This article studies the role of product lifecycle management (PLM) in industrial engineering. The basic concepts of PLM—product data management, engineering change management, and product structure management—were also discussed. PLM provides data and management capabilities to reduce the non-value-added tasks required of engineers. It also increases engineering productivity, provides insight into engineering efforts, and improves product quality and customer satisfaction. Companies are receiving significant value and return from their PLM investments. Many companies begin implementing PLM by establishing a single source of product data, or product record. Most PLM solutions offer sophisticated interfaces to many design automation and office applications, which reduce the need to capture, store, and validate product data. Product designs are maintained as assemblies and parts in the PLM system, and that arrangement allows engineers easy searching when they are looking, for example, for legacy components, with software providing a critical control and value portion of the product. With PLM, disparate engineering teams work more collaboratively.
Why should I care if my company implements PLM?
You’d think after nearly 25 years of product lifecycle management in successful industry use, engineers would no longer be asking such a question. But you’d be wrong!
I’ve been actively involved in the growth and evolution of the PLM market from its humble, simple CAD-file-management origins in the 1980s to the current crop of sometimes bloated and overlapping PLM solution suites. And still I’m frequently asked this question by engineers and others. So with a smile and slight sigh, I cheerfully begin my discourse of the many benefits of PLM for both companies and their employees. Usually, the listener acknowledges the benefits are indeed valuable at some level. But there’s still a tone of skepticism in the response.
To be honest, I understand much of the skepticism and hesitation. In most sizable companies, engineers have seen many information technology initiatives come and go, leaving them to ask: Did the technology really offer them any benefit?
Some IT projects started and failed; still others came and just won’t die. One engineer told me that, in his view, IT projects are a “digitized plague implemented by evildoers trying to make the rest of us as miserable as they are.” Perhaps a little harsh, but clearly there is no love lost between many engineering and IT departments. This is probably the reason why I routinely come across engineering IT departments that are separate from corporate IT departments.
Despite the hesitation and general desire of engineers to be left alone by those telling them, “We’re from corporate IT, and we’re here to help,” many companies are already using PLM to one extent or another.
These companies have either developed their own home-grown solutions by leveraging disparate tools or are using a commercial PLM solution. Many companies are upgrading or migrating to their second- or third-generation PLM solution. Clearly, companies are receiving significant value and return from their PLM investments. Forward-thinking companies implement PLM.
PLM solutions vary in their scope and focus. Let’s take a look at three of the basic concepts of PLM—product data management, engineering change management, and product structure management—and discuss their value to engineering.
Keeping Up to Date
Many companies begin implementing PLM by establishing a single source of product data, or product record. This is a collaborative repository that provides engineering, manufacturing, and service departments a centralized and controlled environment to house all product data.
Product data generally refers to all the information associated with defining, producing, and supporting the products or services a company offers. Information may include product specifications, requirements, CAD models, drawings, test procedures, analysis results, operating procedures, quality documents, compliance documents, assembly instructions, and service manuals.
The concept is simple yet powerful. Provide the enterprise unambiguous and easy access to all product data at its latest release level to ensure that everyone is working with the most up-to-date information. The product data is managed through a series of defined lifecycle states and release levels, customizable by data type. User access is secured and controlled according to user, group, and role levels.
Though most solutions offer more capabilities than that, this level of detail should suffice for now.
Of what value is a single product repository? Lack of efficient and accurate access to product data has a great impact on engineering productivity, quality of designs, and time to market.
Engineers usually hate wasting time and effort. After all, time is money, and engineering is always under very tight deadlines. But what about spending hours trying to find a part previously used and finally giving up and redesigning a new one? What about searching for the latest test results or the contracted product requirements from the customer?
PLM can eliminate those time-consuming tasks for engineers. In addition, most PLM solutions offer sophisticated interfaces to many design automation and office applications, which reduces the need to capture, store, and validate product data.
Managing the Change
Once you have established your product data management, managing the change and approval process for product data is the next logical step. So the next area companies typically implement within their PLM system is the engineering change process.
All companies use a formal change process to control changes to product data. But as many engineers know, change processes aren’t always as optimized or efficient as they could or should be. Some engineering change processes have become so bloated and time consuming that the change process itself becomes more arduous than the design process.
How many engineers are still walking the engineering change through to each approver to ensure it gets top-priority attention? How many times are engineers and others downstream, such as manufacturing or service, waiting for the change before they can complete their tasks, address a manufacturing issue, or respond to a customer request?
To reverse this trend, many are leveraging industry best practices such as Configuration Management II, from the Institute of Configuration Management of Phoenix. The methodology calls for a fast track approach for around 80 percent of the changes. The remaining changes follow a formal change board process to evaluate the potential impacts to product, market, and financials.
Engineering change is at the core of the engineering and manufacturing processes, and PLM improves the efficiency and execution of engineering change management. That improvement will significantly reduce time to market, improve product quality, and raise customer satisfaction ratings.
Capturing the Structure
Capturing and managing the configuration, or structure, of your product designs can be seen as part of the product data management area. But how product data is assembled and configured into the various products is important and complex enough to justify its own area of capabilities—product structure management—within the PLM system.
Product designs are maintained as assemblies and parts in the PLM system, and that arrangement allows engineers easy searching when they are looking, for example, for legacy parts and assemblies to reuse, or comparing BOM versions or product configurations, or looking for substitute parts.
The product structure management feature captures, or records, the engineering bill of materials within the PLM system. The top level of the engineering bill of materials denotes the product. That product is then broken down into assemblies and further down into sub-assemblies or individual parts.
At each level within the BOM, the links to original product data—such as CAD models, drawings, specifications, and test results—are maintained. The links ease navigation through the product structure, so engineers don’t have to know the specific part number or document number to access the product data.
During the last decade, the product data management capability has expanded from its original focus on mechanical CAD data. It now includes electrical CAD data and computer-aided engineering data used to create the software and electrical systems included within products.
This expanding capability acknowledges that many modern-day products are made up of electromechanical components, with software providing a critical control and value portion of the product.
The BOM can now be moved into PLM directly from CAD tools. The BOM information can then be communicated directly into an enterprise resource planning system.
So why should you care if your company implements PLM?
Because, for engineering, PLM provides data and management capabilities to reduce the non-value-added tasks required of engineers. It also increases engineering productivity, provides insight into engineering efforts, and improves product quality and customer satisfaction.
With PLM, disparate engineering teams work more collaboratively. But don’t just take my word for it. Look around to see how many market leaders use PLM.