Product Lifecycle Management is now more accessible for all organisations

Paul Boughton

Product Lifecycle Management offers many benefits for manufacturing companies. Jon Severn reports on some recent developments that could create new opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises wanting to implement PLM.

As design offices have migrated from paper drawings to 2D CAD and 3D modelling, there has been a parallel move towards more sophisticated document management. While this helps to keep track of drawings and other product-related documents such as specifications and bills of materials, its benefits fall far short of what can be achieved with a comprehensive product lifecycle management (PLM) philosophy. While some PLM software systems have evolved out of document management systems, this is not always the case; given the complexity of the current generation of PLM, it is easy to understand why a 'clean sheet of paper' approach might be better than trying to over-develop a far simpler software package.

Because the entire PLM concept has evolved, the definition of PLM varies somewhat between different suppliers, consultants and analysts. In essence, however, PLM should be viewed as a business process, rather than a software package, and PLM is applied to the entire product lifecycle, from conceptual design through to detailed design, manufacture, support and end-of-life disposal. All aspects of the product should be included - such as hardware, software and regulatory certification - and the 'product' may be anything from a car to a mobile telephone, building or software package. Importantly, PLM brings together people, data, processes and business systems, both within the 'owner' organisation and, where appropriate, suppliers and customers.[Page Break]

Given the vast scope covered by the PLM philosophy, it is the norm for PLM to be implemented in phases. The benefits achieved, therefore, depend on the aspects of the PLM system that have been implemented, but PLM offers the potential to reduce time to market, reduce prototyping and development costs, improve quality (both the quality of the design and the quality level achieved in manufacturing), save costs by repurposing data, reduce waste, assist with regulatory compliance (thereby saving time and costs), and enhance collaboration with suppliers.

Not surprisingly, PLM has tended to be restricted to large manufacturing companies, as the complexity and costs involved can only be withstood by large organisations, and large organisations stand to gain most from the potential benefits. Although PLM should be thought of more as a business approach than a software system, software plays a crucial role. And the licensing structures for PLM software have generally been prohibitively expensive for all but the larger manufacturing companies or smaller companies that can justify it on grounds of, for example, regulatory compliance.[Page Break]

PLM for all

In an attempt to make PLM accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and thereby create an entirely new market for PLM in which the existing software suppliers might find it difficult to compete, Autodesk unveiled a cloud-based PLM system at Autodesk University 2011. According to the company, the new Autodesk 360 for PLM system could transform how manufacturers manage the entire product lifecycle - from its conception, through design and manufacture, partner and supplier management, procurement, quality, compliance, service and more. By using the processing power available through cloud computing, Autodesk says it is taking a new approach to PLM, making it more affordable for SMEs (Fig. 1). At the same time, Autodesk 360 for PLM is equally applicable to large enterprises that have become disenchanted with traditional PLM due to its complexities and high costs.

Robert 'Buzz' Kross, the senior vice president of the manufacturing industry group at Autodesk, stated: "Our approach to PLM is a sharp contrast to the decades-old technology in the market today. Autodesk 360 for PLM will enable customers of all sizes to achieve the full promise of PLM with a scalable, configurable and intuitive solution. We believe it will help our customers achieve a measurable competitive advantage through better, more accessible collaboration and business information management."

Autodesk already has a good track record for cloud-based software, and Autodesk 360 for PLM comprises three main elements: Autodesk 360 Nexus, Autodesk Vault and Autodesk Buzzsaw. Autodesk 360 Nexus is new, cloud-based software that will anchor Autodesk 360 for PLM with affordable, easy-to-use and simple-to-deploy software-as-a-service that helps make the benefits of PLM business applications available to users anytime, anywhere - and with reduced cost and risk. Autodesk Vault is already available; this on-site product data management software enables engineering workgroups to organise, manage and track their entire designs, engineering bills-of-materials and change processes. Autodesk 360 Nexus has been developed to work seamlessly with Autodesk Vault.

Autodesk Buzzsaw is existing cloud-based supplier collaboration software that enables users to exchange designs and documents with external partners and distributed teams, regardless of their location, while maintaining data security. Autodesk Buzzsaw Mobile provides access to users who only have access to smartphones and tablet computers.

According to Autodesk, the new Autodesk 360 Nexus software is more readily and easily configurable to meet customer-specific product lifecycle process needs - unlike the current PLM offerings from other suppliers, which Autodesk describes as expensive, complicated, engineering-centric and difficult to deploy. Autodesk 360 Nexus aims to give users better access to data and an enhanced ability to eliminate process bottlenecks, whether they are working in planning, product development, supplier management, quality and compliance, service or many other areas.[Page Break]

The market for PLM

Global research firm IDC believes that the processes required to commercialise and maintain products are increasingly complex and dispersed, so the analysts estimate that the PLM software applications market will grow to EUR15.5 billion (US$20.5 billion) by 2015. In an IDC Manufacturing Insights report released in June 2011, the authors revealed that manufacturers identified the top three business benefits of cloud-based systems as: reducing total hardware spend; improving IT staff productivity and end user service levels; and reducing total spend on software licensing and maintenance. IDC also said that Autodesk 360 Nexus will better enable customers to start with small PLM implementations and scale these up to become larger systems rapidly when it is necessary to meet demand; at all stages, the PLM should fit easily within the user's existing business environment.

Analysts at Frost & Sullivan have been looking at both PLM and PAM (plant asset management). In a report published in early 2012, Frost & Sullivan described PLM and PAM as indispensable advanced management solutions, particularly for competitive European industrial markets. The analysts forecast that the European market value for PLM and PAM will reach EUR4331.4 million and EUR506.6 million, respectively, in 2017. This compares with figures from 2010 of EUR2640.7 million and EUR300.9 million.

Regarding PLM, Frost & Sullivan says that the market will be driven by growing competition and the need for innovation. Success will depend on suppliers' ability to offer flexibility, scalability and security, as well as software systems' ability to integrate seamlessly with other enterprise applications - particularly enterprise resource planning (ERP) and management execution systems (MES).[Page Break]

Social networking

Autodesk believes it is addressing the market needs with its new approach to PLM. Meanwhile, the existing suppliers are continuing to develop their systems. For example, PTC announced further enhancements to its Windchill family at the end of 2011. Windchill Service Information Manager and Windchill Service Parts enable users to repurpose product structures for product-centric information and change management of configuration-specific service and parts information. Associativity with engineering CAD data is maintained throughout the product lifecycle, resulting in more accurate service and parts information (Fig. 2). In turn, this enables greater efficiencies in product and customer support organisations. Furthermore, new capabilities within Windchill Product Analytics help manufacturers comply with the European Reach (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) regulations and Battery Directive, Windchill Quality Solutions enhances product and process quality across the product lifecycle, and Windchill Nonconformance helps users manage non-conformances. One more feature worth mentioning is Windchill Sociallink, which is said to make it easier to collaborate dynamically with colleagues by adding Windchill product events into a community's activity feed, or post directly to communities from within Windchill by means of a new embedded social toolbar.

Similarly, Siemens PLM Software recently announced that the community collaboration capabilities built into its Teamcenter software now support Microsoft SharePoint 2010, thereby further expanding popular social networking concepts into the product development process (Fig. 3). The company says that this new generation of social product development will help manufacturers enhance collaboration among employees, suppliers and customers to streamline the introduction of new products. It is claimed that manufacturers can boost productivity in all departments, not just engineering, by making use of social networking tools such as wikis, blogs, profiles and surveys.

Jim Brown, the president and founder of Tech-Clarity, an independent research and consulting firm, comments: "Companies are applying the concepts and lessons learned from social networking to connect people and enhance business interaction. This shift towards corporate social networks promises significant business value, particularly as social computing technologies are applied to PLM."

Clearly PLM is continuing to evolve in some interesting directions. However, perhaps the most exciting are the affordable opportunities for SMEs to enjoy the time, cost and quality benefits that PLM has to offer.

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