Manufacturing IT event prompts mixed feelings on the potential of PLM software to change the face of manufacturing.
A key manufacturing software event hosted yesterday by The Manufacturer at the Belfry Hotel, Coventry, brought together engineers and IT professionals to discuss the potential of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software in UK manufacturing enterprise.
PLM Connect was designed to put interested parties from industries directly in touch with leading market suppliers and give insight into a software offering which, despite having been in existence for at least 10, some would argue 20, years, is still poorly understood and a relatively unknown quantity in industry.
PLM software comprises a set of data management and manipulation, engineering and design software that enables companies to maintain a single source of truth for product data from concept design to disposal and re-use. In an age where the importance of having absolute assurance about that state of products and components at key points during development and manufacture is becoming more and more critical there was interest yesterday over the potential of PLM to give confidence in tracking the cradle to grave (not simply cradle to gate) lifecycle of products.
However, although case studies, from companies including DEK Printing, BAE Systems and Red Bull Racing, impressed delegates with their demonstrations of PLM increasing speed to market and bringing greater transparency, collaboration and flexibility to product management, a key question was posed to a vendor panel which asked why, if the concept, competitive potential and capabilities of PLM were as impressive as they claimed to, all manufacturers were not already using it to form the information backbone of their businesses.
A number of reasons were put forward in response to this, not only by some slightly taken aback vendors but also by users who have become dedicated PLM converts. Among the reasons suggested for the relatively low uptake of PLM was that that the problems it tackles, because they exist in the accepted norms of business such as the divisions between certain departments, mean that the detrement of not having a PLM system is difficult to see.
Perhaps more influentially however, it was admitted that the software was hampered by a past where implementations were extremely complex and expensive. A representative from Siemens PLM stated: “People have certainly been put off in the past, and perhaps even if they haven’t heard bad stories about early adopters of PLM they have been burnt by ERP implementations and are now simply averse to any kind of big IT project. But the fact is that PLM is a lot simpler now. It is a mature technology.”
Or ready to roll out?
Conversation among delegates who had been looking at PLM for some time seemed to reflect this analysis. One delegate who has had a major PLM project with Siemens put on hold for 12 months while ERP strategy is updated, said “In the past the data interoperability and integration that was promised just didn’t really work. Now things are looking a lot more mature. My only worry is that the ERP project may derail what we are trying to achieve with PLM.” Although committed to a Siemens application this delegate also admitted that rival vendors PTC have recently made great leaps with data migration abilities.
Key product launches over the last year from both all the major PLM vendors including Autodesk, Siemens and PTC have shown that there is an uncomfortable awareness that PLMs reputation for being overwhelmingly complex is holding the market back. This reputation has grown, partly due to the scope of what PLM promises for complete inclusion of almost every job role in accelerating quality products to market and exploiting larger margins through efficiently managing their use and disposal, but it has to be pointed out that it is also due to a persistence in marketing the concept as a specialist engineering and design tool. An elaborate and extended CAD technology that requires niche skills and technical understanding.
The case studies and investigative discussion at PLM Connect, yesterday showed that this is far from the truth. PLM usability for interested parties in Sales functions, senior management and even customers wanting to take a hand in directing the bespoke development of their product and the services to be delivered around it, is now facilitated by better look and feel, consistent dashboards and, crucially, improved security and version control restrictions on different user interfaces.
Furthermore, the integration of social media platforms and cloud services are set to broaden the scope of use even further into the future and although Chris Collinson, engineering systems administrator at DEK Printing and a speaker at PLM Connect told delegates that, although the company had held some initial concerns about the security of their IP, there was now a global system of collaboration both within the organisation and with key customers which functions through the internet. The company are confident enough in this system to be laying tentative plans with certain suppliers to include them, thereby further reducing possible causes for rework when supplier parts change or the bill of materials for an order alters.
Discussion around the ROI that PLM can bring to organisation which invest in PLM was, in some cases diffident, with event participant reminding the audience that not all returns could be counted on bottom lines. Enhanced efficiencies in production, speed to market and communication can admittedly be difficult to calculate in hard figures but despite this event presenters were able to show some impressive figures for the benefits that PLM implementations have brought and there were many requests for information and contact details as delegates made hasty plans for presentations to senior colleagues on the benefits that a PLM investment could bring.
Despite this however it must be said that PLM is not, and should not, primarily be marketed as a cost saving tool. But perhaps the time for the focus on cost economy in every business action is coming to an end. PLMs emphasis on product development and innovation clearly mark it as a means to accelerate growth and given current government strategy for economic recovery through manufacturing strength it may prove that this attribute will make PLM an priority investment for enterprises large and small alike moving forward.
For more information on the presentations made at PLM Connect please contact Jon Tudor at [email protected]