What Does the “L” in PLM Really Mean?

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: February 16 2009

In an earlier post, What Does the “P” in PLM Really Mean?, I discussed what the word “product” means in  product lifecycle management (PLM). In this post, I am going to move onto the next letter, “L” for lifecycle.

According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of lifecycle is “a series of stages through which something (as an individual, culture, or manufactured product) passes during its lifetime.” In a typical manufacturing environment, these stages include conception, design and development, manufacture, and service. Ideally, a PLM system should manage the entire lifecycle that covers all the stages. Originally, however, the concept of PLM was designed to address product definition authoring and, later on, define data management issues for the design department. Not every stage receives equal attention under the PLM umbrella, and the application maturity of each stage is not yet at the same level.

Conception is the earliest stage of a product lifecycle. Within this stage, ideas are the raw input and development projects or tasks are the output. New ideas for product development come from different sources such as research work, through newly available technologies, brainstorming sessions, customer requirements, and more. Some of the ideas might be incorporated into existing products as new features; some might not be feasible at the moment; a large amount might simply be eliminated; the rest (grouped or alone) might become new concepts, and some of them might finally reach the development level after evaluation. Briefly, the conception stage is a process of idea attrition—only the good ones get to the next step. In this area, management applications are not quite mature and the adoption rate is relatively low. Part of the reason might be that conception is strongly associated with creativity, and people are not yet convinced that this can be handled well by machines.

Product design and development is the main stage where abundant product definition information is generated. When a concept becomes a development project, people need tools to define not only what a product should be (product design), but also how it should be manufactured (engineering design). Computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer-aided engineering (CAE) are all well-recognized PLM tools that support the definition, as well as some execution processes. The adoption of PLM tools increases engineers’ individual productivity tremendously—but they also need a platform to collaborate internally (with peers and other departments inside the organization) and externally (with development partners, suppliers, and customers). The application of PLM for the design and development stage is the most mature. It is an exemplary approach for most organizations to start their PLM initiatives from this stage because it produces the majority of product definition information.

Manufacture is a joint task performed by enterprise resource planning (ERP), PLM, and other systems such as manufacturing execution systems (MES). ERP takes the lead from the planning and control angles, and MES manages and monitors the production processes on the shop floor. The reasons for having a PLM system in place at this stage are:

1. PLM provides information for what and how to produce.

2. Tight connection between PLM and ERP also helps companies develop better products that are produced in a better way.

Service includes marketing, sales, distribution, repair and maintenance, retirement, and disposal processes related to a product. The quality of these services relies on the accuracy, integrity, and timeliness of the product information that is provided. In general, the more complicated a product is, the more important it is to have the product information available for the mentioned service activities. Another reason for having a PLM system is increasing environmental compliance requirements. For example, at the time when a product enters into the last stage of its lifecycle, the manufacturer has to make sure that the disposal procedure can be handled properly so that the disposition has minimum impact to the environment—especially when it is an asset type of product that lasts years or even decades. Instead of hoping that the user will keep the manual shipped with the product, the disposal instruction has to be stored and managed securely somewhere within the manufacturer’s PLM system.

Above, I discussed product lifecycle stage by stage. However, the PLM methodology won’t reach its full potential unless you take a holistic view of all the stages. Although some stages mainly generate product definition information and others mainly consume this information, it is more appropriate to think of every stage as both the consumer and provider of product definition information. The reason for having a PLM system is to facilitate information-sharing. Thus, in theory, a comprehensive PLM must cover all these stages. In practice, the reality is that not all PLM solutions support the entire product lifecycle, and the priorities of managing different lifecycle stages are different. Nevertheless, managing the entire product lifecycle should at least be a long-term vision.
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