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What is Product Lifecycle Management? And what is it not

Widespread confusion on what PLM is – and is not – oftentimes creates obstacles. Obstacles that lead to incorrect definitions of needs and unclear justification for introducing PLM in the first place. In this article, we examine facts and myths on PLM.

When starting a PLM initiative – or just contemplating starting an initiative – it is important to make sure that all stakeholders, including management, understand what PLM is – and what it is not.

There are so many reasons why PLM is needed. So many reasons that make it difficult to know which ones should be prioritized. In addition to that, reasons to implement will be different for companies operating in different industries and in different countries.

Firstly, let’s look at a typical misunderstanding of what PLM is.


Myth: PLM is simply a tool

One of the most recurring – and consistent – myths on PLM is that it is viewed as a tool. It is a view that goes back to the days of basic engineering collaboration tools where IT platforms emerged from the world of 3D and CAD data management tools to also manage relational data of the whole enterprise.

PLM is not only about engineering, it is also about converting ideas and concepts into virtual simulations and digital models, ultimately leading to physical products and associated services. Arguably, a significant part of the product creation process is rooted in engineering. However, we as engineers, are also very conservative people.

Historically, it is fair to state that PLM started as a tool. But it has since then evolved into a discipline. It took 20 years. Now it’s here and it will continue to reshape and evolve.


Fact: PLM is an enterprise-wide methodology

PLM includes all aspects of engineering and is used as a product lifecycle management process to help connect, organize, control, manage, track, consolidate, and centralize all the information that affects a product. Just as important, PLM offers a process to streamline collaboration and communication between product stakeholders, engineering, design, manufacturing, quality, and other key disciplines. PLM helps track information related to the safety and control of components especially in aerospace, automotive, electronic, medical device, military, and nuclear industries.

A robust PLM framework improves the development and management of the Engineering Bill of Material (EBOM), Manufacturing Bill of Material (MBOM), requirements management, sourcing, document storage, collaboration, workflow - and other areas all essential to product development.

Here is a visual explanation of what PLM is all about.


Fact: PLM can be used on an enterprise scale

PLM should not be seen only as an IT tool that represents a central hub containing all data from various systems like CAD, CM, PDM, etc., but also as a business hub that manages all the different information flows from concept, through production, to end of life.

As Cimdata defines it, “PLM is a strategic business approach that applies a consistent set of business solutions in support of the collaborative creation, management, dissemination, and use of product definition information across the extended enterprise, and spanning from product concept to end of life-integrating people, processes, business systems, and information. PLM forms the product information backbone for a company and its extended enterprise.”

Being both a business approach and a software solution, Product Lifecycle Management has shifted from being a purely engineering-oriented tool to an enterprise solution, which enables organizations to create better products in less time, at a lower cost.

Due to the increased product complexity, continuous innovation, and globalization, organizations focus their efforts on partnering with other enterprises in pursuit of better product design and efficient manufacturing. As a proactive reaction to the ever-changing business environment, outsourcing of activities to specialized partners is a common practice, where each partner should have access to relevant data and processes.

The challenge with this is that the data very often is scattered in different systems, file folders, network drives etc., making it difficult to locate and share the correct data. In addition, the product related processes are not integrated, reducing the traceability and visibility in the end-to-end product lifecycle processes.

Selecting the correct Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) solution can help companies resolve these challenges, providing a solution that supports the end-to-end lifecycle of the products - all the way from ideation, through requirements management, product design, industrialization to maintenance and end of life. To be truly successful with PLM, a system that can be integrated both up- and downstream in the supply chain is required to have the flow and control of information as effective as possible.


Myth: PLM is a “one size fits all” solution

Transferring “best practices” from one organization to another is clearly a myth: only the learning can be shared but there is no guarantee that what worked elsewhere will be as effective somewhere else. Some practices will certainly work in small pockets of scope. However, working practices cannot be fully reproduced out of context, even if the system implementation can be copied. Every organization is unique, has its own legacy of challenges, from a data and process perspective. 

Most organizations will not look at simply buying a tool or platform to enable PLM related processes. They expect operational efficiency and implementation “best practices” to help them become more effective and competitive: i.e. “do more with the same” resources and be able to scale their activities while reducing cost. Whereas buying apps or tools is quite straightforward via a license model, making good use of an integrated and streamlined working practice across multiple functions is not always obvious. This can be quite complex based on product or process requirements which can be contradictory at different product maturity stages.

Even if they cover more scope, no single platform or tool can stand “out-of-the-box” (OOBT) on its own unless only covering a very narrow self-contained scope; implementation complexity rises with product, data and business model complexity, in addition to multiple legacy ERP and MES integration points and legacy data migration requirements. PLM processes need to be contextualized for any “brownfield” organization wanting to get value from it. Similarly, for start-up or “greenfield” organizations, PLM processes need to be tailored to the business maturity—aka customized in a controlled manner, balancing short- and long-term requirements.


Fact: Every implementation involves a degree of configuration

Every digital solution requires some sort of tailoring design, including adaptation and integration with the rest of the enterprise—because they are “contextual” and (for the most) do not consist of simple transactional processes. No single platform or solution will cover it all, neither will such platform be used in complete isolation of any other solution, especially for advanced product engineering and manufacturing.

This can be quite complex based on product or process requirements which can be contradictory at different product maturity stages.

In addition, most enterprise digital platforms now cover a lot more than what former “PLM system” used to deliver. Buying a PLM platform is not a simple decision as it typically involves medium to long term commitment to a vendor, and short/medium term engagement with a strategic implementation partner.

About the author

Johnny Minor Mørup

Johnny has a great passion for web communication and digital journalism. He is an expert in creating content addressing both the eyes and mind of the viewer in a unique and unforgettable way. Johnny has a concrete experience in optimizing journalism and communication, whether via an app, a website, through a newsletter, infographics, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, SEO / SEM or Adwords.

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