Product Lifecycle Management: A Primer

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2003-01-01 Print this article Print

A primer.

What is it? A collection of software that tracks all the electronic information about the life of a product. A Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system links together all of the processes required to design, build, deploy and maintain the product.

Why would I buy it? To save money and improve customer service. By digitizing not just the design of a product but also the processes that go into creating it, companies have been able to avoid mistakes in engineering and conflicts in different versions of product information, saving millions—in some cases, more than 30% of operational costs. And the ability to keep an eye on a product's care and upkeep after it's shipped will make customers more likely to come back. PDF Download

Where does it come from? The parts that make up PLM have been evolving for almost 20 years. But credit for the acronym goes to IBM and its partner, Dassault Systemes; the pair began using it two years ago to describe the integration of their computer-aided design and modeling (CAD/CAM) software and back-end data management systems. PLM shares its ancestry with source-code and version-control tools and Web site content-management software. PLM draws on technology from relational databases, knowledge-management software, Web portals, and collaboration and workflow tools.

How does it work? At the center of PLM is a database application that tracks all the files related to designing and creating a product. Data is collected from "authoring" sources—requirements software, CAD/CAM tools and other applications—and validated using virtual mock-ups and process simulators that look for engineering flaws. Other applications, such as manufacturing, supply chain and enterprise resource planning software, provide specifications, sourcing requirements and individual parts costs.

What's the downside? Cost, and cultural change. These systems require lots of integration and, typically, lots of outside consulting. And since PLM often stretches from the data center down to the desktop, software- licensing costs can escalate rapidly. PLM also can cause a great deal of work-life upheaval because of its effect on process.

What competes with it? Many of PLM's core functions can be performed by other collaborative software. Document management systems already are often used in conjunction with CAD tools to manage engineering drawings as well as other product data: Canadian utility Manitoba Hydro, for example, uses Documentum to handle engineering data. Off-the-shelf groupware products like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange—combined with workflow software and add-on products from companies like IT Factory—compete with PLM, as do standalone workflow applications and business process management software such as Microsoft's BizTalk.

Who's using it? Construction company Farnham & Pfile uses Catia and Enovia CAD software from IBM/Dassault to manage the construction and maintenance of a coal-processing plant it built for CONSOL Energy in Morgantown, W.Va., (see diagram above). Toyota is rolling out IBM/Dassault CONSOL applications to manage its worldwide product development process. Lockheed Martin is using software from EDS, PTC and Telelogic to manage its Joint Strike Fighter project.

Click here for a chart depicting a typical PLM deployment.

Do your products have a life? Click Here to find out.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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