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There is a relationship between PLM and ERP and therefore a need to integrate the two systems; at Wincom we create 4 or 5 of these integrations every year. I’d like to share our experiences with you.

ERP is all about efficiency, using the resources of the company to their maximum potential; PLM is all about managing creativity, ensuring that the innovation of a company is nurtured, but kept under control. Linking these systems together is a bit like a marriage, where each partner has their own personality and slightly different goals, and both need to work together to raise successful products. PLM systems have a tendency to want to over communicate, whereas ERP systems often think they don’t need to listen to the rather bothersome PLM. In fact, like any successful relationship, it is vital that there is good communication between them.

Where to start…

It seems that we need to connect the systems together, and if so, we need to answer some basic questions about this interaction:

1. How to send the data
2. What to send (and receive)
3. When to send the data

Before answering these questions, we must realize that the relationship between the two will take time to be established and will evolve. We need to begin with basic information, transferred as it is needed. Almost always, we need to send product data from PLM to ERP but later as the relationship matures we need to send data back from ERP to PLM. Parts and BoMs and information about availability, suppliers and costs can be vital information sent back to PLM to help the product designers.

How to send the data

The first problem is that the IT and ERP teams often expect that they will have large amounts of transactional data; this drives their technology decisions which then often tend towards the most mature data transfer technologies available (e.g., Tibco) that were primarily developed for banking applications. We have often seen heavy, expensive middleware solutions implemented at great expense that were designed for high volume secure banking transactions. But, is this what we really need? How often does the product get released or changed? Do I need to transfer this data every 10 milliseconds? Clearly the answer is no.

Recently the technology landscape has changed and now the ubiquitous web service is often put forward as a solution, but even this involves a degree of complexity. The place most companies actually start from is the basic idea of a single file exchange. Frankly why not? This basic approach helps to create a common vocabulary and put in place working practices that can evolve into “proper” interfaces. XML is a good way to format the data, but at Wincom we are often asked to use the humble comma separated file (CSV). (We even had one company that told us to create XML and then they quietly transformed it into CSV as that is the only thing their ERP developers actually understood)

What to send

So we don’t need a high speed middleware bus, but we do need to send accurate and sensible information. To begin with the ERP people need to understand a little about the PLM obsession with history (a good PLM is like an elephant, it never forgets) and the PLM team needs to understand the ERP focus on the here and now.

A good understanding of revision schemes, effectivity and change models all become important. It is interesting to note that the same words can mean different things to different people, so nothing should be assumed. Finally, it should also be noted that a working, formal change process is a normal pre-requisite to an interface, as it is only then that the “creative” product data is under a sufficient level of control to be of practical use to the ERP.

With a common vocabulary in place, a formal declaration of the nature and format of the data to be exchanged can be agreed.

When to send the data

Finally “when” is important; the trigger to send the data usually comes from the change process of the PLM, often as a change reaches a certain level of maturity in its lifecycle. The user interface may also allow authorized users to trigger a transfer of data with a custom menu option. Tools are sometimes needed to trigger bulk transfers of data. Data may be transferred as little as once a day but it needs to be sent automatically and securely, with complete traceability. But, as we said before, we have no need for high volumes of data to be transferred instantaneously.

Conclusions and future

Once the two partners have started to talk and begin to exchange information, it is not the end of the story. There are huge benefits to be gained by expanding the way the systems communicate with each other, and also to get the ERP to open up and send data back to the PLM (such as supplier data). If we can have open, clear communication we can start to get real benefits and raise fit, strong and healthy products.