Manufacturers Nibbling On PLM

Companies are opting for an a la carte approach to product-lifecycle-management solutions.

Better get used to it. Not only has product lifecycle management -- PLM for short -- been around a while, it's not likely to go away anytime soon.

Manufacturers are slowly waking up to the fact that PLM is fast becoming a necessity. Large companies need it to track products as they are co-developed by in-house teams of engineers and those of their suppliers. They also need it to manage the mountains of data surrounding engineering changes. Finally, they need it to feed product information to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

The catch is, that while PLM is an all-encompassing term for managing a product from conception to manufacture to service and retirement, most manufacturers use only a piece or two of its capabilities. "Very rarely do you find a company using all of PLM," observes Mike Burkett, PLM research director at AMR Research in Boston. "Manufacturers tend to use what's most important for them."

PLM includes CAD systems, but its vision is far broader. Most PLM systems offer a digital, collaborative platform for shared designs. Internally, PLM becomes the "system of record" for a company's products, documenting every aspect of the product, reaching far beyond its basic mechanical workings shown in an engineer's computer-aided-design. People throughout the company need this information so that they can build, sell and maintain what the product designers create.

One manufacturer that found PLM especially helpful in the launch of a new product is Maserati, which last fall debuted the 12-cylinder, 200- mph-plus MC12. Priced at $1 million per car, the new model's projected production run of 60 vehicles already has been oversubscribed.

Maserati used half a dozen different designers, each assigned to different parts of the car, to speed the development process. The company went from the start of design to completion of a road prototype in 12 months. Once the design was finalized, the company had to produce a bill of materials and a collection of parts codes. "The communication with the suppliers of the design had to be carefully controlled," says Giorgio Ascanelli, technical director at the Modena, Italy, automotive manufacturer.

Using PTC's Pro-Engineer CAD system and Project Link design collaboration capabilities, Maserati was able to track and accelerate each step of the design process, as well as to connect production of the new model with supply and inventory planning. "The system obliges people to be focused on what needs to be done in each process," Ascanelli adds.

Another manufacturer using some key pieces of PLM is JPL in Pasadena, which built the two Mars Rovers and the Cassini satellite. JPL's focus on one-off product development, basically producing only prototypes, while different from most manufacturers, nonetheless is particularly product-data intensive.

JPL expects to have its latest upgrade of Teamcenter PLM from UGS Corp., based in Plano, Texas, fully installed by mid-year. "Our PDM-PLM system is the center hub for all our product information," says Mike Stefanini, technical group supervisor for PDM implementation at JPL.

By using Teamcenter, the company's product data is automatically linked to its ERP system, so that the latter can schedule time in the lab's machine shop and generate assembly instructions. "Our PLM links multiple systems, which is especially useful, because JPL is under NASA requirements to do full cost accounting for all our projects. Now, by connecting our PDM to our ERP system, we are able to supply full cost information."

Another company getting its feet wet in PLM is Pella Corp., a manufacturer of windows and doors in Pella, Iowa. The company has to be able to turn out a high volume and huge variety of windows, usually within seven to 14 days.

Pella depends on a PLM system from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp. to store a vast amount of product data, including change order data. "We use it as an infrastructure for collaboration and configuration of windows and doors," says Bryce Renaud, PLM processes manager.

Until recently, though, the big drawback to widespread adoption of PLM was cost. One Tier 1 automotive supplier pegged the cost of a total PLM package for 500 regular users at $3 million over three years. For example, AMR research predicts that Toyota may invest between $800 million and $1 billion over several years into its total PLM solution from IBM and Dassault Systemes.

But the price tag is coming down. One leading vendor, PTC, based in Needham, Mass., is collaborating with IBM to offer a "PLM on demand" solution. Companies can have IBM host their PLM on a dedicated server, or on a shared server with a subscriber-based license.

"We're trying to AutoCAD this market," says Buzz Kross, vice president of the manufacturing solutions division at Autodesk, a leading CAD software firm. Headquartered in San Rafael, Calif., Autodesk has 6 million users of its popular AutoCAD program, including many small and medium-size manufacturers.

"For the smaller manufacturers, this is a new concept," Kross says. But with the Internet's ubiquity, small manufacturers are finding a need to coordinate designs with suppliers and customers.

Since last July's launch of its PLM package -- including CAD, work in process, release management, engineering change management, and collaboration capabilities -- Autodesk has signed up 1,500 customers, ranging from companies with two users to 200. "Most PLM solutions are too complex and too costly," Kross says. "We think the market is now ready for us."

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