Through our work in extending and customizing PLM we are constantly in conversation with customers and Value Added Resellers across the world about what companies are doing today, planning tomorrow and the direction that they are trying to take their PLM systems. In this article I will try to summarize the key day to day problems that concern our customers, namely efficiency, and the drivers that are pushing them longer term, namely innovation.
One key driver in this area is user interface efficiency; with the advent of sophisticated mass market websites like facebook, linkedin and salesforce, users expect and demand software that is easy to use. Many requests we get are simply to reduce the number of clicks required to perform an action. PLM vendors have responded to this and core product interfaces are improving, but some tasks are still mysteriously complicated. Customers all do things slightly differently and so specific user interfaces are in demand, often to improve the interaction with users that have frequent, repeated tasks to do, e.g., creating data, mass action such as printing or applying business validation rules in the user interface to avoid complex and time consuming workflow processes.
Efficiency is also required for inter-system communication: almost all companies have the classic PLM/ERP interface requirement but many wish to connect other systems as well. The Windchill Problem Report object can be used to start the change process, but users will no longer accept the need to switch systems and double-enter data. They want their issue tracking system to be integrated and “send” the request to the PLM. There is a frequent requirement to integrate software within the product development process and we have implemented a number of targeted solutions to address this. This integration is also a key selling point for vendors, as shown by PTC’s acquisition of ThingWorx and Integrity.
Technical publishing and distribution of CAD data is another active area where efficiency is a key point. For products to be shipped quickly, manuals need to be updated, translated and delivered with accurate information. The information needed is in the PLM and closer integration and improved connectivity to the document authoring software is important. For example, we recently streamlined the translation process of the manual of a company as this was seen as a key cost and delay for the product release process.
Another frequent requirement is to access product data in an easy way without entering the PLM, such as using custom portals. These are used by users from ERP or services to gain access to drawings and 3D models, often these portals need to be mobile compatible. As data is moving outside the PLM realm, protected IP has become a greater focus, with attention being paid to solutions such as watermarking.
So if we look at the underlying drivers of all of these requests it is that organizations are under pressure to collaborate better and to access and efficiently use the product data. PLM is becoming a truly enterprise tool and less of a CAD oriented work group manager. The PLM managers we speak with are swamped with new requirements, increasingly coming from outside the engineering department.
Being the first to get product to market is clearly vital, but as important is creating the “right” product. Whilst efficiency can be seen as a tactical improvement within the organization to create products faster and with improved quality, innovation is a strategic goal, to make better products. This is the driving force behind another set of requirements that we get.
The companies that we often work with see their competitive advantage coming from being able to be more reactive and nimble than their competitors. Their ultimate goal is to respond to their client’s needs and provide them the perfect product as quickly as possible. This is the holy grail of PLM and is known as mass customization, other related terms are something-to-order (Design, Engineer, and Assemble), options and variants, product configurator. Whatever the terminology used, the objective is the same, to create products that are tailored to the customer.
The problem is that mass customization is not easy, for many years PLM vendors have tried to put solutions into the market place and generally failed. The reason is that this is a problem that touches every part of the product design process, from the way the CAD engineer designs to the way the product is serviced. Most organizations know this is a puzzle that must be tackled piece by piece. The first piece that has a lot of attention at present is the Bill of Materials transformation process, for example eBoM to mBoM. For a surprisingly large number of clients, this is a painstakingly manual process, and therefore there is a lot of interest in products such as PTC’s MPMLink. We have a number of clients that have or are in the process of implementing it; the current version is somewhat “quirky” although the underlying principles of the product are considered impressive. A new version is due soon and is eagerly awaited. Other customers using Enovia are also talking about similar BoM transformation issues.
So in essence the long term goal is mass customization, and to achieve this, companies are focusing on better product definition and data transformation tools.
Product data is seen as more and more valuable and therefore the role of PLM in the organization is on the rise. PLM is being put under pressure to deliver a greater diversity of products faster and with better quality. Unfortunately this requires a much better automation of the product development process from cradle to grave. We still have a lot of work to do!