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The Growing Reach Of Product Lifecycle Management

Mon, 07/01/2013 - 4:32pm
Tony Christian, Cambashi

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems are generally regarded as providing for engineers what ERP provides for finance and admin people. That is, they comprise computer software used to create, maintain and manage all product information across the product’s entire life, from concept to recycling. For some, ‘PLM’ means just the information management aspects, while others see its scope as including technical applications such as CAD, simulation/analysis and even CAM. Either way, the benefits of managing product information effectively are gained at all stages in the product lifecycle.

PLM really started life as technology to help major engineering firms (especially auto companies) to manage the large variety of electronic product information that was being produced by their CAD systems at the design stage. From there, it grew into management of information across the product lifecycle but remained technology that was only really viable for large companies with complex product structures and intricate supply chains, with the associated difficulty in managing a wide range and large volume of product information. We are currently in a period of exciting development for PLM, with the technology developers expanding reach in three key ways.

The first is ‘stretching’ the lifecycle. Traditionally, the start of that lifecycle has been the concept design stage. Given PLM’s origins as a tool mainly for managing CAD data through the design process, that’s understandable. At this stage, the acknowledged benefits of PLM include: better collaboration between participants (especially important when they are distributed geographically); the ability to try different options and explore re-use of existing parts; and the ability to simulate product performance and even manufacturing processes in a virtual world.

Subsequent development has already been very successful in extending its coverage forward. That is, once the product is in the market, PLM enables the whole supply chain to work from the correct set of product information. Here again, the benefit can be huge. Managing the activities across the supply chain will almost always involve some combination of different enterprise level solutions like ERP and supply chain management (SCM) applications. All of these need the most current product information - inaccurate product data will result in errors in manufacturing processes, supply chain delays and ultimately errors in fulfilling customer requirements. So when PLM offers accurate, up-to-date information, there are plenty of takers.

Now, the ambition for PLM is to extend its reach in the other direction - at the front end of the overall product lifecycle back as far as the initial innovation stage. PLM has been very successful in managing design in a controlled environment, but the initial idea creation phase requires support for free-flowing interaction and selection of winning options for development based on informed decision making. Manufacturers in multi-product, multi-industry businesses will have a huge range of potential development projects. So, before the design effort starts in earnest – the classic starting point for PLM – there is a major exercise in the selection of the projects to pursue. Oracle is a major advocate of PLM’s ability to support the ‘project discovery’ phase. A Forbes 2010 research study that showed that, while CEOs see innovation as the primary factor in driving growth, only about a third regard their innovation execution processes as effective. Or as a Booz and Company 2012 industry survey put it: ‘coming up with new ideas is not as big a problem as selecting and converting them to development projects’. So this is where there is potential for extending PLM into the ‘pre-design’ arena – building into PLM the means of assessing and evaluating initial ideas for taking forward into development projects.

The second area where the scope is being extended is in the type of product information that can be accommodated. The growing software component of many products is increasing the complexity of the product information management task. In general, software changes more rapidly than physical products and the growing functional interdependence between software and their physical host devices is driving more rapid product change. This means that it is highly desirable to manage the software components in the same environment as the physical; that is, for the PLM technology to be capable of bringing all of the product information together. In general, software has been managed outside of the classic PLM environment, but recently the major PLM vendors like Dassault, PTC and Siemens have begun to incorporate specific capabilities for software.

The third area of PLM expansion is accessibility to smaller companies – commonly called ‘democratization’ of the technology. In this respect, we believe that there are five forces driving the development of PLM systems: the cloud; mobility; improved integration with complementary applications; social networking and new collaboration functions; and ease of use. Those five technology factors are all interdependent and all serve to increase the accessibility and flexibility of PLM technology. They are all driving PLM vendors to move their solutions forward aggressively, led by Autodesk and, on a smaller scale, Solair. PLM is therefore aiming to emulate – and perhaps overtake - the efforts of cloud-based ERP to make what was a ‘large company’ solution available to any size of company. In fact, for the SMB community, cloud-based PLM married with cloud-based ERP would open up a whole new set of possibilities….

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