Which way is PLM headed?


Australia’s process and engineering sector faces increased volatility in 2012, yet the demand to achieve greater efficiencies and cost savings have never been stronger or as necessary.

Product lifecycle management (PLM) software provides opportunities in a new world of process engineering.

Digital manufacturing software is revolutionising the way products are being produced throughout the industrialised world. Due to the widespread adoption of Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM), and Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) software tools, almost every product made today is modelled, tested and ‘produced’ in a virtual environment.

As a result, product development time has been significantly reduced while product quality continues to rise. A key driver in this evolution has been PLM software and systems that harness the massive amounts of data involved.

In today’s era of macro-economic uncertainty, manufacturing companies need to take advantage of the collaboration and visualisation capabilities both within and outside the extended enterprise: a process that PLM enables.

Market demands for greater choice has led to unprecedented levels of complexity in production processes. Think of the complexity one major automotive OEM faced in meeting customer demands for a new pickup truck. Depending on where you are in the world, you can get it with one of three different engines.

There are six trim styles, three cab configurations, nine wheel possibilities, eight tire options, five different radio choices, 18 seat options, 12 colours, three trim colours, and so on before you get to the ‘in car’ options and variations. There are literally millions of different buildable combinations and perhaps trillions of theoretical combinations.

Yet it is only part of the complexity challenge. The product development process itself is complex too, involving hundreds of suppliers and partners scattered around the world. Added to that is the complexity of today’s design processes, where we see input from multiple domains – mechanical, electrical, electronic, software – along with different toolsets and sources of data.

PLM software is being used to create an infrastructure to manage product and process complexity. A case study about this same automotive OEM reported that its 2007/2008 vehicles had an average of six million lines of code and that they were expecting about 10 million lines of code in 2010 models. This rapid expansion of software in vehicles was creating a problem with dealerships when it came time to replace or repair electronic control units (ECUs) that had a software issue.

Using PLM, the company was able to trace the ECUs to an individual customer’s vehicle by the vehicle identification number (VIN) and do things like track every software component by vehicle program, series and variant of those programs.

So if a customer’s vehicle was returned to the dealership with a specific concern that cannot be resolved at the dealership, the VIN could be used to retrieve the complete software bill of material for that vehicle using tools from the OEM’s customer service division.

As a result, ECUs can usually be reprogrammed rather than replaced if there is a problem in the field, helping the company to avoid more than $100 million worth of module replacements over a three-year period.

PLM provides Australia’s process and engineering sector with major opportunities to meet challenges ahead. In 2012 and beyond they can expect:

Smarter decisions, better products

Smarter application of PLM software will facilitate customers’ ability to turn their ideas into successful products and drive their business forward in an informed manner. PLM software enables smarter decisions that lead to better products. This in turn drives customers’ business, fuels their growth and sustains their margins.

Use of PLM software and systems as a single source of product knowledge for data and processes across all domains including mechanical, electrical, and software

To serve as a single source of knowledge, the PLM system must support all relevant product data – mechanical CAD data, ECAD data, software components and so on.

With all of this information in one place – the PLM system – all product team members know where to find the information they need. Having a shared view of the overall product guides each domain in implementing its part of the product.

Use of PLM to communicate and manage product requirements across domains

Best-in-class process engineers work closely with customers to identify needs and problems, and then use that information to establish functional requirements that drive product development.

Given the current level of product complexity, those requirements almost always involve more than one design domain and must cover intelligent mechatronics features.

These features often result in added electronics, increased embedded software, and smart processes, resulting in requirements that must be communicated and managed.

PLM provides product teams with visibility into each requirement, as well as the knowledge behind it. In addition, by supporting cross-domain systems definition, PLM makes it possible to understand how key characteristics such as performance and maintainability are affected by given requirements.

PLM also enables the traceability of requirements all the way to the product’s implementation. Traceability improves product quality by eliminating feature creep and incorrect implementation.

Use of PLM for dependency management across mechanical hardware and software components

The advanced functionality in many of today’s products comes from embedded software and electronics. Although less expensive to innovate this way compared to the costs of adding new mechanical components, the growing role of software is challenging.

All embedded software must be proven to function correctly, as well as to work flawlessly with the computers, wiring, sensors, actuators and other electro-mechanical content in every product configuration.

Using a PLM system to manage embedded software is a way of capturing the complex interdependencies between software, computers, product configurations and other hardware that come together in each product configuration.

By managing software as it would a mechanical component, the PLM system makes it possible to quickly view and manage these dependencies.

Another critical step in the software lifecycle is matching software ‘parts’ to their hardware counterparts. By establishing and tracking these associations across multiple product options and variants, a PLM system can help eliminate configuration errors and reduce warranty costs.

PLM can also promote the management of all software documentation, specifications, test data, build processes, binaries and source code into unique software components. This association fosters efficient use of software searches, comparisons and reuse.

Use of a PLM system to include suppliers, partners, and vendors directly in your processes

The complexity of the design chain has increased exponentially since companies started outsourcing more of their product development work and setting up their own operations in other countries.

PLM’s value here is that it constitutes a single, virtual, integrated system that include suppliers, vendors, and partners directly in the product development processes.

This has definite advantages for managing complexity, including the creation of a complete product definition that incorporates supplier data as part of the BOM. In addition, vendor management capabilities within a PLM system can keep track of pertinent vendor information including environmental compliance data.

Successful products require intelligent management of complexity, in all its manifestations – huge numbers of product configurations, growing use of software and electronics, dispersed product teams and supply chains.

With PLM’s ability to manage all of these factors, process engineers will continue to take advantage of its capabilities and provide companies with competitive advantages.

[Rajiv Ghatikar is ASEAN Vice President & General Manager, Siemens PLM Software.]