PLM: The Debate Over The Troubled TLA

References Cited

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

It’s funny. It seems that unresolved debates come back in vogue like retro clothes.

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself in a spat of conversations about the definition of PLM again. Most of these conversations have been initiated because new software products have launched that challenge what seems to be an accepted definition. As a result, people are asking themselves again “what exactly is PLM?” Despite all the talk, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus. So am I writing to tell you the one true definition of PLM? No. I’ll tell you what I think PLM is. However, I’ll offer a framework for the conversation. Hopefully, you can point to this and say “THAT is what I mean by PLM,” even if you don’t agree with my definition. Let’s dive in.

PLM as a Business Strategy

I’ve come across a number of folks who take this position. They define PLM as a business strategy that a company or organization pursues. I have difficulty with this logic because of a single question: if PLM did not exist, could the company or organization NOT pursue that strategy? Let’s look at some specific examples of what organizations are trying to do and see how the logic holds up.

  • Execute Process X: In this case, X really could be any process. If PLM did not exist, could process X still be executed? Now of course, most processes in a manufacturer have been run for years of not decades. The old school way of doing so is to use email or even physically walk pieces of paper around the office. Even if you’re talking about automating a process, alternatives to PLM could be used. Just about every enterprise system has some type of workflow engine. I’m not saying any of these scenarios are better than using PLM. What I’m saying is that they do not require PLM.
  • Centrally Manage Data: We’ve heard about centrally managing data for quite some time. But can you not centrally manage data without PLM? Of course you can. Even if it might be ugly, you can centrally manage data on shared drives, share point or some other manner. Again, it might not be the best alternative, but it is possible.

Now, with all this being said, can you pursue an initiative to deploy PLM? Of course. In fact, that in and of itself can be quite an undertaking. But pursuing an initiative to deploy PLM is far different than pursuing a business strategy or initiative that is PLM. All this is leads up to my first position: PLM is a technology. Why? Because it is not required to run a manufacturing business. Don’t get me wrong. There are dramatic tangible benefits. But it is not required. In fact, there are many organizations running their businesses today without PLM.

If you disagree with me, that’s OK. I’m open to a discussion. Leave a comment explaining your position. I’d love to talk about it. And regardless, feel free to point to this post or even post your own position in counterpoint to this one.

PLM as a Technology

The other position that many take is that PLM is a technology. But even within this designation, there can be diverging opinions. Let’s take a look.

PLM Manages the Lifecycle of the Product

I’m open to the discussion, however I published my position and logic a few months ago in a post titled The PLM Misnomer: What We Know It Isn’t. But essentially, my position rests on a few simple points. The processes and deliverables that are mainly supported by PLM are creating during the development cycle, even if they are used later in the product’s lifecycle. Furthermore, there are many other enterprise systems (see in the post) that are used in those later lifecycle stages that are far more prominent, even in regards to processes and deliverables related to the product. As I said before, I’m willing to listen to other points of view. Comment or post and I’ll happily reply back.

PLM Technology Confusion

Now, the next stage of this discussion gets a bit tricky. To make things a little more clear, I’m publishing this diagram for the discussion.

What’s going on here? More importantly, what’s the point? Let me explain. In this Venn diagram, I’ve created circles for CAD, CAM, CAE and PDM. One could certainly argue about overlaps between those four, but for simplicity’s sake and focus, let’s keep them separate for now. Beyond those four circles, there are three other ‘definitions’ relevant to a discussion about PLM.

  • Circle #4: Process Enablement – This set of technology capabilities include things like project management, workflow, task management and reporting. Essentially, it encapsulates most things you need to automate processes or make key decisions in the development cycle.
  • Circle #5: Process and Data Management – This phrase acts as an umbrella to cover both process enablement capabilities (circle #4) as well as PDM. Many extol the virtues of doing both together, and as such, need to reference those capabilities in one set.
  • Circle #6: IT Ecosystem for Product Development – This is also an umbrella term, but one with a far larger reach. This is the entire ecosystem of CAD, CAM, CAE, PDM and process enablement (circle #4). Obviously a lot of discussions need to occur about interoperability between all of these different types of technology. Therefore, some definition is needed.

Before we move on to which one of these is PLM, let me say this: we need to have some definition for circles #4, #5 and #6. There are legitimate conversations in the scope of each definition. So I don’t think we throw away the rest if one is designated as PLM. But more importantly, we have arrived at a dangerous place today. Somehow along the way, we’ve used the acronym PLM to refer to each of these definitions. That’s dangerous in that if two people are using two different definitions, then the conversations are at completely different levels. And when a proponent of PLM talks about ROI and value proposition to an executive, that is scary.

My Definition of PLM

So what definition do I use for PLM? I use circle #4. We need terms like these to serve the purpose we have in store for them. I, for one, believe that process management technologies need to be assessed in terms of value, deployment, impact and the like separately from CAD, CAM, CAE and PDM. Only if we do that do we know if it is worth the effort.

Summary and Questions

Here’s the quick summary. There are many potential definitions of PLM including:

  • PLM is a business strategy
  • PLM is a set of technologies that manages the lifecycle of the product
  • PLM is a technology for process enablement (I use this definition)
  • PLM is a set of technologies for process and data management (umbrella term)
  • PLM is a set of technologies that encompasses CAD, CAM, CAE, PDM and process enablement (another umbrella term)

Are you ready for a debate? Aherm… I mean a professional disagreement of course.

What definition of PLM do you use? Why?  I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

 

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Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.