typically flows in one direction, and gaps in the flows prevent enterprise-wide utilization of information. A complete and rich digital thread will enable manufacturing enterprises to reduce cycle time and achieve correct parts the first time. A complete and rich digital thread based on open standards will raise competitiveness of small-to-medium sized manufacturing enterprises. This project will conduct research to identify the required communications and their information content, to formalize and promulgate descriptions of those requirements, and to support development of tools and standards for the exchange and use of that information.

This project concluded in 2018.  Related research is now in the Product Definitions for Smart Manufacturing project.


Objective:  The Digital Thread for Smart Manufacturing Systems project will deliver methods and protocols that extend and complete the digital thread for information running through design, manufacturing and product support processes to integrate smart manufacturing systems. The results of this project will accelerate the design to production timeline at reduced costs.

Technical Idea:  Industry is beginning to embrace the model-based enterprise paradigm, yet there are many gaps to be addressed--in integrating digital data through standards, in building trust in a digital master, in addressing changes to business practices and culture, and in building tools to use the data for decision making throughout the product lifecycle.

The manufacturability of a product can be dependent on design parameters, both functional and non-functional. This necessitates a feedback loop between the design of the product and the design of the manufacturing processes. There are problems with effective communication between the part design software and the process design software, but the real problem is that there is no standard formal and semantic means of providing feedback to the designer. Similarly, the design engineer states the corresponding form, fit, and function requirements for the components in terms of dimensions and tolerances. These are tightly coupled to design intent, but there is limited semantic means of conveying that intent to the part inspection systems, and there is no formal way to feed results of inspection back to the designer.

The new technical idea is to apply systems engineering principles and emerging information technologies to specify mechanisms for capturing and communicating requirements, intent and feedback in a well-defined formal way. Specifically, we plan to:

  • identify the common information elements that are needed to integrate the product life cycle,
  • promote and promulgate standards for representing this information,
  • define and demonstrate a framework and technologies that support access of trusted information, in context, wherever it is needed during the lifecycle, and
  • define and demonstrate mechanisms for providing a feedback cycle from inspection stage back to design.

This will enable engineers and their supporting tools to design effective products, processes and systems in less time, and to communicate the real requirements for useable components to the part inspection engineers, thus reducing the incidence of problem parts.

Research Plan:  Smart manufacturing requires the effective communication of the product designs, through well-structured 3D product models, to the manufacturing and quality activities; the communication of manufacturing and quality considerations back to the design engineers; and the use of the 3D product models to specify form, fit, and function in the inspection systems and in-process measurement systems associated and communicate inspection and measurement results back to the design engineers.

Identify common information elements. In this project we will apply systems engineering processes to analyze the information requirements for smart manufacturing systems. We will limit our scope to what we call the manufacturing life cycle, restricting our focus to design, manufacturing and inspection activities. We will work with industry to develop use cases and activity models that will drive development of high-level information requirements. We will then analyze the state of the practice to determine what solutions exist, and work with industry to prioritize efforts to address gaps in the availability of information supporting the product life cycle.

Promote and promulgate standards. Standards are the key to levelling the playing field for small-to-medium sized manufacturers, and supporting the use of best-of-breed software tools at any phase of the life cycle. We will support development and promulgation of standards for the interchange of the information elements needed to complete a digital thread through the life cycle. The project will build upon prior EL Smart Manufacturing efforts to improve and extend Product Manufacturing Information (PMI) data models, within the ISO 10303 standard, that communicate design intent to the digital manufacturing and inspection activities. We will pilot extensions to the Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP), and continue to provide support for testing and analysis of software and models. We will continue prior work on the Quality Information Framework (QIF) standard to formalize information sharing requirements for quality measurement. Methods and protocols that support product metrology throughout the product life cycle, including feedback to design, will be completed under this project.

Define a framework and technologies. We will define a conceptual framework for lifecycle information management and integration of emerging and existing technologies that will support data curation, discovery, and reuse in manufacturing. We will provide a standardized infrastructure to richly represent lifecycle data and place it into the appropriate context to generate useful knowledge. This framework will leverage existing data standards such as STEP, MTConnect, and the QIF.

Provide feedback mechanism to design. Once we have established our conceptual framework, technologies and common information elements, we will demonstrate the utility of such a data curation environment with the feedback from inspection to design use case described in the Technical Idea section above. The analysis and the publication of its results will provide the technical underpinning for new standards and tooling that enable manufacturing systems to become smart.

NIST is uniquely positioned to respond to this need, with experience in the formal specification of geometries and tolerances, formal specification of engineering requirements, formal specification and simulation of manufacturing processes, formal specification of part quality requirements and measurement mechanisms. We serve in leadership positions in standards bodies that are poised to develop standards based on our work.


Digital Thread in Manufacturing
Digital Thread in Manufacturing


Digital Thread Discussion
Digital Thread Discussion

Major Accomplishments

Some recent accomplishments for Digital Thread for Smart Manufacturing:

  • Enabling the Digital Thread for Smart Manufacturing
  • QIF 2.0 published in October 2014.
  • ISO 10303-242:2014 (STEP AP242) published
  • Published ANSI standard for the Quality Information Framework
  • DMSC User Guide for producing an AS9102 First Article Inspection Report (FAIR) from QIF instance files.
  • Several industry and academic members utilize the data from the SMS Test Bed. MTConnect Institute replaces data stream at with the NIST SMS Test Bed data stream.
  • Significant amount of downloads and usage by industry and solution providers.
  • PMI Test Case Models have been downloaded hundreds of times. They are being used by industry and solution providers to develop internal processes, determine recommended practices, and conformance testing of software applications.
  • Mentor Graphics is adopting STEP AP242
  • Several Commercial CAD Translators are implementing STEP AP242 Support.
  • 14 Solution Providers and Industry Members Demonstrated and Implementing QIF.
Created April 25, 2014, Updated March 23, 2022