PLM: A New World of (More) Collaboration and Innovation

It used to be the case that PLM was perceived as being principally about CAD tools and 3D drawings and complex technical specs that no one really understood except the geekiest of PLM geeks.

This perception was justified, to an extent. After all, PLM and CAD tools can be complicated, engineers and designers tend to operate in highly specialized environments, and there's a common misconception that PLM addresses execution rather than innovation.

But after attending the PLM Innovation 2012 conference two months ago, I realized that PLM is starting to gain a reputation as an enabler of collaboration and innovation.


One of the points speakers emphasized at the conference was that a strong PLM strategy goes way beyond design and product development, and takes marketing, accounting, and supply chain constraints into account, as part of a process that involves the entire company, its partners, and even its customers. Collaboration is a must for any PLM user. Unlike other business areas (like accounting or sales) where you can do your job without really collaborating with your colleagues, a PLM user will never be able to work alone.

But beyond this type of "vanilla" collaboration, other, more modern and exciting forms of collaboration (e.g., crowdsourcing, or the use of social media tools) have begun to surface in the world of PLM. One example of crowd sourcing is Fiat, which created the first 100% open sourced car. This involved 17,000 collaborators from 160 countries, who generated 10,000 ideas between them. In a nutshell, Fiat created a portal where anyone interested could share their vision on how the ideal car should look like. The most popular ideas were put into practice and the Fiat design team was constantly in touch with the community to provide them with  feedback on the status of the project but also to explain why design decisions were made (as you can imagine, not all the wishes of the public were realistic).


Innovation is much more than a buzzword in the PLM world and it doesn’t only refer to new exciting products or services – it’s more about finding more creative and practical ways to design, manufacture and maintain products. It’s a reality, just like collaboration, and the two are inseparable. PLM users were the first to understand that innovation must involve all departments of the company, as well as customers and business partners. Contrary to popular belief, PLM users don’t just brainstorm and use their experience to come up with new ideas – product development also means gathering information from various departments of the company, but also from external partners.

A great example of innovation strategy is Hydro Québec (and the director of technology of their research institute showed how collaboration can be used in innovation and benefit all sides involved). Hydro Québec collaborates with partners to develop new products and bring them to market. The new products are then used by both Hydro Québec and the partner, and even intellectual property is shared. I intend to interview the presenter and describe the concept and process into more details in a future article.

Christian Verstraete, Chief Technologist at HP, had a session on the new frontiers of innovation, talking about cloud, social media, and mobile devices, describing them as major enablers but also disruptors in innovation nowadays. Oleg Shilovitsky, blogger and consultant at Beyond PLM, had a great session focusing on the consumer technology that is now used in the workplace and provides an important challenge to traditional enterprise IT, but also the opportunity for everyone to have access to technology previously available to PLM or ERP users only (e.g., you can now see a CAD drawing or collaborate on a project by using an app on your tablet). Even though both speakers approached the topic from different angles, they showed that PLM also faces the same technological disruptions (e.g., cloud, mobile, social media) as any other business software type. But they highlighted the fact that the same technologies are also enablers for innovation and collaboration across the enterprise and even outside its walls.

The closing keynote was presented by an astronomer working on the European Extremely Large Telescope Project which aims to build the largest telescope in the world with a mirror of 40 meters (the largest now having only 8). Besides the fact that he was very funny and shared very useful information, he made us all think when he said that their success is also due to the fact that they can afford to risk failure. Maybe corporations should learn something from them, because failing is usually not an option for their innovation initiatives. But it is precisely a certain degree of failure that enhances innovation, because everyone involved will learn a lot from failing and will gain insight that cannot be obtained by avoiding failure. One example is the NeXTSTEP operating system created by Steve Jobs, which was originally a complete failure, but much of it was used to create the Mac OS X (now used by all Apple computers).

Collaboration and innovation, which are now probably the most common buzzwords in the business software world, have always been present in PLM. "Collaboration," because all projects where PLM is used are too complex to be delivered by one or a few isolated people. As for "innovation," it’s safe to say that it is the very fundamental basis of the PLM concept. This was hard to understand for most business users, since they weren’t familiar with PLM, but with new technologies such as the cloud, mobile and social media, the PLM world is not only more accessible but also more open to interacting with any other business segment.

But new technologies are also opening the enterprise to the outside world and companies can now gather feedback and interact with anyone interested in their offering, use crowdsourcing for innovation, etc. With a proper strategy and the right tools, the entire universe that already exists around your company can contribute to its product development initiatives.
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