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PLM software is the go-to guy, increasingly critical to the business

PLM's star is rising, as IT executives turn to the software to solve problems, error-proof the global design process and speed time-to-market.

Product lifecycle management (PLM) software is living up to the lifecycle portion of its name, as enterprise organizations tap it for collaboration, acquisitions, global workforce management and much more, according to attendees at Siemens Corp.'s recent PLM event in Boston.

Rolls-Royce PLC, for one, is more able to integrate the processes between design, manufacturing and engineering with PLM software. "Today we have a much better chance of designing a product we can actually make than we had in the past," said Gordon McKechnie, PLM lead for the global power systems company headquartered in London.

Whereas previously a design would be sent to manufacturing 95% complete and manufacturing would send back "an enormous amount of changes," McKechnie said, now the design team sends a product that is 20% complete. Using the PLM system, design and manufacturing teams have real-time back-and-forth on a given feature that is akin to an interactive, agile product-design approach. In some cases, PLM software's three-dimensional model-sharing capabilities have resulted in a 50% reduction in the time it takes the company to do modeling, he said.

"We've seen an evolution of the design of our parts so that now we're able to pass on the design -- before it's complete -- to a manufacturing engineer, and he can start to engineer his manufacturing processes against the factory capabilities before we finish the design," McKechnie said.

In many ways, the PLM system is becoming a collaboration platform that closes the communication gap in real time among stakeholders across the entire product-design lifecycle from concept to warranty, and even to the product's end of life.

Nevertheless, an end-to-end enterprise PLM system that covers all the steps in a product's lifecycle including warranty, services and support, and end of life does not exist yet, so point solutions are still needed, said Sanjeev Pal, analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

This end-to-end workflow utopia could result in fewer flaws before a product reaches manufacturing, or -- the worst-case scenario -- before it reaches the public. As one presenter at the PLM event in Boston explained, such real-time, collaborative approaches during the design process will ensure that flaws are caught early on.

Like business intelligence software, PLM software has built-in data analytics capabilities that let designers and engineers catch mistakes, because they can conduct what-if design studies in a shorter period of time. This also speeds up time-to-market and reduces errors, Rolls-Royce's McKechnie said.

The global factor in product lifecycle management

Fewer errors do lead to faster time-to-market, but PLM also is playing a key role in Rolls-Royce's global growth strategy. The company has inherited or acquired other companies and along with them, different legacy environments that do not integrate. "So, collaboration across our own business is becoming a big challenge, fundamentally because we're deploying new factories in different parts of the world," McKechnie said.

At the same time, Rolls-Royce is growing to the point that it can't handle all product design itself. In 1990, for example, product design was split 50-50 between internal employees and external partners' designers. Soon, that split will be at 20% internal design and 80% external design. "Our global footprint is a big driver for investing in PLM; and PLM makes it possible for us to collaborate across that global footprint, and integrate and standardize those global systems," McKechnie said.

Many enterprises are coupling new technology approaches with their PLM systems in order to reach a global design and manufacturing workforce while still cutting costs. By moving to a four-tier architecture, Rolls-Royce doesn't have to make a big infrastructure investment to bring a new Singapore PLM deployment online. Instead, the company uses a cached server site to connect the Singapore location to the U.K.-based PLM database.

PLM makes it possible for us to collaborate across that global footprint, and integrate and standardize those global systems.

Gordon McKechnie, PLM lead, Rolls-Royce PLC

Applied Materials Inc., a maker of products for the semiconductor, flat-panel display and solar photovoltaic industries, is moving its product design process into the cloud, allowing engineers to go to a portal and run mechanical and electrical CAD over a fast gigabit connection. This is possible because the company houses three instances of Siemens' PLM Teamcenter software in the cloud, close to its designers in Austin, Texas; Singapore and India, said Nir Merry, the company's vice president of engineering, during a presentation at the Siemens PLM event.

"We used to have synchronization errors of instances between servers -- that's gone," Merry said. "Six percent of our engineers use [the PLM system] from home; that used to be zero. Before, when you have a machine of 30,000 parts and you have to open it on a little laptop from home, people give up. With our blade solution [in the cloud] for CAD running next to Teamcenter, engineers are now able to [work from home] and we've seen a 30% improvement in performance satisfaction."

Combining the blades with CAD running adjacent to Teamcenter gets rid of the need for local instances of the PLM software. It also lets the company collaborate and develop around the clock to synchronize data; and, as a result, it gives Applied Materials "great competing power," Merry said. "Our guys are moving very fast to develop products and have it right the first time."

Like Rolls-Royce, Applied Materials is absorbing several acquisitions into its product lifecycle process. Using PLM software, it put a product into global production within nine months of an acquisition. "In that time, we developed our first product that combined our DNA and their DNA … with controls from our side, robotics from their side and ours, copper plating from their side, and automation from our side. We could do that because we had a stable PLM solution and processes," Merry said.

PLM software: A never-ending cycle and cost

Advocates of PLM software are not nearly as open when it comes to talking about cost. It's tough to nail down how much money enterprises have invested and continue to invest in this new go-to guy for the enterprise.

Costs can add up over time, however, because the software must adapt continually to changing business conditions, IDC's Pal explained. One of his clients has been using PLM "since the dawn of PLM," and has spent a $1 billion over that time. "PLM is constantly changing because it reflects how companies are trying to innovate, trying to do new things in the product lifecycle," he said.

PLM can be affordable, although Applied Materials' CFO would argue that its "affordability can always improve," Merry said. Costs can be controlled by taking a phased approach to new acquisitions and system integrations, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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