Taming the Data Mess

Taming the Data Mess

The architecture of product development is increasingly chaotic. But PLM is taking hold with more companies, bringing order and visibility.

Take a walk through any facility and the signs of lean manufacturing are easy to see. Areas are designed around cells based on families of products, while kanban boards give detailed information to control inventory. There is a sense of order and meticulous planning.

But the architecture of product development isn't nearly so tidy. All the vital information about a product -- from its designs, to its requirements and changes made over time -- are stored using multiple forms of software and databases, and increasingly involve several departments, spread out around the world.

In fact, for many companies, product development can be a convoluted spaghetti mess. To clean up this entanglement, more companies are incorporating product lifecycle management (PLM), bringing visibility across their processes and tying disparate ends of the business together.

"Because lean manufacturing is visible, it's easier to understand and easier to implement," says Brian Shepherd, executive vice president of product development at PTC, a PLM provider. "But when you talk about the innovation factory and the architectures you can't see, it's more of an intellectual exercise to think through how to simplify or remove overlapping or redundant or loosely integrated applications."

PLM has historically been focused on supporting larger enterprises. But more recently, smaller and midsize companies have incorporated the software, as suites have gotten easier to understand and use, and much more cost-effective to implement.

"We brought in PLM and saw it as an opportunity to standardize our operations," says Elaine Cartier, manager of enterprise systems for Juno Lighting, a manufacturer of recessed and track lighting fixtures based in Des Plaines, Ill. "Everybody is on the same engineering design software and now we can share files in a more standardized way."

PLM doesn't just consolidate data -- it also addresses the increasingly complex nature of product
development.

Industrial Scientific, an industrial gas detection equipment manufacturer, rapidly expanded its operations in recent years through a series of mergers and acquisitions. That has placed a heavy emphasis on the ability to coordinate more than 60 engineers, all dispersed around the globe.

"We have three development centers -- one in Pittsburgh, another in France and another in Shanghai," says Scott Lorbo, global director of product development at Industrial Scientific. "You've seen a lot of companies, like us, that have taken the global engineering approach. You go wherever the talent is and product development isn't limited to sitting in cubicles beside each other."

PLM in many ways has evolved in the same way that ERP has -- incorporating more and more functions and taking on users across multiple departments. Where ERP now takes on accounts payable, accounts receivable, general ledger and inventory, PLM has followed a similar trend, says Jim Brown, president of Tech-Clarity, a research and analysis firm that studies how technologies are being used.

"Companies first wanted PLM so they could have their product information in one place," says Brown. "Now that they have their data under control, they're starting to find ways to leverage it. A lot of it has been using business intelligence to get a better handle on what their product development process is."

One place where several experts says PLM is taking on greater significance is in the area of product compliance with government regulations such as CFR Part 11, Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

"You see it used in PLM, especially in products such as medical devices, pharmaceuticals and food and beverage," says Venkat Rajaji, director of industry solutions for PLM provider Infor. "But it's only going to grow moving forward, especially in areas of environmental and health and safety regulations."

As an example, Rajaji cites ITAR, which stipulates that with government contracts, companies follow extremely strict rules of product development, such as only U.S. citizens having access to particular product designs. "There's authority controls and security issues, so you need to make sure that the right people have the right user-access to view these drawings," he says.

Tech-Clarity's Brown points out that the evolution of PLM helps address the increasing pressure companies are facing.

"They're under more pressure to improve time to market, but at the same time they're dealing with a tremendously increased amount of complexity in their business," says Brown. "They've got global design chains, global supply chains, out-sourced manufacturing. So you're seeing more concurrent development where manufacturers are developing one part of the product in one part of the world and another component concurrently. Products are getting more complex and PLM has helped improve time to market."

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