Imagine you’re a company with an idea for a product. The idea is based on something you’ve done in the past, but most of the mistakes made during that project are nothing but fading memories in the minds of your engineers and a few extra dollars spent here and there that are chalked up to necessary collateral. While this process might produce the next great thing, the truth is that ignoring mistakes, failing to audit your production process and overlooking consumer feedback are easy ways to doom your product before it even hits the market.
Product lifecycle management (PLM) software attempts to eliminate this problem by providing a clear view into all aspects of the production workflow: planning, design, sourcing, development, and manufacturing. Once a product is released, PLM helps you evaluate your service support and incorporate user feedback to iterate more quickly.
In the past, businesses have been skeptical of PLM for its overhaul of the production process, but as the software behind PLM becomes more powerful, companies are beginning to experience the benefits of what Mark Zuckerberg calls, “move fast and break things,” the philosophy that a more capable and flexible design process enables agile variation and ultimately a better final product.
Ironically, much of the doubt surrounding the efficacy of PLM implementation comes from those who don’t fully understand what PLM is or how it’s meant to be integrated into a company’s existing infrastructure. To borrow from Siemens:
Product lifecycle management (PLM) can be defined as an information strategy: it builds a coherent data structure by consolidating systems. You can also call PLM an enterprise strategy: it lets global organizations work as a single team to design, produce, support and retire products, while capturing best practices and lessons learned along the way.
The distinction between the two functions of PLM is an important one. As an information strategy, PLM enables your company to use information more effectively by facilitating collaboration and providing analytics to direct decision making. As an enterprise strategy, PLM provides an atlas of all parties, materials, and concepts involved in a product’s design, production, and support to not only increase efficiency but help identify strong and weak points within a product’s lifecycle so that they can be improved upon in future iterations.
There is, however, one other reason why companies might be skeptical about PLM and it speaks more to the risk-averse nature of production businesses in today’s market than to the software itself. As Oleg Shilovitsky, Senior Director of PLM and Data Management for Autodesk, keenly noted in a post entitled “PLM: Business Transformation vs. Business Pain Solving” on his PLM Think Tank blog:
There is nothing wrong in the business of developing long term strategic programs and investing in product development innovation. There is only one problem here – the dynamic of business is different these days compared to what we had 5-10 years ago. The cost demand is different too. These days businesses are running much faster and requires [sic] speedy and flexible reaction of IT and all business systems (PLM included).
The changing nature of the market toward faster product development is only part of what makes the new generation of PLM software so attractive, though. Increasingly, companies are seeking out PLM solutions not because they feel the need to reevaluate their processes, but because current models are simply failing to solve problems of speed and cost. Shilovitsky refers to a whitepaper by PLM consulting firm CIMdata that directly addresses this phenomenon:
Today companies are not looking to buy “PLM.” They want solutions that solve specific business “pains” for their specific industry focus. Businesses must be able to more quickly acquire and deploy PLM functionality and solutions that give them operational flexibility and improve the efficiency and the pace of product development, production and service. They need to be able to take advantage of new capabilities without having to go through lengthy installation and tailoring processes – and they need to deploy and operate these new capabilities in a cost efficient manner. Reducing the time to deploy new PLM functionality with less (or no) IT support and infrastructure costs can significantly improve operational flexibility.
If software is the key to enabling new modes of production, then the corresponding best practices should also come from the world of software development. In reading a summary of Mark Zuckerberg’s greatest lessons, I began to notice a commonality between the way he speaks about Facebook’s philosophy toward product development and the goals put forth by PLM systems. As already mentioned, “move fast and break things,” is the unofficial motto of the company with the underlying idea being that, “if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.” Essentially this is the same caveat given to companies by PLM salespeople, that if you’re not in a constant state of evaluation, iteration, and improvement, you are probably already further behind than you realize.
To get an expert opinion on the relationship between iterative product development strategies and PLM I spoke with Jim McKinney, PLM Leadership Practice Manager for CIMdata. When asked about the connection between software development and PLM, McKinney told me:
[PLM] is in line with Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy about breaking things. If you have strong PLM solutions at the front end of your product design process you can do more “what-if” scenarios; in essence, breaking stuff. PLM provides the foundation for higher quality products that get to the consumer faster. As you mentioned, it also includes the feedback loop that allows new products and derivative products to be created that improve on previous designs in an endless fashion.
In my experience, many companies mostly start from scratch each time they create a new product. Without PLM they do not have confidence in what they did last time, and do not possess the ability to go back to a good baseline to start development. That is fine, since most engineers love to start stuff from scratch; not very efficient, but it’s just the way business is done.
As the new generation of PLM software from giants like Siemens, IBM, SAP, and Autodesk hit the market, it is clear that their effect will be felt beyond the confines of any particular industry. If physical products follow the trail blazed by digital products, it is only a matter of time before PLM software allows for the democratization of enterprise level sourcing, development, and manufacturing capabilities which in turn could enable the creation of extremely disruptive products. Perhaps companies that do not adopt these new technologies were already fated to extinction though, as Zuckerberg says, “In a world that’s changing really quickly the only strategy where you’re guaranteed to fail is not taking any risk and not changing anything.”
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