Users tout advantages of PLM despite difficulties

Despite the challenges, implementing a product life-cycle management capability can give manufacturing companies a competitive edge in a recovering economy, said users at a conference organized last week by PLM software vendor MatrixOne Inc.

The benefits include faster time to market, lower costs and more component and technology reuse, they said.

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 product-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. Some of those will be custom-made for individual clients.

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 called My Workplace 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. “Integration is key to PLM,” said Mark O’Connell, president and CEO of Westford, Mass.-based MatrixOne. “Very little information is created in a PLM system. Instead, the attempt is to add value to the information (that already exists).” Doing this means tying together applications as disparate as engineering and design, ERP, CRM and supply chain systems, he said.

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. The quality of product-related data that a company maintains is also key to getting real benefits, users said.

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

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