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What is PLM?

The terms CAD, CAE, CAM don't seem to be good enough to describe what we are doing, so we're being subjected to having it called PLM. Should we go for it?

by MARTYN DAY, editor, Cadserver, April 15, 2002

To the uninitiated, the marketing surrounding the PLM bandwagon has been pretty impenetrable, following hot on the heels of other market analysis firms’ attempts to ‘talk up the CAD market’ with new three letter acronyms like Collaborative Product Commerce (CPC) and collaborative Product Definition management (cPDm).

The MCAD market has had to put up with a continuous barrage of new terms and three letter acronyms over the years but the effort to brand PLM as the collective title of many, linked, common engineering functions is several stages past traditional previous efforts at generating meaningless marketing roughage, I can only describe it as ‘marketing incontinence’. For instance in Daratech’s agenda for the conference, this description was printed to explain the topics for first evening’s dinner:

"A panel of senior executives from leading global manufacturing enterprises will share their vision and strategy for compressing time to market by streamlining and re-engineering their product creation process so as to better leverage, manage and reuse engineering and corporate data and knowledge, collaborate more closely and efficiently with suppliers and partners, integrate and coordinate CAD, PDM and PLM with enterprise systems and supply-chain partners, and exploit virtual prototyping and simulation to reduce or eliminate physical prototyping."

It’s English, but not as we know it. Unfortunately reading PLM-related verbiage or listening to someone effuse about it has a similar effect to a Botox injection to the brain.

There seems to be two problems with the marketing of PLM. The first is that all the players in the PLM game seem to be ‘feeding off each other’ in terms of the words used and general business language. The second point is that the area is so complex and all encompassing that it’s impossible to explain without the use of many other three letter acronyms or buzzwords. The net result is marketing documents that have very long sentences which contain a lot of ‘compressed information’. The reader has the choice to decrypt the marketing material, or decide that life is way too short for all this and wisely move on. I think someone has to point out that this is the complete opposite of what marketing is about.

Parlez-vous PLM?

Marketing aside, I will now attempt to give my understanding of PLM, in plain English. Traditionally the CAD market has been all about generating designs, in 2D or 3D software. As technologies progressed, the CAD programs incorporated more engineering know-how with new and developers expanding into parallel markets, like developing tools to manage the design files created in their packages (areas termed EDM and PDM). In addition, new products were created to enable the computerized machining from CAD models, together with utilities to test and simulate these complete digital mock-ups (called CAE, FEA etc.). Advanced users took on concepts such as defining entire product assemblies in CAD, deploying collaboration tools. While all this progress was useful in speeding up product design cycles, there were many ‘islands of automation’ and the integration of all these functions. Product Lifecycle Management is the term which is now being used to describe the process or wish to integrate these islands, producing a completely digital design through manufacturing solution.

The perceived benefits are pretty obvious but worth spelling out (not in any order):

  1. Shorter Time to Market
  2. Better product quality
  3. Reduction in prototyping costs
  4. Savings through the re-use of the original data
  5. A framework for product optimisation
  6. Savings in reduction in wastage.
  7. Savings through the complete integration of engineering workflows

As things stand, you can’t go out and buy a PLM system as such, a turnkey PLM system doesn’t currently exist. PLM is more about the integration of existing enterprise systems (CAD/CAM, ERP, CAE, PDM etc.) together with new systems, like collaboration portals, to completely envelope and control the creation, test, manufacture, service, decommission and recycle processes.

So who is pushing this PLM re-branding of the industry? The main culprits appear to be the market analysis firms, namely Gartner, CIMdata and Daratech, all with their own individual take on what it means and terms to describe issues within it. Although, I have to say, the core terminology does seem to be converging on a group of common terms. Then there are the key developers, of which there are three; PTC, IBM/Dassault Systemes and EDS PLM Solutions Division (formerly UGS and SDRC). There are also several large-scale engineering customers driving forward with PLM requirements, these tend to be big spending automotive and Aerospace manufacturers, like Toyota, GM, Airbus and Ford.

With a group of powerful customers demanding a completely integrated solution, one can hardly blame the developers for creating tools to cater to their customer’s needs. The market analysis firms are there to report back industry trends and define segments and I guess that’s why PLM was born. The question is how relevant is all this is to other CAD-based engineering companies out there? I think I am struggling with the level of granularity of the whole concept, PLM is a ‘Macro term’, literally lumping every engineering system and process together, combining consultancy services with product sales and is going to be, by definition, a bespoke solution for each customer. PLM appears to be just a fancy new term for old fashioned Systems Integration but just adding-in the all the software product revenues too. If the PLM label is to be accepted outside of the key driving customers, then there is a big task to be done in improving the clarity of the message – pages and pages of buzzwords separated by commas does not a market make.

There are also technical hurdles to overcome for both customers and the software developers within the PLM space. It’s rare to find an engineering company with CAD tools from just one vendor, as many firms believe in buying the ‘best of breed’ solutions for each task within the manufacturing process. PLM is based on the model (or product definition) feeding data to all the other systems but by using multiple creation tools, frequent data translation become necessary and we all know that can compromise the richness of the data. However, to ensure that the model does not get compromised, PLM adopters are being advised that they should buy everything from a single source, to minimize the headaches and maximize the benefit. There’s also the argument that the more diverse your software suite, the more it will cost to integrate, as well as the continual problem of maintaining that integration when individual pieces of the software solution get updated.

Conclusion

There is a fair degree of collusion within the CAD industry, between vendors and analysts to 'talk up the market' and shake off the image of a tired, mature, slow-growing industry. On the face of it, this is not a bad thing. The problem is, is that it caters to a small number of customers and so appears to be market leading, not market led. Also, the concentration on PLM seems to be at the expense of all other areas (CAD, CAM, CAE etc.) and finally the marketing that is being generated appears to be all spin, no content and frequently beyond comprehension.

This year I daresay I will hear a lot more preaching about PLM from IBM/ Dassault, PTC and EDS and I will continue to strive to gain PLM enlightenment.

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