Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Time for manufacturers to innovate with PLM

December 28, 2017
By Doug Macdonald

Dec. 28, 2017 – Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems were conceived to synchronize and standardize product development processes and have been around for more than 20 years.

Initially defined by CAD and CAD data management, legacy PLM has not progressed much further in its ability to handle the current level of product complexity of say, an autonomous vehicle. In fact, in this context – i.e., the development of smart, connected products – teams need PLM more than ever and have become disillusioned by the limitations of their current PLM systems.

Many concerns and misconceptions about the challenges prevent teams from implementing a PLM system capable of meeting today’s needs but they should not be deterred. To move forward, here’s a look at some of the common reasons PLM initiatives get stuck and how that holds teams back when it comes to innovation.

Why do we need to change?
We live in a world in which product complexity is increasing exponentially and shows no signs of letting up. Across all major industries, manufacturers need to manage products that are not only systems, but often systems of systems. Think of any car built in the last few years. They have product designs that require a mix of hardware, software, electronics and/or firmware. Managing these systems of systems is a challenge that can’t be met using the simple tools of the past.

Gatepoint Research recently released a comprehensive PLM Benchmark survey. This survey found that there is a major disconnect between current PLM implementations and their promised value. Among the survey’s principle findings were:


• Current PLM implementations took more than three years but only resulted in 37 per cent satisfaction with limited domain use and functional use.  
• Only 19 per cent of organizations are using PLM systems for engineering, 31 per cent of organizations use PLM for MCAD/ECAD data.
• Forty-two per cent use PLM for configuration management, and 51 per cent of organizations use PLM to collaborate across functions.
• Organizations are not utilizing PLM’s full capability.
• Organizations that are not fully utilizing their PLM systems leave their engineers working in silos, collaborating and sharing data using inefficient manual processes such as email and spreadsheets.

Much of this is due to the architecture of legacy PLM and the ‘closed’ approach of their vendors. But a new approach is coming to the fore; the Product Innovation Platform — an innovation-enabling business platform that supports all product related disciplines and users.

But isn’t it easier to just do nothing?
Before you can even get started with implementing a Product Innovation Platform, there are some initial hurdles and misconceptions that need to be overcome — beginning with your company’s legacy. Consider this mentality — “we’ve managed this way for so long – why change?” — is the risk of changing greater than the risk of simply doing nothing? Remember, inertia is powerful and changing legacy systems can be perceived as an overwhelming task. For those who say, “it’s too big a job to change the entire PLM system,” the advice is to think big and start small. Your best bet is to start with one reasonably sized project, tackle that first and then decide whether you should undertake a full “rip and replace” approach or continue with an incremental approach that allows you to work with your legacy systems. And for all those unmet needs you’ve been talking to your PLM vendor about for years, be wary when the response is “it’s in the next release.”

What are the challenges we can expect?
• Inflexibility
While an out-of-the box solution seems attractive, and seems to be easier and faster to implement – it is more than likely that a generic solution simply cannot meet the unique PLM requirements of a given company. Yes, they may be easier to initially roll out, but because they don’t truly meet a company’s specific need, they are left with a minimally functional PLM system.

Traditional PLM systems are difficult to customize due to hard-coded business logic and data models that are used to define workflows, approvals, item types, etc. This means that extensive reprogramming is required in order to customize, change or add new features to meet evolving business needs. This process can take months or even years to complete and can put the entire implementation at risk. As the business needs change, the difficulty in customization means that it can be too expensive to go back and update the system to meet these changes.

Plus, legacy PLM systems are hard to upgrade. It’s unlikely the system you put into place 15 years ago is what you need today – not to mention tomorrow. New releases of software mean that hard-coded customizations must be migrated into the new system. In the worst case, the new release may be several versions ahead of the version being used by the customer and any customizations must be redeveloped from scratch. As a result, companies often wait as long as possible before upgrading — especially if an important feature is no longer supported in the new release which means they can’t take advantage of any of the new capabilities in the new release without losing features in earlier releases.

• Inability to scale to meet the needs of a large number of users, either because of poor support for specific user needs or performance limitations
Implementing PLM systems often means settling for less than what was hoped for. Companies often fall victim to the 10-10-100 formula: 10 per cent of the desired functionality is achieved, 10 per cent of the expected users are connected to the system, but 100 per cent of the planned budget is spent.

• Fragmented PLM systems
Many legacy PLM systems are actually made up of a mashed-up collection of disparate products that have been stitched together through years of acquisitions. This results in silos within the PLM system architecture that make collaboration challenging. Even though many PLM systems claim full functionality across disciplines, the individual pieces of software often don’t work well together and make communication and collaboration challenging. These siloed systems can make the creation of a comprehensive bill of materials (BOM) or an engineering change order (ECO), spanning multiple disciplines, impossible due to the multiple systems involved.

• Legacy is legacy
Remember, just because the product has a new name, doesn’t mean it’s not a legacy product or system. Legacy is an approach, not a name. You simply can’t expect yesterday’s systems to address today’s – and tomorrow’s – problems. After all, isn’t one of the definitions of insanity doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results?

What’s the way forward?
Gatepoint Research’s PLM Benchmark Report cited three key actions that companies looking to improve and accelerate complex product development and innovation should consider:

• Reset internal PLM expectations. It is essential that both business and IT leaders work to reset internal expectations of PLM to develop an enterprise-wide Product Innovation Platform.
• Develop a PLM platform. Organizations need to develop a PLM platform as a business-critical system that positions the organization for change and creates a technology foundation for innovation.
• Expand PLM use. Companies should expand PLM use across their entire organization and connect both new product development technologies and legacy systems via a PLM platform.

Overcoming the challenges of implementing a Product Innovation Platform
Ultimately, the way to overcome these challenges is by implementing a system that is:

• Flexible. Featuring adaptive data models, process models and business rules. A service-oriented architecture platform that is optimized for flexibility and scalability.
• Scalable. Having the ability to grow and adapt to meet changing needs
• Upgradable. The ability to upgrade quickly and easily, means you need a system that allows for customizations at the application level – leaving the platform itself untouched.
• Open. A system built on open architecture means that is can be seamlessly integrated into existing software environments.

Can manufacturers afford to continue muddling along with legacy PLM, or even worse, a cobbled together spreadsheets and CAD drawings? Not to get to the next-generation of complex products with requirements that may not have even been conceived yet.

The path to implementing a successful PLM system requires resetting internal thinking and embracing what modern PLM can achieve. The rewards are clear. A Product Innovation Platform positions your organization for innovation and digital transformation to stay ahead of competition and meet today’s, as well as tomorrow’s, manufacturing challenges.  

Doug Macdonald is product marketing director at Aras Corp.

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