"ePLM Navigator”: Bosch Builds the Connecting Element for Data Silos with Knowledge Graphs

May 15, 2023

With the help of CONWEAVER's Knowledge Graph technology, Robert Bosch GmbH is connecting its PLM backend systems. Known internally as the "ePLM Navigator", it takes semantic search for product-related content to the next level.

Robert Bosch GmbH found itself in a situation typical of many large companies: large amounts of data had accumulated over the years in separate (PLM) backbones. Each business unit and each domain within it had mastered the respective development V-process on its own with a high degree of maturity. But it was impossible to see the big picture, the overarching relationships, because the databases were not connected. The IT industry has even coined its own term ("data silos") to describe this situation. 

However, Bosch's central IT department was not satisfied with this situation. It wanted to break down the "departmental walls" - at least the ones from the IT point of view - and create search options for product-related information that was not normally available in the PLM systems of the individual business units.

(This article originally published in 2023 on d1g1talAgenda)

Kick-off for Knowledge Graph Technology

The vision of maximum transparency in the sense of a digital enterprise had been outlined for a long time, but it was not until 2017 that the decision was made in favor of CONWEAVER's Linksphere technology, "in order to make the content relationships of PLM artifacts tangible via a knowledge graph system. The whole thing was to be bundled and searchable in a system that we later called the 'ePLM Navigator'," recalls Olaf Kramer from the central IT in Engineering department at Bosch.

The following ePLM Navigator application example illustrates the added value: The search can start with a type part number from the mechanical department; the goal is to find out which electronic components are associated with it across business units. In this context, it is also possible to find out which final MBOMs (bills of materials with mechanical components containing the type part number) have been transferred to production. Another example that illustrates the difference from a Google-like query is when you want to find out who the contact person is for a particular topic - along the lines of, "But I don't really remember what the content-related connections were. So let's say you only have information artifacts, such as the type of controller and connectors with a certain number of poles. These few fragments of information are enough to expose the overall context and bring to light detailed information: for example, who was the responsible designer. Or who did the validation," explains Olaf Kramer.

For this purpose, the ePLM Navigator can access meta-information via the underlying Linksphere technology, but not, for example, the actual production drawing. However, with the appropriate access rights, it is possible to jump from the metainformation of an object in the knowledge graph to the original (PLM) database, which has access to the original drawing document. It is easy to see that the appropriate design of the graph network that represents the meta-information requires a lot of know-how to ensure the most accurate search query possible.

The target group is precisely those employees who do not work with the individual source systems. ePLM Navigator takes on the role of an "accelerator", so to speak, to uncover connections and find relevant contacts. "Identify & Find is what we call the underlying capability internally," says the PLM expert.

Scalability Across Heterogeneous IT Infrastructure

Searched and found - The idea for ePLM Navigator was the result of creative teamwork, as Olaf Kramer points out. He adds: "We were faced with the question of how to achieve scalable approaches under the conditions of a large, and of course necessary, heterogeneity and brownfield IT infrastructure, as characterized by the very different development activities of our business units. After all, the business areas have to assert themselves in very different markets.” The heterogeneity of the IT infrastructure must therefore be seen as a necessary part of Bosch's mission. In addition, the system providers set certain framework conditions with their range of solutions.

For Bosch it was one of the first engineering IT projects to use an agile approach for the implementation of the solution, which was still quite new at the time. The top priority was to break the implementation of the ePLM Navigator "into manageable parts in order to take consistent steps toward digitizing engineering. We didn't want any proof-of-concept approaches because we already knew at the time that they wouldn't scale," says Olaf Kramer, adding: "It was precisely the joint reflection in the team from different perspectives that led to the success of this interdisciplinary solution.

Establishing the digital (red) thread in a model-based enterprise, visualized as a "semantic pyramid" symbolizing a hierarchy from signs, artifacts to knowledge Source: Bosch/Kramer 2022

Linksphere - Mature Knowledge Graph-Based Technology

But why so late? After all, the problem of data silos has been plaguing the manufacturing industry for decades, so why did a company as innovative as Bosch take six years to get serious about solving it? The answer is surprising: "The momentum simply came from the availability of a knowledge graph-based technology with a level of maturity that convinced us”. After evaluating the market and given the previous experience with a failed one-size-fits-all approach, it was clear that "we were entering a new technology, but one that we felt lacked some of the finishing touches. The question for us was which partner we could work with to help us get there”.

In addition to best-in-class technology, the supplier had to be geographically close to Bosch and share a common language, explains Olaf Kramer, because the communication channels had to be short. CONWEAVER, with its highly innovative Linksphere portfolio, was awarded the contract because it already had a sufficiently mature technology at the time, and because of the commitment of the company's founder and CEO, Thomas Kamps, to consistently pursue the further development of Linksphere.

"We sensed CONWEAVER's determination, and Thomas Kamps had recognized the cooperation with Bosch as an opportunity for his company. The joint development path subsequently delivered what we had agreed on together at the beginning." The knowledge gained on both sides has brought both partners forward (Olaf Kramer: "A joint give and take").

Scalability as a Litmus Test

Olaf Kramer openly admits that it has been a challenging journey with critical phases in the collaboration, as it was necessary to leave the "lab environment" and move into the scaling of Bosch: The Bosch Group is a leading international technology and services company. This means that very active research and development takes place in the Mobility Solutions, Industrial Technology, Consumer Goods, and Energy and Building Technology business sectors and their many segments. The need for information is immense. After all, 76,100 researchers and developers do their utmost to ensure that Bosch remains one of the most innovative companies in the world. "One of the biggest challenges was tapping into data sources. The existing systems lacked a semantic definition, i.e., how the data fields should be filled syntactically. As a result, it was initially impossible to evaluate the data in an automated process," summarizes the PLM expert. Of course, no one is to blame for this, as the requirement did not exist at the time.

Performance issues also came up, such as how to deal with system upgrades. And: How to ensure secure, reliable operation over the long term? A joint development was created to ensure valid data connections with 24x7 availability. "We went through a steep learning curve together with CONWEAVER, especially with regard to operational aspects”.

What has been achieved is remarkable: a total of 38 system instances have been connected. And now that the technology is available, more and more requirements are being added. One example: An application is currently being integrated that will allow the purchase prices of components to be queried across departments. Olaf Kramer: "The scope of research using the ePLM Navigator is constantly increasing, for example due to mergers and acquisitions”.

Knowledge-Graph: Advertise to the Target Audience

The ePLM Navigator is a fascinating technology with enormous potential. But is the target group within the Bosch Group aware of it? A monitoring process was initiated very early on, and measures were taken to raise awareness of the system internally. Training courses were offered and snippets (small videos) of application examples were produced - with increasing success. Among other things, search query logging is used to track the number of returning users.

When using the ePLM Navigator, the knowledge graph runs through search chains. These can be repeated. Therefore, the ability to save such search chains as macros has been created. "In this way, individual search needs can be quickly satisfied again and again," says Olaf Kramer.

Open Standards for a Wider Range of Applications

Did the openness of the interfaces play a role in winning the CONWEAVER contract? A very interesting question, especially since the system provider has been certified for its openness as part of the Code of PLM Openness (CPO). "This did not play a role at the time the contract was awarded, but it does now. It has become clear that, beyond proprietary integrations, open standards are helpful in bringing ePLM Navigator more into the application area," says Olaf Kramer.

ePLM Navigator started as a search engine. But that is far from the end of the technology's capabilities. Linksphere can also provide very attractive solutions for very specific tasks of smaller groups of experts. For example, you can send a GraphQL query via a Python binding to combine knowledge components. Open standards like GraphQL make it much easier for departments to use knowledge graph technology to create connections," says Kramer: He adds: "The CONWEAVER team is always open to our suggestions. They see this as an opportunity to further develop the Linksphere technology together with Bosch”.

However, the Bosch manager considers the previous CPO to be formulated very generically and therefore welcomes the fact that it is to be revised. "The CPO should be linked to standards relevant to product development so that concrete mappings are possible. Standards such as RDF/S and SparQL are relevant at certain points in the V-Modell. Standards relevant to product development should be linked in the CPO. From the user's point of view, it makes sense to know exactly which standard is supported by which tool. In the past, CPO certification was performed at the company level and thus based on a broad portfolio, but not at the tool level," says Olaf Kramer.

Bosch Research in Renningen, Germany
Pjt56 Licence: Creative Commons)

Digitizing Engineering

Big steps towards digitalization: The project was completed two years ago, and ePLM Navigator has since been run as a regular IT service in each business unit. An operations team is responsible for expanding the application. Olaf Kramer points out that "the introduction of ePLM Navigator and the associated considerations are a preliminary stage in the comprehensive digitalization of our engineering.” For example, the introduction was used to consider the design of cross-business unit information models. One aspect is the design of the machine readability of meta information: "So far, only the pure geometry of the CAD models is machine-readable”. But information such as tolerances or references to manufacturing processes (PMI, product manufacturing information) in the rendered drawings should also be available digitally on a model basis, eliminating manual steps in the capture process.

Olaf Kramer reflects on the current situation: "In principle, the open STEP AP242 and JT formats allow metadata to be stored. However, CAD system vendors have not yet taken this into account. In addition, there is a lack of standards for the semantic definition of the information transported via PMIs.”. In other words, user companies still need to agree on common approaches.

So, there are still some challenges to overcome on the road to comprehensive digitization. Nevertheless, what has been achieved so far is impressive: "One challenge was to define information vectors in a way that would allow for fallbacks, i.e., when certain information is missing, but still allow for relationships between PLM artifacts to be displayed. We were able to do this, but it required the involvement of data scientists," says Kramer.

And what else makes Linksphere's knowledge graph technology so attractive for Bosch? "It allows us to tap into correlations across multiple expert knowledge units - and to do so automatically with mass data," says Kramer. Linksphere, he says, frees the company from the search limitations of conventional back-end systems.

Conclusion: Unlocking Knowledge with Knowledge Graph Technology

As part of the extensive digitization process, Bosch decided to make content accessible without barriers. This means that the ePLM Navigator, like Google or other search engines, is freely accessible to everyone in the engineering department. In this way, research can be carried out freely and in accordance with the relevant rights. Behind this is "the will to democratize information on a metadata level," says Olaf Kramer.

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