Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) that are manufacturing products have tons of data available at their fingertips and it’s not just from one department but rather retrieved from multiple departments throughout the company and even beyond to sales partners and other organizations along the supply chain. They want to be able to tap into data retrieved from their partners, suppliers and end-users alike.
From a product lifecycle management (PLM) standpoint, gaining this valuable information starts from design information, product engineering, manufacturing data and now end-user and supplier data. In addition, there are smarter products designed that are generating a lot of information in the field, which can be used in developing next generation product iterations. All this data impacts the product lifecycle and the management of that cycle.
So, what does this mean for SME? The SME want to be able to harness the power of this data available to them without drowning in it, along with that, potentially losing their progress. It can be a fine line. It has to be useful, meaningful data retrieved that will help SME in gaining a competitive edge by developing better engineered products. Data is streaming in faster than ever and from more sources than ever as the new trend for IoT and mobility brings even more connectedness, resulting in more information. Mobility is bringing improvements by giving mobile users access to PLM data and processes from their mobile devices, allowing them to securely review, respond and react faster. It gives them the ability to record and process audit findings and any quality issues onsite or in the field.
How can an SME leverage these new trends for data and the increasing presence of IoT without sinking in terms of time, investment and payback? Is there a simpler and less complicated way to navigate the sea of data to find the pattern of problematic areas in a faster, easier way? PLM vendors have been grappling with this for a few years now. While the big PLM players have made acquisitions, tacking on expensive data analysis services to their pricing or additional fees for integration to other systems, there are PLM vendors out there looking out for the SME by providing a simpler, more streamlined way to leverage the IoT and big data trends in a more meaningful, beneficial framework. It won't seem like a tsunami crashing down but rather the kind of waves that you would want to ride and that would actually ride you to the shore — on solid ground and in one piece.
For starters, PLM technology that connects processes within multiple departments and active teams from engineering, operations and manufacturing can create a closed-loop, enabling manufacturers to develop products that are able to leverage IoT data to improve product development processes. The IoT data gathered from a product’s real-world performance and quality can impact all stakeholders across the company in product design and development, manufacturing, sales and marketing, customer operations and after-sales services. It can also make a difference for suppliers as well, since this feedback can be circulated back to the suppliers of the parts being used in the product design. Suppliers can then make any adjustments to parts to optimize performance.
IoT data often has the ability to deliver data points in real time and close the lifecycle loop. Product planning, design and quality departments can now learn from a product’s operational behavior to improve features that customers use most. For example, IoT data will enable PLM vendors to track and configure product design requirements based on usage patterns and allow for the redesign of parts or systems to improve quality.
Embracing the Digital Transformation
Manufacturers have always put an emphasis on improving quality, performance, reliability and solid relationships with customers. However, it has become evident that the next generation of competition is digital, and seems to entail change in everything from designing products to supply chain management. The product manufacturer that never had to worry about embedding electronics and software components into their product design are now finding themselves having to do just that. OEMs are grappling with how best to embed electronics and software into their product design. They are also finding additional challenges in managing their expanding Bill of Materials (BOMs) and even more complex supply chains.
IoT is becoming the way of the world and because of it, there are now more components being manufactured and more intricate design chain challenges than ever before. To aid in the development of more complex, smart device-enabled products, PLM has evolved from the backbone for managing multiple discipline processes, product documentation, complex BOMs and engineering changes, to capturing downstream activities like manufacturing planning, quality processes, product and customer/field-level feedback. OEMs will have to learn to trust data and analytics, where once they relied on people. To truly embrace this digital transformation, manufacturers will have to step out of their comfort zones to learn new habits, acquire new disciplines and implement organizational transformation that extends to their supply chain. They will come to rely on their PLM vendors to encompass more of the backend activities typically stored in CRM, Issue Tracking and data collection systems as well as all of the supply chain activities associated with procurement.
PLM Evolves to Leverage Data Intelligently
PLM will be capable of connecting data on both the front end and back end. The amount of data interaction that engineers are going to have is increasing especially since no longer are the domains of the design and engineering environments silos unto themselves. Data points related to product performance and efficiency can now be shared with the rest of the organization. Products are getting more complex by adding electronic and software components, and increased digital customer interactions bring forth even more information and opportunity.
PLM technology provides a system to centralize product data, standardize business processes and streamline communication of information across distributed product development teams. It helps to shorten development cycles, improve quality and cut the time-to-market by enabling access to current and accurate product data. Anytime. Anywhere.
Some of the PLM vendors that cater to SME’s requirements have taken the steps to build simple-to-use tools to leverage data and communications in new and more meaningful ways. Let’s face it, communication continues to be the cornerstone of product development, manufacturing and support. Meetings, emails and phone/conference calls are important aspects of any team that builds products. It is all about transparency and finding the best ways to get everyone on the same page. Capturing these discussions and associating them to product records provide all personnel with the visibility to understand the full impact their products have had on user, consumers and customers. Understanding this impact has a direct influence on product features and quality for future designs and updates/upgrades.
The Power of Customer Feedback
Customer feedback is commonly used throughout the product development process to ensure that the end product is something that solves a customer’s problem or fulfils a need. The companies that can intertwine product development and customer feedback will be the ones that reap strong competitive advantages, have sticky customer loyalty and earn raving customer advocates. The best business decisions are based off data, not hunches. And this is especially true as the IoT adds an extra layer of complexity with a higher volume of customer feedback from both the consumer and products. Too many times business owners’ and executives’ decisions are made based off of inaccurate data.
Customer feedback is the holy grail of tangible data. It allows the product engineering team a better ability to gather real insight into how their customers really feel about the product or service. Bill Gates put it best when he related that a company’s most unhappy customers are actually a company’s greatest source of learning.
PLM Communication Portals
If a large percentage of customers suggest a product feature or want an additional customer service channel, it has now become possible to capture this information using a PLM communication portal that can not only capture all product-related discussions and feedback but actually raise, route, and track any problems. It can automatically associate customer feedback to product records to improve product development, quality, and timelines. Such systems can even provide product data links to internal and external feedback that makes the process easy and highly intuitive.
PLM systems have gotten smarter and many offer an efficient pre-filtering process before an issue becomes a quality item (such as a corrective action, nonconformity, process, change, etc.) or introduces product changes (ECOs). There is now a way to conduct closed-loop processing of PLM related issues as well as non-PLM related ones.
It can also deliver a user blogging environment encouraging additional communication. Often it can help manage and route help tickets as well as track help ticket closure. Most importantly, it builds solutions and develops a more in-depth knowledge base to address common questions and problems for the purposes of improving product design and corporate policies.
SME are coordinating 75 percent or more of their supply chain activity outside their four walls, using data derived from tapping into such areas as IoT, mobility and cloud-based technologies to achieve a more collaborative PLM framework according to Frost & Sullivan. As outlined, the results can deliver positive impacts in the design and engineering of products. This data SME are now tapping into is providing greater data accuracy, clarity and insights while leading to better decision-making.
Extending PLM capabilities to include downstream processes, data sharing and analytics improves insights into customer requirements and makes use of product performance data in real life. With PLCs, sensors and smart devices improving and becoming more affordable and efficient, there are now more opportunities to track and research how devices are performing and how customers are experiencing products in all industries. Meaningful data gathered from customers, devices, suppliers and multiple departments internal to an organization can seamlessly be filtered and leveraged throughout PLM processes to create better engineered products.
Chuck Cimalore is CTO of Omnify Software.