Secrets to PLM implementation success

PLM implementation has the potential for sweeping business transformation, yet practitioners advise targeting specific pain points and building on those early successes.

There's nothing small about the potential of a product lifecycle management (PLM) implementation to reduce product development costs, foster innovation or shorten time-to-delivery cycles. Yet PLM practitioners say it's critical to start small and think big in order to avoid the implementation failures that have plagued so many enterprise software rollouts.

In the same vein as ERP, PLM is less about the actual technology and more about business process transformation. Therefore, before moving forward with any PLM implementation, experts say it's critical for companies to identify and understand the key pain points and business problems they are actually trying to resolve by undertaking a PLM deployment.

"You really need to understand the business benefit that you are trying to achieve and tie it to a corporate initiative," said Jim Brown, president of Tech-Clarity, a consulting company specializing in PLM. "Companies will go out and install PLM as a tool, and there's only so much value you can get out of it. They might end up getting their [product-related] data under control, saving money or increasing productivity, but they still fall short of the true enterprise transformation that fundamentally drives growth."

KHS, a manufacturer of filling and packaging equipment for the food and beverage industry, understands the importance of pursuing PLM as a business process initiative, not simply as a traditional software rollout. "In order to be successful, stakeholders need to identify and agree upon the pain points of their current solution and agree that the current solution isn't fixable," explained Allen Gager, a mechanical engineer at KHS.

The company, which is evaluating Autodesk's PLM 360 cloud solution, has factored both executive sponsorship and getting buy-in from key constituencies as part of its PLM deployment plan, Gager said. He also noted that it's important to identify value-added resellers with deep experience in business process transformation projects to enlist as partners on PLM deployments and to devise a staged rollout plan, rather than try to tackle a big-bang PLM implementation. "Identify an isolated process and leverage PLM and then build on that success," he advised.

PLM implementation best practices

There are a number of other best practices that experts say can ensure PLM success. Among the most important are these:

Get input from the business. While PLM delivers enterprise benefits, it does so by changing the way individual users work. Therefore, experts say it's critical for business users and technology practitioners to engage as partners in a PLM initiative to ensure the platform supports realistic workflows and to help users understand the benefits, which ultimately fosters quicker PLM adoption.

Claudio Saurin, product development director at Breton S.p.a., which manufactures tools for machining natural stone, learned that lesson over three PLM projects he's undertaken during his career. In a previous company, Saurin's PLM team limited the scope of the project to a few people on the design team to speed up deployment -- a decision that didn't end up working in their favor. "In the future, I would involve more people to understand in advance all the possible situations and to help more people understand why PLM can help them do their job better," he explained.

Customize, but don't over-customize. Early types of PLM software caught backlash because they were essentially toolkits that required too much complex customization. While experts say it's important for companies to be able to tailor their PLM solution to match their competitive business processes, nothing will derail a project faster than going overboard with a soup-to-nuts custom solution.

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A reasonable approach is to start somewhere in the middle, advocates Stan Przybylinski, vice president of research at market researcher CIMdata. He advises companies to run with a PLM system's preconfigured business processes out of the box for a while to evaluate exactly where customization makes the most sense.

"Don't get caught up in making PLM work the way you think it needs to work before you really understand your processes, because they might not be as perfect as you think," he said. "We've found companies to be more successful if they take PLM and adapt it minimally to meet specific needs. In other words, drain the water out of the lake before you can see where the rocks are."

Have a vision beyond engineering. PLM has its roots in the engineering world, with most of the leading vendors in this space best known for computer-aided design (CAD) tools. As a result, many manufacturers get introduced to PLM as a way to get CAD and other engineering-specific product data under control, losing sight of its potential to impact the broader enterprise.

"The most common mistake organizations make is adopting PLM with a particular emphasis on the engineering department alone," said Rob Cohee, Autodesk's PLM 360 product manager and its manufacturing evangelist. "Previously, we'd primarily talk about the value of PLM delivering engineering data to engineers. Now we talk about the value of accessing engineering-related information for other parts of the organization that can benefit. PLM initiatives are enterprisewide."

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