Product lifecycle management (PLM) emerged in the mid ‘80s as a way for companies to accelerate the product development process by better managing their data. Since then, PLM has evolved into a critical business approach for any size manufacturer. In my positions with Caterpillar from the late ‘70s to 2017 – including direct interaction with PLM initiatives from 2005 – I’ve seen firsthand how PLM has impacted organizations and all the challenges that come along with implementing PLM initiatives.
I define PLM as a strategic business approach that includes processes and technologies to support the creation, management, and sharing of product-related information. PLM has proven to streamline and support workflows, but also has a reputation for overwhelming and intimidating organizations. Companies that successfully integrate PLM throughout a product’s lifecycle experience:
- Enhanced business processes
- Optimized final products
- Greater return on investment
I define PLM as a strategic business approach that includes processes and technologies to support the creation, management, and sharing of product-related information.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been pleased to see three significant changes in how organizations understand and leverage PLM.
1. PLM Philosophy vs. PLM Software
When PLM was first introduced, it was seen as a philosophy or business approach. Unfortunately, as different PLM software tools came around, organizations dramatically shifted their perspectives. Instead of understanding PLM as a strategic business approach, companies perceived it as a pre-defined software. The software ends up setting artificial boundaries on what was possible with PLM, thinking PLM was only what the software provided. This has been a limitation for many organizations over the years, diluting the true benefits and value of PLM.
I’ve been pleased to see the pendulum swing back toward embracing PLM as a business approach. Organizations are seeing the importance of how they create, share, and format their data throughout the lifecycle to accelerate product development. The data must be accessible and valuable throughout all points of a product’s lifecycle – from development and use, to maintenance and retirement.
Although the pendulum is swinging, we have a long way to go before organizations fully grasp that PLM is not a single software tool. Technology enables the PLM approach, but people are the key. To get the most out of PLM, organizations must invest in cultural, process, and data alignment.
2. Product Definition in PLM Software vs. CAD
Historically, CAD has been the foundation of product development. When a new design was needed, an engineer would jump straight into CAD and begin designing. Along the way, the engineer would define the model’s parameters, characteristics, and definitions. Companies would then use the CAD model to store all the information about the product, from part numbers to analysis results.
However, CAD was only meant to define a design’s attributes from a mathematical perspective–such as volume, size, and geometry. CAD was not originally intended to store all the product’s metadata. Using CAD as the entry point to a product’s definition is extremely time-consuming, and identifying the appropriate components in an assembly is like weaving through a hedge maze.
Technology enables the PLM approach, but people are the key. To get the most out of PLM, organizations must invest in cultural, process, and data alignment.
Today, organizations use the PLM software as the entry point into a product design. CAD is certainly a reference point in building a model. However, organizations are investing more in managing, connecting, sharing, and interacting with 3D product data, which is made more accessible in the PLM software tool.
3. Integrating Multiple Tools vs. One Solution
In the previous section, the PLM software serves as an entry point into product design rather than the CAD tool. This is one example of many in how to select the right tool for the right job, feeding directly into the next evolution I see in product lifecycle management.
When PLM software tools were initially introduced, organizations believed they could integrate one solution from a single vendor to fully harness the power of the PLM approach. Today, organizations are realizing the short-sightedness of this belief. One tool can’t perform optimally for every step of the PLM process. Instead, companies are integrating multiple tools together to receive a much greater return on investment.
Although this approach is more ideal, there is a fundamental challenge. Legacy data doesn’t interface well with all technology. Newer organizations don’t have this challenge, but companies with years of data must identify strategic ways to integrate their legacy data before investing in new technologies.
My Predictions for the Future of PLM
From here, I fully expect PLM usage will continue to evolve. Based on what is happening in the industry now and my experience over the last few decades, I have two predictions for how PLM will change:
- My first point discussed how PLM has traditionally been viewed as a software tool – specifically, an engineering software tool. Companies don’t adopt the PLM approach for their full lifecycle needs. Rather, organizations focus their PLM efforts on just product development. In the future, I believe PLM will expand into a company-wide process used throughout a product’s entire lifecycle.
- Today, there is a very hard line between product development and product manufacturing. PLM software tools drive a product’s development and manages the virtual assets. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions drive manufacturing and the physical components – essentially picking up where the PLM tool leaves off. The problem is that product development and manufacturing are seen as very separate and distinct silos with minimal crossover. Yet, these two sides wouldn’t exist without the other. I predict – and hope – that the demarcation between PLM and ERP will become blurred, with product development and manufacturing becoming more collaborative.
Although these trends are still emerging and we have a long way to go, I fully expect companies will continue to invest in PLM optimizations as they experience the ROI. All three evolutions, combined with what the future has in store, will continue to provide radical changes in how companies manage the product lifecycle.
I predict – and hope – that the demarcation between PLM and ERP will become blurred, with product development and manufacturing becoming more collaborative.