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How do digital manufacturing and the PLM process connect?

Both digital manufacturing and product lifecycle management are concerned with connections, but the two concepts are not the same thing. Here's a look at how these concepts differ.

The concepts of digital manufacturing and product lifecycle management are integral to one another.

Product lifecycle management (PLM) is a well-defined set of processes stretching from design through manufacturing, as well as maintenance and service for a product. These processes are usually supported by excellent enterprise software that facilitates data management. Digital manufacturing is more generally about connecting data, information and models across the enterprise.

A robust implementation of digital manufacturing may rely heavily on the data management aspect of PLM software; however, digital manufacturing (and related enhanced design processes) exposes a much larger data set than is traditionally incorporated into the PLM process, from the view of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII).

Let's explore this a bit. Put simply, digital manufacturing connects the information that is produced at every lifecycle stage -- from analyzing customer requirements through delivery of the product, and even post-delivery maintenance and servicing. That viewpoint sounds a lot like the formal definition of PLM, but there are subtle, yet powerful, differences.

First, digital manufacturing (as envisioned by DMDII) incorporates an expanded viewpoint of how and where data is used and created; that is, there is intentionality to every analytical situation and decision point to bring all the possible information into play. This opens traditional processes, analyses and decisions to being more heavily informed by probabilistic methods and physics, for example. It also enables quantification of the uncertainty of analysis results and impactful decisions -- a transformative practice favored by DMDII. A traditional PLM process stays within predefined processes and analyses, usually as implemented in PLM software.

Second, digital manufacturing favors capturing the record of each analysis and decision to populate a digital thread. This decision metadata is essential for traceability when problems downstream (for example, in production or in the case of inadequate field performance) require redesign of product features. It is incredibly useful to retrace the logic and analyses back to the original set of requirements before making an uninformed change that might violate some other critical requirement. The PLM process, as practiced traditionally, is somewhat less concerned with the rigor envisioned by this approach.

Third, and probably most important, digital manufacturing as an enterprise-wide philosophical and technological paradigm absolutely must include the network of suppliers and partners involved in the entire lifecycle. Interaction with key suppliers, integration of information streams, capture of key results, collaboration during design -- these (and many other) critical supply chain functions and processes are essential to the successful implementation of digital manufacturing. Typical PLM implementations tend to stay within the company walls.

I am generalizing here. Product lifecycle management, as formally defined and as implemented in software, is quite capable of incorporating many of the innovative aspects of DMDII's digital manufacturing vision. I'm sure there are PLM implementations with all of the functionality I've outlined above -- but they would be truly exceptional.

The apparent similarities are not lost, though, on the PLM software community, as many of the largest vendors are DMDII members. And the bottom-line impact from PLM-induced efficiencies in operations is quite well-known, and is critically important to the long-term vision of digital manufacturing.

Another potentially important difference between digital manufacturing and product lifecycle management is the applicability of lifecycle in the context of product lifecycle management. PLM formality and software were mostly originated to facilitate efficiency in the automotive industry. For some DMDII partners, the notion of a lifecycle is quite a bit different, however.

Many of our partners produce a consumer product -- Pampers or Q-tips, or some simple, consumable item. The lifecycle ends there, and that's important to think about if you're those companies. What PLM process functions are useful for those companies?

For other members of the institute, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Deere, Caterpillar and others like them, the product has a service component to its lifecycle management that may go on for 20 years. For the Department of Defense (the original DMDII partner organization), that lifecycle extends for 50 years or more. There's a maintenance, repair and overhaul aspect, and connecting the information about those services is valuable. The DMDII concept of lifecycle needs to be elastic enough to work for all of our members.

Digital manufacturing is recognizing and taking advantage of the data that all of these tools and capabilities use across the lifecycle and the information they're producing. It's about connecting those things to improve your design to make your manufacturing process more adaptable -- and your maintenance, repair and overhaul cycle more cost-effective for your customers. 

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