Critical Components of an E-PLM System

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Electronic product lifecycle management (e-PLM) is an evolving and collaborative application suite that is building steam and gaining momentum thanks to e-business. However, most traditional product data management (PDM), computer-aided design (CAD) integration, and project management vendors cannot yet offer a complete suite of applications to meet all e-business requirements. Traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors with heavy investment in e-PLM may lead the way with only a few competitive, best-of-breed vendors.

E-Business via the Web Drives Application Extensions

E-business has clearly become another inflection point for enterprise software and the change amounts to much more than just using the Internet in business. E-business is stripping away outdated classifications of software and redefining them around the business processes they support. Though their products are far from complete, many vendors have been successful in making the transition from being a simple ERP vendor to a full-suite, enterprise application vendor. SAP, Oracle, IFS, Epicor, and SSA Global are all good examples of companies that have made the transition.

PLM has a healthy growth opportunity for fiscal 2005 with estimates that it will grow in the 30 percent range. ERP vendors have become full-suite enterprise applications vendors offering customer relationship manangement (CRM), supply chain management (SCM), PLM, business intelligence (BI) and enterprise asset management (EAM), and they have begun aggressively reallocating ERP product enhancement by plowing more than 50 percent of their research and development investment into e-business, CRM, SCM, and PLM initiatives.

Leading ERP vendors have finally addressed product development processes by developing or acquiring the components of a PLM suite. Among the first vendors to move in this manner were SAP, through internal development and partnership; SSA Global, through acquisition and integration; and late, Oracle, through internal development and partnership. The market dynamic is toward the extended enterprise, especially as it relates to e-PLM. Software products must be designed to not only include multiple internal enterprise entities, but also external enterprise relationships. For example, in several industries such as high tech electronics and aerospace and defense (A&D), the practice of outsourcing for both design and production is becoming ubiquitous. In addition, the demand for tailored products with greater functionality and complexity, coupled with a faster moving Internet world, are driving the need for shorter development cycles.

Needs Change at Each Product Life Cycle Stage

A critical component of an e-PLM system is recognizing that as a product progresses through its various stages, part information can change. As a product passes from development, through manufacturing, and out to the field, different people work with it in different ways. This is the product life cycle of a part, for which configurations for as-designed, as-built, and as-maintained structures support the product, from "cradle to grave". The configurations can be handled separately from the other stages, complete with their own permissions and workflow. A product's path through the life cycle stages is depicted below.

Design. During the development cycle, a product may have a configuration unique to each phase of the new product introduction (NPI) process. As the new product passes through the development gates of feasibility, design, and commercialization, it can have different configurations and associated documents for alpha- or beta-testing, agency approvals, and design reviews. Preliminary information is readily available to team members with approved access. Marketing can approve concepts; manufacturing and purchasing can supply cost information and begin defining the process; and suppliers can provide input on their component and process information.

Manufacture. As the design is passed to manufacturing, a separate configuration can be maintained that is unique to the process. Parts manufactured in different plants can have configurations that are unique to that location. A manufacturing configuration may contain a BOM with part numbers identifying raw materials and quantities, which are not detailed at the design stage. These configurations often associate manufacturing documentation with the part. The test documents, equipment and tool drawings, and work instructions can all be part of the manufacturing configuration, which ensures that if a revision occurs, a review of the associated documentation automatically takes place as part of the approval workflow.

Maintain. The final stage in the life cycle is the configuration supporting the product in the field. An as-maintained configuration ensures that the product structure and all associated documents to support the product are available for the life of the product. This availability is particularly important in the A&D industry, where products, such as aircraft, are in the field for many years. Maintenance, repair, and operating (MRO) activities on aircraft are regularly scheduled and can take place in facilities around the world. Global access to all the product information required to maintain these products is valuable. Component parts supporting these products are often revised. The as-maintained configuration is updated as part of the revision approval workflow process and available immediately upon release. For example, several PLM vendors support the tracing of part serial numbers critical to meeting regulatory requirements in the A&D industry.

In the product life cycle, workflow differs at various stages of a product's life. In addition, different information technology (IT) systems will integrate with an e-PLM application for development, manufacturing, and MRO activities. The capability to automate the workflow of tasks for the people that need it and to seamlessly pass data between IT systems is necessary for e-PLM to be successful. Productivity gains are achieved by removing manual intervention. Regulatory and quality standards are met through the rigid control of the review and approval process, complete with an electronic record of date and time stamps for auditing purposes.

PLM vendors need to distinguish traditional PDM functions versus additional e-PLM applications that have emerged in the last few years that are Web-based tools that help users navigate a product's path through the life cycle stages vis-a-vis the Internet. The table below illustrates traditional versus contemporary e-PLM component modules.

Traditional PLM Components Description
Product Design Tools Tools to assist in the design process including mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE), and computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools
Visualization and Review Software tools allowing non-engineers to view and reline drawings without the complexity of a more powerful CAD tool
Change Management The process of routing a design or bill of material (BOM) change request through the appropriate approval process using workflow technology
Product Data and Structure Includes vaulting, document management, product structure control (through BOM), product variants, and part classification
Requirements Management Includes capturing customer requirements and converting them into product design and test specifications
Project / Program Management High level, and detailed task specific management of a group of development projects with resource allocation, status reporting, deliverable tracking, and portfolio analysis

Additional e-PLM Components Description
Collaborative Engineering Collaboration tools allowing remotely located team partners to work on designs and resolve issues independently and collectively and on-line
Process Engineering Components for process design and simulation, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided process planning (CAPP), electronic work instructions, computer-aided process engineering (CAPE)
Component Supplier Management Tools that combine information about components, suppliers, designs, and processes to facilitate information sharing and procurement
Configuration Management Tracking the actual configuration of specific product units and assemblies as ordered or as maintained in the field, over time
Product Data Publishing Information published to present and define product information for customer reviews, web site content management, technical publications, service materials, and regulatory filings


This table of e-PLM component definitions represents a "mother load" for any vendor to supply and support in an integrated product suite fashion. Whether from a best-of-breed or ERP-based vendor, these components stretch the span of product control from the suppliers and contract manufacturers, through to design and engineering, production, supply chain operations, and then to field services and customer relationship management. In addition, corresponding systems must mesh with the business processes and systems of partner processes and systems. The ability to automate the workflow of tasks for the people that need it and to seamlessly pass product data between systems is necessary for e-PLM to be successful. Once again, the risk-adverse are better to take an incremental approach to the expanded e-PLM undertaking.

Top PLM vendors, including IBM/Dassault Systems, UGS, PTC, SAP, Agile, and MatrixOne are continuing their investments in e-PLM components, and so, too are the major ERP vendors. Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) is committed to ongoing research and analysis of the e-PLM evolution. Future articles will examine the e-PLM component gaps of vendor product suites as well as gaps in the field deployment of said components.

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