Delivering on the Promise of PLM

I’m fairly new to the concept of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) in manufacturing but back in the day I followed supply chain issues for a purchasing magazine.

After a down year in 2009, the global market for PLM technology came on strong in 2010 and is expected to grow through 2015, according to a recent report from CIMdata, the Ann Arbor MI-based research and consulting firm.

Recently, for instance, there’s been a heavy investment by aerospace, automotive, high-tech and mechanical machinery companies driving strong growth in China for global and domestic PLM solution providers, CIMdata reports.

But what exactly is PLM? And why ten years after its introduction to the manufacturing industry, is it making a comeback in today’s lackluster world economy?

Manufacturing today is becoming ever more complex, one has to be able to deal with complicated global supply and distribution chains as well as make product changes quickly. Getting products to market on time and on budget is a tricky proposition, especially in highly competitive industries like automotive. PLM at it’s best attempts to address these challenges.

Though universally accepted standards are still evolving, one generally accepted definition of PLM technology is that its software that enhances the many processes related to a product’s Bill of Materials (BoM)—the manufacturing Bible that tells companies how to design, build and support their products. PLM solutions optimize the management and evolution of a BoM throughout a product’s lifecycle from conception, design and manufacture to service and disposal. Any activity that changes or influences a BoM are factors that drive operational effectiveness and, as such, are subsumed within the PLM umbrella.

But PLM seems to me to be much larger than the sum of its individual parts. It is a strategic approach to product development and manufacturing that applies a consistent set of business applications to the collaborative creation, management, dissemination and use of product-definition information across an extended enterprise. Simply put, a PLM working environment integrates multiple business processes and systems across disciplines, touching many users, both internal and external.

How then does a manufacturer align its own people, processes, and information systems with out-of-the-box PLM and still support unique business requirements and existing corporate culture? That is no small feat and, quite frequently, the underlying reason behind project delays and problems, more so than financial or supplier issues, according to a July CIMdata anecdotal opinion poll on what PLM projects struggle with the most.

In the poll, when asked to identify the primary cause of their challenges, respondents pointed to technical, business, organizational, solution, and financial issues, in that order.

Asked what percentage of PLM initiatives encounter substantial surprises, detours, and interruptions , an overwhelming 75% of respondents reported the majority of their PLM projects encounter unexpected obstacles and roughly 30% said “nearly all” PLM projects experience those challenges.

“If these sample poll results are accurate for industry in general, it means that the PLM community (i.e., the PLM softwarevendor, systems integrators, consultants, and others) hasn’t provided the guidance, skills, training, software, etc., or some combination of said elements needed for success,” according to the CIMdata research notes.

The good news, CIMData researchers note, is that very few projects go off the rails due to the wrong solution selected or from an unresponsive supplier. The bad news is that too many PLM projects encounter technical obstacles which could have been predicted and mitigated with more realistic planning and assimilation of best practices.

Analysts believe that PLM has come of age and is maturing into a game-changing discipline with the potential for becoming the most fundamental business application in manufacturing. But will PLM deliver on this decade-old promise of a technology solution that helps manufacturers create better products faster, more efficiently and at lower costs? That’s still an open question. Share your thoughts.

Marilyn Cohodas is a veteran IT journalist who, before joining PTC as marketing program manager, was editorial director for six B2B Web sites serving corporate IT managers and administrators of Microsoft enterprise Windows technology.

Photo Credit: Wonderlane on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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