Seems there’s been a lot of buzz lately about what exactly PLM is. Jim Brown and I went back and forth in the comments of one of my posts. Jim also had a good post in response to one of my earlier posts. There was a good post on why you need PDM and PLM by SPK and associates. And there’s another good one over at Zero Wait State on the balance between PDM and PLM. In all of these posts, you’ll find definitions can vary quite dramatically. And personally, I don’t have any problem with that. However, in response to a tweet questioning the definition of PLM, I saw a tweet along the following lines: the definition of PLM is simple, it’s what manages the lifecycle of the product! And I have to say, I completely disagree. From my perspective, PLM systems don’t begin to address the entire lifecycle of the product. Let me explain.

The Lifecycle of the Product

So what is the lifecycle of a product. Wikipedia has a definition for product lifecycle that I don’t necessarily agree with. However we can use it as a starting baseline and outline the differences from there. It outlines four major phases of the product lifecycle as follows.

Phase 1: Conceive (Imagine, Specify, Plan, Innovation)

Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s the definition of this phase of the product lifecycle.

The first stage in idea is the definition of its requirements based on customer, company, market and regulatory bodies’ viewpoints. From this specification of the products major technical parameters can be defined. Parallel to the requirements specification the initial concept design work is carried out defining the aesthetics of the product together with its main functional aspects.

Before we move on to how PLM plays into this phase, what in this definition might missing? There are a few areas actually.

  • Ideation Management: This can sometimes be a ‘chicken or egg’ thing, but with an increasing emphasis on innovation, manufacturers are formalizing an ideation set of activities where people brainstorm on new product concepts or ideas. These might be rated, collaborated upon and matured before they are finally considered as a development project candidate.
  • Portfolio Management: With a set of candidates, manufacturers need some manner in which they can decide which projects to move forward and invest in. The process to analyze, compare and ultimately decided which ones will get funding is the portfolio management process.

So how thoroughly does PLM support this lifecycle phase? Most PLM systems do not have an Ideation Management set of capabilities themselves. Instead they sometimes partner with software providers that do offer systems to provide this functionality. The same is true for portfolio management capabilities, although some PLM systems do have native capabilities. The Requirements Management capabilities is often a native module within a PLM system today.

Phase 2: Design (Describe, Define, Develop, Test, Analyze, Validate)

Next we get into the design activities where engineering gets most directly engaged with the product. Here’s the definition of this phase from wikipedia.

This is where the detailed design and development of the product’s form starts, progressing to prototype testing, through pilot release to full product launch. It can also involve redesign and ramp for improvement to existing products as well as planned obsolescence.

Now this wikipedia definition is heavily engineering oriented, not taking into account that many of the activities of the next phase often occur in parallel and direct affect design decisions. But for the sake of simplification, and keeping this fact in mind, let’s think about what might be missing from this definition. There are two areas that strike me as I read this definition.

  • Regulatory Compliance: This might be considered part of Requirements Management or even part of verification and validation, but just about every industry has standards and regulations against which they must comply.
  • Process Execution: Whether you talk about the macro level (stage-gate, waterfall, etc.) or you talk about more of a micro level (design release, new part introduction, etc.), there are processes and procedures that must be adhered to during the design phase.

How does PLM measure up here? In my experience, it covers the activities in this phase almost completely. Whether you look at it from a cross-disciplinary engineering perspective, managing deliverables, allocating and then verifying requirements satisfaction or otherwise, PLM systems provide a ridiculously wide range of functionality here. And that’s what you would expect. Most of today’s PLM systems came from companies that initially offered CAD, CAE and CAM software applications.

Phase 3: Realize (Manufacture, Make, Build, Procure, Produce, Sell and Deliver)

What’s next? Per the wikipedia definition, from the next phase spans from the end of the design to launching and delivering products to customers. Here’s their definition.

Once the design of the product’s components is complete the method of manufacturing is defined. This includes CAD tasks such as tool design; creation of CNC Machining instructions for the product’s parts as well as tools to manufacture those parts, using integrated or separate CAM Computer-aided manufacturing software. This will also involve analysis tools for process simulation for operations such as casting, molding, and die press forming. Once the manufacturing method has been identified CPM comes into play. This involves CAPE (Computer-aided Production Engineering) or CAP/CAPP – (Production Planning) tools for carrying out Factory, Plant and Facility Layout and Production Simulation. For example: Press-Line Simulation; and Industrial Ergonomics; as well as tool selection management. Once components are manufactured their geometrical form and size can be checked against the original CAD data with the use of Computer Aided Inspection equipment and software. Parallel to the engineering tasks, sales product configuration and marketing documentation work will be taking place. This could include transferring engineering data (geometry and part list data) to a web based sales configurator and other Desktop Publishing systems.

Again, something to keep in mind here is that often what happens in this phase happens in parallel and influences what happens in the prior phase of design. With that said, what’s missing here? Well, to be honest, this is where wikipedia falls woefully short. In fact, this phase probably should be split into many different sub-phases to do it justice. From my experience, here is what is missing.

  • Supply and Demand Planning: An important issue to assess during the run-up (and far beforehand) is the balance between supply and demand in the marketplace. This sort of planning is often done as part of the Sales and Operations Planning (code for budgeting) process and may occur far earlier in the process.
  • Supplier Management: By this point, you know which parts you will manufacture in house and which ones will be purchased. But who should you buy it from? Can you get a larger volume discount of you consolidate suppliers? In addition to that, what is the process to ‘spend’ money? In purchasing you’ll find a whole contingent of people focused on tracking those issues and running the procurement process.
  • Supply Chain Planning: Most manufacturers with any moderately complex supply chain have to make sure that logistically everything will arrive on time so products will be launched according to schedule. There are often specialists who focus on ‘network design’ to make sure it all works smoothly.
  • Supply Chain Execution: The plan might be great, but it has to be executed from a tactical perspective. Has supplier materials arrived on time? Are parts on schedule from across the ocean? Do you have the right amount of inventory in the warehouse? All of these things are tracked with exacting scrutiny during this phase.
  • Manufacturing Execution: For the parts that are produced in house, there are many activities to track progress and quality along the way. There are shop floor and quality roles to track reject rates and throughput to make adjustments to remove bottlenecks and the root cause of quality issues.

So, how thoroughly do PLM systems support this phase of the lifecycle? CAM applications do a great job at generating CNC code, a deliverable used on the shop floor to run CNC machines. Digital Manufacturing solutions, sometimes considered part of PLM, do a great job at laying out factories, planning and generating code for robotic lines as well as verifying it all works.

But overall, those represent a relative minority of the work that occurs during this phase. You also need a Supply Chain Management (SCM) system for supply and demand planning and supply chain planning. You need Transportation Management Systems (TMS) and Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) for supply chain execution. You need a Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) system to manage suppliers and the procurement process. And you need Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) to track and manage shop floor productivity and quality.

Overall, the role of PLM in this phase is far more around generating deliverables that are consumed in the phase as opposed to acting as a centralized system to coordinate and make decisions. The main exception here is with Digital Manufacturing.

Phase 4: Service (Use, Operate, Maintain, Support, Sustain, Phase-Out, Retire, Recycle, Disposal)

With the Realize phase of the product lifecycle complete and the product out the door and to the customer, the next phase gets into supporting and servicing the product. Here’s the definition from wikipedia.

The final phase of the lifecycle involves managing of in service information. Providing customers and service engineers with support information for repair and maintenance, as well as waste management /recycling information. This involves using such tools as Maintenance, Repair and Operations Management (MRO) software. It is easy to forget that there is an end-of-life to every product. Whether it be disposal or destruction of material objects or information, this needs to be considered since it may not be free from ramifications.

So what is the definition missing here? There are actually two sets of critical activities that aren’t represented.

  • Service Support: When a product needs to be serviced, there’s an entirely new set of processes that get kicked off. First off, a customer has to phones or submits a service request to a service call center. A visit is then schedule and coordinated with those that will service the product. An important aspect of these processes is to capture as much information as possible because the overall goal of these types of organization is to have as high of a first time resolution percentage as possible.
  • Service Parts Management: An important part of getting that resolution as high as possible is to make sure the right parts that are needed to resolve the product issue are with the service repairman. There are roles that specifically manage inventory of service parts, even looking at past service rates as a means to predict future needs for those parts. And this inventory must be managed and tracked alongside any ongoing manufacture of products.

The story with respect to PLM in this phase is very similar to the last. Service deliverables are generated by technical communications and 3D visualization tools. But you need a Call Support System, a Service Parts Management System as well as an Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) System in this phase. The role of the PLM system is one far more oriented towards deliverables than as a central system used for making decisions and tracking service issues.

Conclusions and Questions

PLM systems are very involved in the first two phases, Conceive and Design, of the product lifecycle. However, with the exception of Digital Manufacturing in the Realize phase, the role of PLM in the last two phases is relatively minor in comparison to the other systems used and far more deliverable based. As a result, PLM systems don’t really manage the product’s entire lifecycle. It is a front-end oriented system more related to concepts and detailed design.

Your turn to weigh in. What systems are missing in any of these phases? Have I missed any application of PLM to any of these phases? Sound off. I’d like to hear your perspective.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading