Greg Dohrman,
PLM Practice Leader
Avatech Solutions
Owings Mills, Md.

The term "product lifecycle management" (PLM) gets bandied about a lot, but few in industry know what it means in practical terms. PLM isn't something purchased off the shelf in a software store. Rather, PLM is a strategy companies develop to generate, manage, distribute, and use product information through collaboration to improve delivery to market. PLM is also a way to take a product from concept to retirement.

When putting complete, enterprise-wide PLM systems into place, we recommend thinking big, but starting small. Most companies cannot afford to shut down for the time it takes to put together a complete system. Therefore, it's important to find software and service providers that support a phased approach. The following steps can help clear the way for a successful outcome.

THE SEVEN STEPS
Step 1: Plan a strategy. Define what your company needs and how its success will be measured. PLM will mean different things to different companies because they differ in how they manufacture, distribute, sell, and support products. Some companies emphasize the supply chain, while others focus on design.

For example, a company making custom machines might want to shorten delivery times through better design reuse and automating bills of materials (BOM) and engineering change orders (ECO). A company designing products regulated by the FDA, on the other hand, might need a way to document quality and improve traceability while cutting the administrative overhead of regulatory compliance.

Firms can begin by identifying deficiencies in current processes. Requirements should also include areas that will help gain and maintain a competitive edge. These might include getting to market quicker and storing fewer parts in inventory. Thus, requirements might include: giving the shop-floor personnel access to up-to-date drawings; letting teams view ECO processes; and adding drawing information to existing manufacturing-resource-planning (MRP) or enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) software.

Crystal-clear requirements help companies identify key benchmarks they will use in measuring their PLM system's performance. For example, a company's number-one goal might be to reduce material waste due to ECOs by 50%. This provides the metric with which to measure success. The level of detail to which a company describes its requirements controls how effective PLM will be. So companies unsure how to proceed might consider working with outside consultants.

PLM software comes in many flavors. Therefore, companies should make sure the packages they choose let them reach their goals. For example, a company might need software that will work with downstream technology components such as CAM applications and ERP manufacturing modules, as well as existing 2D and 3D CAD packages.

Step 2: Consolidate. Although PLM technology varies from company to company, managing assets such as engineering models and drawings is usually a core function. To keep things simple, organize and manage part and assembly drawings in a central data repository, sometimes called a vault. This yields immediate payback in controlling revisions, reusing designs, supporting quality initiatives, and complying with regulations.

Step 3: Collaborate internally. Vaults support collaboration among product engineering, manufacturing, and procurement teams. Team members can access the latest design revisions and feel confident they are working on the right ones. This helps ensure manufacturing quality and reduces scrap.

In addition, vaults help make sure customers get replacement parts in a reasonable time. Team members can quickly identify and view the latest revision of a customer's design without digging through paperwork.

Ultimately, a complete PLM system could link customer relationship management (CRM) and ERP systems with product data. In this scenario, company personnel can pull up sales records, get the serial number, drill down to a needed part, and find out if it is in stock or when it will be available — all during the customer's first phone call.

Step 4: Automate change management.
Good version control is critical to high-quality products, short customer delivery times, and good project management. Many firms, however, merely use a manila folder containing a change description, paper drawings, and sign-off form that travels from desk to desk. Suppose a company has 60 active changes. Using the paper method, odds are that a project manager or an engineer won't know the status of any one change unless it happens to be on his desk.

PLM improves and automates ECO processes, letting work take place in parallel instead of in serial. Thus multiple team members can simultaneously review and mark-up a design. PLM can thus reduce change-cycle times by as much as 80%.

PLM also lets companies track change orders. Firms can quickly isolate an open change, determine where it is in the workflow, and what or who is the bottleneck. The software notifies team members that there's a new drawing revision and instructs them how to implement the change.

Step 5: Automate Bill of Materials. PLM software significantly automates the generation of BOMs. For example, software produces a BOM by pulling information directly from 2D drawings or 3D models. It can also finalize and approve BOMs and update them as designs change. In a complete PLM system, BOMs from the PLM exchange data with MRP and ERP systems. This can dramatically reduce data-entry time and improve accuracy. Companies can thus speed early releases of long-lead items from design to purchasing, ultimately reducing product-delivery times.

Step 6: Link engineering to its manufacturing data. Good examples of linked information are engineering specifications and FEA results. Pulling proper specifications or analysis data linked to a design is often as important as getting at the drawing or model itself. FEA information, for example, can be critical to product optimization, safety, and liability. Thus, when a design is changed based on FEA data, PLM can make sure that revision A, B, and C reflect the differences and document the trail of changes.

Another logical part of PLM is CNC data. When CNC data is linked to design files through PLM, it becomes part of the change process. Appropriate personnel can thus see changes and the shop floor is notified of revisions.

Step 7: Collaborate externally. To be efficient, companies today must communicate electronically with suppliers and customers. Most PLM software has a Web interface that lets firms give outside users access to projects, products, and related data through secure mechanisms. The Web interface can also be used to manage data from outsourced FEA, provide drawings to remote manufacturing locations, and involve customers earlier in design reviews.

FOCUS ON THE FOUNDATION
Interestingly, PLM is no longer just a big-company phenomenon. Mid and small-sized companies are starting to look at PLM and its capacities to automate processes as imperative to this approach. We encourage such firms to build a solid PLM foundation that can later scale to a complete enterprise system instead of trying to "do it all" on the first attempt.

Greg Dohrman provides consulting, project-management expertise, implementation, and training for the PLM team at Avatech. His focus is on data-management and PLM solutions for manufacturing companies.

MAKE CONTACT
Avatech Solutions Inc.,
avatech.com

PLM whitepaper
To learn more, read a planning-guide whitepaper at http://www.avatech.com/documents/whitepapers/DataMgmtPlanningGuide.pdf