|By Ryan Reid, July 16, 2014|
Every company has some sort of PLM system. PLM is short for "product lifecycle management." Companies create documentation in one form or another, whether just an invoice or a complex design project. Managing documents usually comes in the form of multi-page Excel spreadsheets that tend not to be efficient or particularly collaborative.
To facilitate collaboration, most companies simply use email. The problem with email is that it is uncontrolled and separated from the workflow. More specifically, email isn't part of a process that is designed by the company.
The use of Excel and email create extra work; engineers are accustomed to it. But it is inefficient for tracking processes and changes that occur every day.
First, let me give my interpretation of formal PLM as it currently exists. It is more than just powerful software that allows
Any PLM system that is well implemented should include most of these options, if not all of them.
But no, PLM is more than that. It is also culture at a company that needs to embrace an understanding of the optimization of the processes that create and maintain all documentation for all products produced by the company. And so a true product lifecycle management is a system for managing your company's products through their entire lifecycle, from conception to retirement - with all processes included in that system.
One of the software firms providing PLM is Aras. This table lists of all the solutions that Aras offers businesses through its Aras Innovator software:
Figure 1: Solutions provided by Aras Innovator
Now, a list like this can be intimidating to engineers, who find it hard enough to find time to carry out the tasks needed to design products – and often in very tight timelines. And so the first pushback often sounds like, "What? You want me to account for and manage all of this extra data too along with my current duties? Let me tell you PLM folks where you can put that extra workload!"
I've been there, and I get it. It's a real concern, and so the vendor implementing the system needs to have the users' ease of use front and center; if not, then what happens is what I have heard: a decent amount of frustration from engineers and other users about the system.
If done correctly though, they get what George Thorogood sings, "It was so nice; Lord, it was lovey dovey." When done correctly, everyone who has information to contribute to the product does so at the right time, everyone who needs information about a product gets it at the right time, and the format and user experience is dictated by their role and needs. This is the major benefit to PLM that many people overlook.
Without PLM, processes often become uncontrolled and people find workarounds to get what they want done. Fortunately, most engineers understand how costly and time consuming it is to re-do the work of others who shouldn't have been messing around with design or BOMs.
Often an engineer was never given enough information pertaining to a customer's or marketing's requirements. This wastes a huge amount of time and materials developing a prototype that the customer didn't specifically want. A PLM system enforces and documents this information so that the engineer, purchasing agent or anybody in the company sees all of the required information that they need to accomplish their job when they need it. Sounds like a daunting task eh? Trust me when I say that the vendors have this down to a science. A PLM philosophy company is able to appreciate the added value of minimizing research time, duplicate data entry, mistakes, engineering re-work, and shop costs by controlling the information that is used to drive these concerns by the right people with the right approvals.
This is why an engineer should care about PLM. It ends up allowing them more time to focus on designing and innovating instead of maintaining communications and duplicating work.
I am hoping that the theory to PLM is now well understood, for I want to move on to examples from one PLM provider. The software that I will showcase in this article is Aras Innovator, because the company approaches PLM differently from many other brands offering PLM: Aras Innovator is built on an enterprise open source, model-based SOA (service-oriented architecture) platform, which means the application is freely available.
With Aras, the IT department at design firms can develop their workflows, processes, and communications at a cost that's extremely low relative to PLM competitors. Now, where you start paying for Aras is through support subscriptions and additional utilities that integrate Aras Innovator into programs like CAD and ERP. Figure 2 shows Aras Innovator integrated into SOLIDWORKS.
Figure 2: Aras Innovator integrated with SOLIDWORKS
Engineers are used to the practice of "vaulting" their files, so the process should be very familiar. (Vaulting is opening and storing files through a central computer, instead of on the engineer's desktop computer.) The difference between a typical vault that's integrated into CAD and a PLM system is that the CAD file's properties and metadata are used throughout the lifecycle of the product. On top of this, the Aras Innovator combines information from other sources like ERP and Quality to provide a more "complete" view of the product and help the engineer make better decisions or to contribute to processes.
CAD integration is important to all PLM solutions, and can prove to be an additional cost to a PLM implementation. One reason for this is because access to the CAD platforms' backbone code sometimes requires PLM vendors to purchase that access from the CAD platform company. Another is that the CAD integration is developed by a partner, and they charge for their service.
With Aras, engineers don't have to re-send communications or re-input data to another Excel form or manually communicate it to anyone else. They fill out the info once while accomplishing their usual tasks and then Aras communicates the required information to the required personnel down the line, based on the company's process and the engineer's inputs. Follow-ups, accountability, and tracking of the design are taken care of by Aras. Engineers get to move onto the next project or design problem without having to worry if details are getting taken care of.
Another major requirement is how all this communication is handled by Aras. Some PLM companies advertise instant messaging, video conferencing and email communications from within their system. This has its pluses and minuses, which is why Aras takes this approach: Aras Innovator integrates with the native applications, and handles communications in the background. This means that users get notifications and dashboards through the program of their choice, such as Outlook or Yammer, or within their Aras Innovator in-basket (see figure 3).
Figure 3: Yammer is social-oriented software from Microsoft
These days it's common for firms interested in PLM to hear about the cloud from the vendor, and that their solution runs on it. Cloud, as it relates to PLM, is complicated but I will give my take on it.
The benefit of cloud for PLM is mostly for the IT side of things, such as in the areas of easier maintenance, simpler deployment, and lower server costs. Solutions based on the cloud make it easy to accomplish these tasks - from the IT perspective. Users suffer no downtime waiting for IT to do upgrades.
When it comes to end-users, the cloud is helpful in some specific circumstances, such as when they would like to automate file conversions and visualizations. This off-loading can minimize the wait time associated with these tasks by accessing much stronger computing resources provided through services like Amazon EC.
There are, however, downsides to the cloud. It requires an Internet connection, and when the connection is slow or servers are knocked offline, then the cloud-based functions decrease productivity, especially when deadlines are involved. Another concern pertains to intellectual property: who owns your designs when they leave the company premises? (While cloud advocates say there is nothing to worry about, it takes just one major breach of Amazon's cloud to put your firm's patented information up for sale in China. Personally, I like to control my destiny as much as possible.)
Some PLM providers offer you a choice of running things on the cloud or privately on your own servers; others are specific to one location, such as only hosting your PLM data on their cloud infrastructure. Aras offers both as well as a hybrid environment, allowing design firms to do as they see fit. This is appreciated.
Aras also offers firms the ability to use their existing vault software. This provides flexibility. For example, I could privately control my EDM vault, while running my processes in the cloud - or have the option to do both in a private environment. Aras's solution for SOLIDWORKS Enterprise PDM (product data management) is called EPLM, and it seems to be a very popular alternative to uprooting an already well-established vault with all of its data that would traditionally have to be migrated into a new system. EPLM and VPLM (their solution for Autodesk's Vault) allows PLM to sit on top of the vault and control it accordingly. I will say that it is a solution worth investigating.
PLM is often viewed as an additional burden to engineers, but hopefully I have showcased how it actually ends up benefiting users, as well as the business, in the long run. Engineers should be excited about their company considering PLM.
I encourage engineers to contribute by championing the value it adds to their innovation and how it should free up time for more creativity in their designs. I would also say that any business looking at vendors for PLM, should consider Aras. They have a unique, outside the box approach to PLM that provides business with lots of flexibility and independence.
|Ryan Reid is a CAD administrator with over 12 years experience in mechanical design with Autodesk software. He is also certified in SOLIDWORKS. More…|
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