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Defining Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and getting started

Are you considering a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) implementation, but aren't sure where to start? Read this introduction to PLM and find out what you need to know before starting a PLM project.

What manufacturing company isn't struggling to get quality products to market faster while making sure they're in step with global compliance regulations -- and doing so despite the mounting pressure to radically reduce costs?

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), now a nearly decade-old discipline, leverages a still-evolving category of enterprise software and business process change to help manufacturing companies retool their product development practices to address such challenges. While the definition and scope of PLM may vary, depending on the business case and the particular vendor solution, the goal typically remains the same.

A PLM strategy is designed to create an information repository and common set of business processes that transcend the course of a product's lifecycle, from the earliest stage of gathering customer requirements through the heavy lifting phases of engineering, sourcing and manufacturing, and finally, post production, for maintenance and end of life. This so-called "one version of the truth" provides manufacturers with a much more effective way to describe, manage and communicate information about their offerings while building transparency into product development practices. Over time, the changes lead to such benefits as increased innovation, faster time to market, reduced costs and overall quality improvements throughout every stage of the product lifecycle.

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AMR Research Inc. breaks down PLM into five core elements: Product Data Management (PDM), a key foundation technology for engineering data management and control; Collaborative Product Design, to facilitate the sharing of designs across an extended value chain; Direct Materials Sourcing, for the supplier management aspects of product development; Customer Needs Management, to capture customer requirements; and Product Portfolio Management, for monitoring and assessing risk across multiple development projects.

While companies can implement some pieces of PLM or move forward with a top-to-bottom PLM effort, the end result establishes a risk-management strategy related to product development.

"PLM allows companies to get their arms around the business aspects of designing, building and shipping products, and there are so many pitfalls in that in terms of delays, added costs and errors," explained Ken Versprille, PLM research director at CPD Associates LLC, a consulting company specializing in PLM. "PLM tries to interweave the aspects of trying to run a good business with the engineering and manufacturing aspects of trying to build a good product as part of that business."

Getting started with PLM

To understand what PLM really is, it helps to understand what it's not. While PLM products have evolved dramatically over the last few years, PLM is rarely bought and implemented as a full-blown, packaged enterprise software suite. Most PLM implementations have instead a strong element of customization and integration in addition to any packaged software components that are typically added over time. Moreover, PLM is as much about business process change as it is about a software implementation, and its impact has broad reach -- far beyond the engineering and product development organization, all the way through marketing, procurement, field service and maintenance. And that's just what PLM touches on the inside.

Externally, PLM systems play a key role in how companies collaborate and share product-related information with customers and suppliers. Finally, while many of the leading PLM providers are rooted in the 3-D CAD software world, PLM doesn't necessarily require an engineering and design tool component at its core, although that's where many PLM implementations get started.

Since there is no recommended, cast-in-stone starting point, confusion over where to begin with PLM can hold many organizations back from actually taking the plunge. Having a clear definition of what PLM constitutes for your particular organization and grasping the key pain points around product development should serve as the guide to help companies zero in on where PLM can deliver the most bang for the buck, said Mike Burkett, vice president of PLM Research for AMR.

Even so, things can still be murky. For instance, just because two manufacturers share the same pain point doesn't mean they should set out on an identical PLM course. Consider the example of two manufacturers struggling to get products to market in a timely fashion. One, a PC OEM, regularly makes so many changes to a printed circuit board design that production gets held up because the company can't communicate those changes effectively to external contract manufacturing partners. In this case, a PLM direct materials sourcing component would resolve this issue. Contrast this scenario with that of an aerospace vendor struggling to overcome time-to-market delays related to getting an extended design team to share and collaborate on different parts of a model. Here, Burkett explains, the problem is better served by the collaborative product design component of PLM instead of a sourcing module.

"These are both time-to-market problems solved in different ways through PLM based on what was causing the problem," he said. "Understand the vision of the product lifecycle in your company, then identify what's broken in it -- that will help prioritize where to start."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer.

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