Designing and building a product has never been a simple process, but as companies race to shorten time-to-market and supply chains become more complex, getting closely involved in product lifecycle management has become a priority for many manufacturing firms.
According to product development consultant Kilara Le, manufacturers are turning to product lifecycle management (PLM) to organize their efforts around “a central hub of product information” that provides “supply chain connectivity and visibility with regard to product development, and traceability for logistics, cost, and compliance reasons.”
Le told IMT that “supply chain and design are becoming more connected. Many industries that are trying to shorten time-to-market are able use PLM to get teams on the same page looking at the same information. This access to real-time, up-to-date information helps them to make better decisions and react quickly to issues that arise.”
CIMData, a PLM consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., defines PLM as a strategic, systematic approach to managing a product throughout its lifecycle. PLM focuses on information technology (IT) to “support the collaborative creation, management, dissemination, and use of product definition information” not just within the company, but throughout “the extended enterprise (customers, design, and supply partners, etc.).”
CIMData stresses that in PLM “processes are as important, or more important, than data.” PLM is “as concerned with ‘how a business works’ as with ‘what is being created.’”
Because of the emphasis on information, the technology solution employed for managing that information naturally becomes the focus of PLM. PLM solutions are used for manufactured products – automobiles, machines, electronic devices and computers, white goods, toys, aircraft, etc. However, CIMData stresses that the lifecycle information associated with a product can extend far beyond its physical makeup, encompassing the entire value chain used to develop the product, bring it to market, and dispose of it at the end of its life.
Companies use PLM to manage products that are very broadly defined, CIMData explained, even extending to things like “utility distribution networks… power, telecommunications, water, gas, and cable TV, or facilities like plants, drilling rigs, buildings, airports, harbors, railway systems, and logistics warehouses,” as well as “bridges, highways, and other civil engineering projects.”
PLM is also being used by automobile manufacturers to help manage the extremely complex process of bringing a car from concept through design to production. Car manufacturers “must coordinate intricate global supply chains, massive production facilities, huge payrolls – and bet it all against a fickle and unpredictable car-buying public,” James Heppelman, CEO of Needham, Mass.-based Parametric Technology Corp., writes at Forbes. Cost control for such a complex value chain is largely driven by management of the bill of materials (BoM).
For such a task, Heppelman explains, manufacturers tend to turn to enterprise resource planning (ERP) technologies. The problem is that “ERP focuses almost entirely on the manufacturing, inventory, and service of the physical product.” But those stages of a product lifecycle only become important once “all the design and sourcing decisions are made…often too late to significantly affect a product’s profit margin.”
This problem has driven automakers to implement PLM alongside ERP, to enable them to “manage the product’s digital life…while facilitating the internal and external – truly supply-chain-wide – collaboration that automotive manufacturing demands,” including the critical design phase that generates complex computer-aided design (CAD) digital assets, specs, and other documentation.
Michael Lieberman, PLM product manager for San Rafael, Calif.-based software developer Autodesk, offers a checklist of tips for success with PLM. Ongoing executive support is essential, as implementation can encounter resistance down in the org chart. It’s crucial to devote adequate time, infrastructure, and money to the effort and to enlist the help of service providers and software vendors in implementation.
The natural tendency might be to place it in the hands of the internal IT team, but “Without the right level of knowledge on hand,” he warns, “deployments can take a lot longer and have a lower chance of success.” Obviously, an effective PLM implementation will require adjustments. However, Lieberman stresses, most organizations “already have processes that are ideal for their needs,” and “If the PLM solution is unable to accommodate these existing processes, it will not be viewed favorably.” So his advice is to adapt the solution to the existing organization, and not the other way around.
Le warns that “PLM is a tool, and not a ‘magic pill.’” As with other enterprise solutions such as ERP and CRM, it’s not enough just to purchase software and tell everyone to use it. “As such,” she explained, “in order to fully reap the benefits of PLM, a company must first streamline its processes before embarking on implementation.”