What Can PLM Offer for SMBs?

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Recently I attended a product lifecycle management (PLM) seminar hosted by PTC and its North American Windchill Partner of the Year award-winner BRT Solutions. The main topic of this seminar was about how small & medium businesses (SMBs) can start and advance their PLM practices. After the seminar, I kept thinking about what the PLM industry can offer for SMBs. PLM used to be a luxury for large enterprises. Is the PLM industry ready to accommodate the increasing demands from SMBs?

For the majority of SMBs, I don’t recommend using the "big bang" strategy to build their PLM systems. Having worked with SMBs on various PLM projects, I totally agree with the step-by-step approach proposed by PTC. In the discrete manufacturing sector, PLM tools such as CAD, CAE and CAM are usually the early PLM involvements that companies have. The use of these tools has changed the landscape of manufacturing during the past few decades, and some tools such as 3D CAD, previously considered high-end technologies, now have become more affordable for SMBs.

PLM tools increase productivity dramatically but they also lead to chaotic situations sometimes because the production of product information and technical documents becomes too easy. People realized that a vault is needed to maintain the single source of truth (master repository) for product information. Moving on, a company will find that it also needs a system to manage engineering changes, an environment to collaborate on development projects, and a mechanism to let product information flow seamlessly within the organization. So, in order to achieve a full meaning PLM, there is usually a long adopting process to go through.

In fact, PLM initiatives are driven by concurrent internal demands and external pressure, and any advance down the PLM adoption road should be the natural consequence of previous steps. In some cases as I have seen, financial returns of adopting PLM to a certain level are good enough to support a company’s further PLM ventures. By adopting this phased approach, SMBs will be able to take steady steps toward PLM with fewer risks and be in a better position to finance their projects.

One common problem for an SMB to roll out its PLM initiatives is the difficulty in receiving attention from the vendors that it wants. Big vendors may have strong offerings but they usually have a focus on big projects. Small vendors are usually more approachable but you might not want what they can offer. There are two things that you should know about to address this problem. First, some mainstream vendors now have tailored or specialized solutions for SMBs. Second, if you can’t get attention directly from a top vendor, try to find help from qualified value-added resellers (VARs) in your area. The PLM industry seems to reach a situation where larger customers are supported by top vendors directly and smaller customers are supported by partners of those vendors.

So far, what I have described is the traditional way of building a PLM system – you select a vendor, buy the software and deploy it on your in-house servers. Besides that, there are at least two other alternatives that SMBs may consider. They are on-demand PLM and open source PLM.

Partnering with IBM, PTC is probably the only top PLM vendor that also offers an on-demand PLM solution at the moment. As long as the market demands keep increasing, it won’t surprise me if other major players also provide on-demand PLM in the near future.

Another example of on-demand PLM is Arena Solutions, which has been certified by Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC). There are also other on-demand PLM providers available. One thing a customer should be aware of is that some on-demand PLM solutions have specific industry orientations. While selecting an on-demand PLM solution, you need to make sure of before going further that it is the right one for your industry.

An example of an open source PLM is Aras Corporation. Almost two years ago, Aras decided to move to open source on the Microsoft platform, and the result seems to be very positive. According to a May 2008 press release on the Aras web site, the company has achieved “over 10,000 Aras Innovator enterprise system downloads in 79 countries around the world,” and “more than 4,500 corporate community members are now part of the international Aras Community Network.” Although you may need to pay for training, implementation, integration, support, and other services, the software is free for download and use. To SMBs, it might be beneficial if you can download and install a system to get a taste of PLM before jumping onto the PLM bandwagon.
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