Manufacturers herald PLM despite obstacles

Despite the challenges, implementing a product lifecycle management capability can give manufacturing companies a competitive edge in a recovering economy. According to users at a conference organized in Orlando, Fla., in February by PLM software vendor MatrixOne Inc., the benefits include faster time to market, lower costs and more component and technology reuse.

But, the complex integration and customization issues that have long scared users off large PLM deployments continue to be substantial obstacles, they added.

“PLM is all about revenue growth,” said Glen Waisner, president of The Hayes Co., a manufacturer of lawn and garden equipment in Valley Center, Kan. The company, whose clients include big-name retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., recently implemented a PLM capability in a bid to gain better control over a chaotic pro-duct-development process.

PLM has led to much better visibility into Hayes’ product-development process and has enabled product collaboration across multiple departments and with its major suppliers, some of which are based overseas, said Waisner. As a result, Hayes this year will manufacture 1,800 distinct products, compared with 500 last year.

For Invensys Rail Systems, implementing PLM has been about “efficiency improvement,” said Ceri Gosling, CIO of the Wiltshire, U.K.-based manufacturer of rail automation and signaling systems. Allowing designers, engineers, and procurement and marketing teams to work collaboratively on product development has led to better purchasing decisions, lowered product-recall costs and enabled better workflow between commercial and technical teams, Gosling said.

GE Consumer & Industrial in Plainville, Conn., has extended PLM beyond physical products and is using the concept to manage commercial documents such as invoices and purchase orders, as well as tax-filing systems, said CIO Stuart Scott. The company has put in place a massive collaborative environment that’s aimed at improving product development efficiencies. It has also begun extending PLM to handle over 17 million commercial documents, Scott said.

“PLM can help companies decide what products to invest in and what to drop,” said Marc Halpern, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. “It helps them allocate the right budget for product development, track schedules and analyze (product) performance in terms of revenue generation or quality.”

But getting there is no easy feat. Often, because product development processes can vary widely, either PLM products have to be heavily customized to fit specific environments, or business processes have to be tweaked to accommodate the PLM capability.

“A lot of companies don’t understand PLM,” Halpern said. “PLM is almost like ERP was 15 years ago.”

Other vendors have responded by trying to make their software easier to use and integrate. For example, new features of the Waltham, Mass.-based Parametric Technology Corp. January upgrade of its Windchill PLM suite include integrated end-user collaboration and data control capabilities, plus hooks for tying PLM data to applications such as ERP and supply chain management systems. Improved data visualization, support for J2EE and Web services technologies, and PDF-based document collaboration capabilities are also being added, according to PTC.

Ping Inc., a Phoenix-based maker of sporting equipment that uses PTC’s software, is evaluating Windchill 7.0 for a possible upgrade later this year. Of particular interest is the integration of Windchill’s PDMLink product data management tool and ProjectLink collaboration module, said Dan Shoenhair, an engineering director at Ping.

Melding the two functions would make it easier and faster for Ping’s engineers, designers, purchasing agents and other employees to share product data, Shoenhair said. Currently, Ping uses separate servers and databases to manage product data and support collaboration among end users.

Improved integration is needed to boost the adoption of PLM software, said Bruce Hudson, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. “Integration is an ugly secret of PLM,” he said. “It’s the one area where PLM vendors do the least due diligence.”

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