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Additional ABCs About PLM

Two years ago we tried to sort out the meaning of product lifecycle management (PLM) in “The ABCs of PLM”. Alas, some people are still confused about PLM. So here we go again, this time trying to get the explanation via the consultants who focus on the tech.

Most people understand the phases of a product’s lifecycle, says Michael Burkett, AMR’s vice president of research for PLM at AMR Research (www.amrresearch.com; Boston). Those phases are: define, design, promote, supply, and support. These phases bring a product “from the initial discovery, the ideation phase, right through aftermarket support,” continues Burkett. (In this list, define is the act of “defining a new market opportunity and feeding that into the development pipeline.” Promote is the act of “preparing marketing and the channel, to actually bring the product to market.”) From these phases, AMR has identified five core PLM components. The first two are fairly mature as they are where PLM started: product data management (PDM) and collaborative product design (i.e., the different tools for actually interacting with all participants in a design process). The remaining three are direct material sourcing, customer needs management, and product portfolio management.

Few vendors, explains Burkett, have capabilities in all five of these categories, despite a vendor’s claim that it “does” PLM. As a result, a user company might very well invest in a single vendor for most of the core PLM components, such as PDM and collaborative design tools, but go elsewhere for unique capabilities, such as product portfolio management. The reason for this is quite simple. “Vendors tend to migrate from the world they were born in,” muses Burkett. As with the other research firms, AMR has identified three categories of PLM vendors. At one end are the CAD vendors with “deep digital design expertise.” At the other end are the enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors with transactional business systems expertise, which they are applying to collaborative environments. In the middle, continues Burkett, are vendors focused on other business processes, such as workflow, business process modeling, and program management.

KNOW THIS: PLM is not a single application, stresses Burkett. “PLM is more of a technology strategy to solve the business problem of design and launching new products.” Second, one size doesn’t fit all. “Look at your business process and the pain points. Then take advantage of the different PLM technologies that best suit your needs.”

WHAT IT IS. AND ISN’T. “PLM is, number one, a process of guiding a product from concept through retirement and, number two, a process to deliver the most business value to an enterprise and its trading partners,” says Marc Halpern, research director, product lifecycle management: industry advisory service, Gartner Research (www.gartner.com; Stamford, CT). For engineering and design, PLM is about “creating the product—giving that product some definition that can be manufactured.” For marketing, PLM involves the business intelligence and portfolio management tools needed to create and evaluate product strategy and product portfolios. PLM also helps marketing with product details for labeling, advertising, sales collateral, and so on. 

Halpern also indicates what PLM does not include. For instance, PLM does not include the planning and execution of the strategies and tactics to maximize market presence (such as what dealerships to stock or what the discount-du-jour should be). Nor does it include the commercial or transactional activities related to ordering, shipping, and fulfilling orders, or payments. (That’s ERP or supply chain execution tools, notes Halpern.)

For production, PLM involves the interdependencies between product engineering, manufacturing engineering, and factory layout, but it does not include assigning factory floor resources, managing material flows, task scheduling, line balancing, or equipment maintenance scheduling. (That’s all manufacturing execution systems, says Halpern.) For sales, PLM could be the source of content and rules that drive sales configurators. However, sales configurators are not really part of PLM. Nor is the automation of sales transactions or the management of customer or prospect databases.

Gartner gives its seal of approval to “PLM vendors” if they provide four out of these seven features/functions:

  • An interface to design tools for users to access and collaboratively modify designs and manage product data. The vendor need not own the design tools.
  • The ability to monitor the status of a product definition, namely some form of PDM.
  • Product portfolio creation, management, and decision support.
  • Resource assignment and performance tracking.
  • The ability to navigate structured and unstructured product content, analyze and communicate product information, and provide customizable views of that information.
  • Make product content accessible in enterprise systems.
  • Capture, communicate, and analyze product-related metrics of serviceability, performance, maintenance, and so on as part of a feedback loop for continuous product improvement.

“Obviously vendors can’t reasonably address all seven. Even four out of the seven is a healthy chunk,” says Halpern. The truth is, there are no leaders yet in PLM according to Gartner. On the flip side, not every user company needs all these capabilities.

KNOW THIS: “You’re managing data, information, knowledge, and physical assets—throughout the lifecycle of a product. Knowledge is based on awareness and judgment. Information is in the context to support decision making. Data is data.”

THE STRATEGIC APPROACH. Ed Miller, president of CIMdata (www.cimdata.com; Ann Arbor, MI), says “PLM isn’t something you go and buy. Rather, it’s an area that you develop a strategy around for the collaborative creation, management, dissemination, and use of all product/plant definition information and the management of virtual product processes”—from a product concept to end of life.

Within that definition are all sorts of technologies that CIMdata puts into two big buckets. Authoring tools is one bucket. These are the applications that create designs and definitions, and analyze data, including CAD/CAM for mechanical designs, electronic design automation (EDA) for electronics, computer-aided software engineering, and computer-aided engineering (CAE). Collaborative product definition management (cPDM) is the other bucket, which includes workflow, vaulting, visualization, configuration and change management, project and program management, and portfolio management. “Everything but authoring tools,” says Miller.

That’s a lot of technology, but don’t focus on that. Continues Miller, “A manufacturing company can have a PDM strategy and a mechanical design strategy and an EDA strategy and an analysis strategy. When that company looks at those as part of a holistic strategy, that’s when it becomes a PLM strategy.” Miller likens this distinction, and the difference between PDM and PLM, to that of MRP/MRP II and ERP: PLM, like ERP, is technology-enabled, but process driven. “ERP took off when we quit worrying about dropping in modules and started worrying about what processes we were using.”

Nowadays, a “growing economy” exists around PLM, says Miller. The “mindshare leaders”—CIMdata’s term—have created a big enough business for scores of vendors to provide “niche technologies that can take, extend, or fill in holes that the bigger guys don’t address.” In fact, these smaller vendors depend on the big guys being in place. “All of these [niche] companies can claim to be participating in the PLM market in some way, shape, or form,” continues Miller. “They can’t say they are PLM [vendors], but they can say they’re aligned with or a part of the delivery of a PLM strategy or in filling in a PLM strategy for a company.”

KNOW THIS: “The acronyms may change, but what we’re trying to accomplish doesn’t. In fact, we’re just back to delivering on some of what we used to call computer-integrated manufacturing. Then we called it design for manufacturability. Then it became simultaneous engineering.”

NOT OUT-OF-THE-BOX. This appears in a recent report from Daratech Inc. (www.daratech.com; Cambridge, MA): “Many use the ‘PLM’ term when they’re really talking about CAD/CAM and CAE. Others use it as a catchall for anything CAD, CAM, CAE, PDM, digital manufacturing process management, or digital mockup. Some suppliers use the term to mean the backbone technology that facilitates collaboration and data exchange. And many view PLM as PDM on steroids.” Specifically, “PLM enables collaboration between multiple functions, departments, disciplines, and between OEM and suppliers. It aims to achieve true interoperability in these domains, and has the toolsets and configurability to optimize processes—not only single processes, but networks of interdependent processes.”

Something is missing. Says Monica Schnitger, senior vice president of market analysis at Daratech, PLM is “much more than technology bits and pieces. It also involves process changes or, at the very least, process examination. To some extent, the process part often gets lost.” While there are a multitude of these “bits and pieces,” these ABCs, Schnitger says that what companies need depends a lot on their technological sophistication. At the most basic level, “they need the ability to do design work in a digital manner. If you don’t have that, then the rest of it doesn’t make any sense,” says Schnitger.

Next, companies need a way of controlling the design data they create, namely a vault. To that they should add some basic management mechanisms to control design work, such as revision control, signoffs, configuration management, and change authorization. Throw in some collaboration tools for, at the very least, the ability to hold design reviews with dispersed work teams. Depending on the enterprise, tying in warranty information and analytical results would be useful. For some companies, a natural next step might be portfolio management—the management theory offshoot of being able to make decisions between sets of design possibilities to determine where best to dedicate resources. Schnitger wouldn’t necessarily consider this a part of PLM. “I think PLM for most companies is still trying to get control of their data.”

KNOW THIS: “The analyst community can’t agree on what PLM is,” comments Schnitger. “PLM is not an out-of-the-box thing you can implement.” Moreover, what’s really new about PLM in the past two years is that PLM components are readily available, many of them are integrated, and that both small- and medium-sized companies are implementing these components.

(Courtesy of CIMdata, Inc.)