Establishing Proof of Life(Cycle)

By Joshua Weinberger Print this article Print

After years of dithering about just what makes up product lifecycle management (PLM), companies are finally realizing the value of connecting the various phases of life that their products pass through.

After years of dithering about just what makes up product lifecycle management (PLM)—in fact, after not being able to agree on what to call it, how to pitch it, or what to do with it once you have it—companies are finally realizing the value of connecting the various phases of life that their products pass through. Now comes the hard part: creating new processes that actually work. PDF Download

If you think you might be a little fuzzy on just what PLM is, don't feel bad—even the PLM vendors themselves have a hard time agreeing on the details. And while the phrase is only just now being recognized as the evolutionary survivor in a field littered with other acronyms that never quite caught hold, the analyst firms haven't been able to uniformly define what's part of the system and what isn't—leading to wildly divergent estimates of industry size, market share and future growth.

What everyone is able to agree on, though, is the far-reaching nature of PLM. Despite nuances from industry to industry, the basic idea is easy enough to wrap your mind around: products have a life span, from conception and design through manufacture and revision, all the way through to obsolescence. PLM strives to connect those processes—not in a linear way, but on a structural level, with the product itself at the core of a system that reaches every corner of the enterprise. As Kevin O'Marah, vice president of AMR Research's PLM Service says by way of example, "the atomic element in a supply-chain management system is how you handle the order. For PLM, the atomic element is product." As any survivor of the process can attest, however, changing on a molecular level the way a business functions is hardly an easy task.

Three years ago, global automotive supplier Saturn Electronics & Engineering had accumulated scads of overlapping, conflicting and out-of-date engineering programs. Saturn's system was far from cutting edge—in fact, much of the data flow was being handled in Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Bill Deighton, Saturn's vice president of information technology and services, was looking for a way to "close the loop"—to extend beyond the company's critical engineering operations, and tie together its sundry product-related ones.

With the market divvied up among a half-dozen or so major players—and dozens of smaller niche vendors—there was a time, only a few years ago, when companies in Saturn's position would have turned to a single vendor to provide a one-stop shop for all their PLM needs. No one—not even the vendors themselves—believes in the all-in-one package anymore.

The new tack is to pick and choose the areas that need to be addressed—procurement, for example, or handling engineering change orders—and find the software that best addresses the most needs. Unfortunately, that makes the critical issue integration between applications, instead of the overall scope of a single software suite. "Right now," says ARC Advisory Group Vice President John Moore, "the prevailing wind is focused on the front end [of the product lifecycle]—concept and design."

Looking to join the list of larger companies offering PLM packages (EDS PLM, SAP, and IBM/Dassault), Oracle acknowledged it would be previewing its new PLM plan at a late-January conference, with a formal launch scheduled for later this year. "We believe [PLM's] not just one product," says Rimi Bewtra, Oracle's senior group manager for PLM product marketing. "but quite a few different applications. It's all about integration." Analysts are mixed regarding the effect that Oracle's entry will have on the field, especially in the short term.

For PLM specialists such as PTC and MatrixOne, the new worldview means shifting gears somewhat. Potential customers are looking for software that melds well with existing systems, and that produces information and data that can be easily ported to other applications.

Vendors are cognizant of the new market demands, and some have opted to not be all things to all people. As Ed Miller, president of industry group CIMdata, notes, Agile and MatrixOne are "pure management plays," and offer no authoring tools. (Oracle's new PLM product line will not include a computer-aided design [CAD] tool either.) Where PTC used to leverage its CAD users' loyalty into a convincing pitch that they expand to its full Windchill PLM suite, the company has now relented, offering pieces (or "modules") of its package instead.

Rather than going it alone, vendors are trying to piece together relationships—for example, between PeopleSoft and Agile, QAD and bom.com, PTC and Groove Networks—that attempt to form a patchwork of full lifecycle coverage. "Everyone's struggling to keep their [customers] as happy as possible," says ARC's Moore, "and keep their defections to a minimum."

In Saturn's case, Deighton knew there were vendors promising the moon, but at the time he considered most of the PLM offerings "functionally and technologically immature." Time and cost factors were still prohibitive, he says, and nothing he saw in the market seemed truly compelling.

Now that's changed. Saturn has just deployed the front-end segments of Agile 8 that handled change management and product sourcing, to cut both procurement and product-development costs. But there were other parts of the Agile package that Saturn opted not to buy, including program management and warranty tracking. (Deighton expects his company's investment of just over $1 million to show a return within a year.)

There are other, more intangible benefits, as well. PLM deployments can create a sense of the enterprise as an organic creature. As Deighton notes, the purchasing and engineering sides of his company were like "two icebergs that had never met; this implementation has gotten them talking and they come away with a better sense of what each other needs."

AMR's O'Marah sees PLM as a unifying force across the enterprise. "Whether you're making peanut butter or the label on the peanut butter, the function of designing that particular product involves tying [the entire company] together." Click here for a chart illustrating the top Product Lifecycle Management Vendors for 2002.

Expertise Online

PLM consulting and program support for organizations and suppliers.

John Stark Associates
Product development strategies, mainly from an engineering perspective.

This article was originally published on 2003-01-01
Assistant Editor
After being on staff at The New Yorker for five years, Josh later traveled the world, hitting all seven continents in a single year. At Yale University, he majored in American Studies, English, and Theatre Studies.

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