Evaluating Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) options can be a rigorous and formal process. Yet unlike with other enterprise applications such as ERP, supply chain management and even CRM, PLM is a much more diverse platform, making it more challenging to compare systems on an apples-to-apples basis.
The same exercise of defining the pain point around product development along with identifying key business goals is also a critical step in the PLM selection process. Given the scope of PLM, few providers cover the full range of functionality. Certain vendors and solutions are better suited for different aspects of a product's lifecycle.
PLM providers that hail from the 3-D design space, such as Dassault Systemes, PTC and Siemens PLM Software, offer platforms better tuned for managing and controlling data such 3-D CAD files. Such vendors are a likely choice when the pain point is around engineering collaboration.
Likewise, if the process that needs fixing has to do with supplier collaboration and sourcing or a breakdown on the manufacturing side, PLM platforms from traditional enterprise software vendors such as SAP and Oracle are better candidates.
"We often see manufacturing-centric companies go with something like SAP PLM because many of the other PLM vendors are design-centric," said Ken Versprille, PLM research director at CPD Associates LLC, a consulting company specializing in PLM. "Different priorities will factor into which route a company chooses. Every PLM vendor does something different and has different strengths."
Some PLM vendors catering to specific industries
Another way to narrow the field of PLM providers is to consider an industry-specific solution. Many of the big players have PLM systems with built-in, business process best practices for industries such as automotive, electronics and consumer packaged goods. Other providers have staked out an even smaller PLM niche -- PLM for process manufacturers, for instance, or a growing number of PLM platforms tuned for the retail and apparel space.
Once the landscape is narrowed, it's time to zero in on a select few. Versprille's recommendation is to identify 10 to 12 primary issues where PLM can be leveraged and to interview management and core workers in those areas to come up with a set of requirements for each.
Each PLM offering should be evaluated on how it addresses those core areas and then ranked with a score for the purpose of assembling a short list. That's where it can get tricky. Since no PLM package will address every issue, the selection team has to weigh the 10 to 12 requirements to determine the company's top priorities and then evaluate the candidates accordingly.
"No one product will win each of the 10 to 12 areas, so there's no obvious winner," Versprille said. "It's up to the company to decide what's the most important thing for them in the short term and then longer term."
Getting vendors involved in PLM deployments
In order for request for proposals (RFPs) to be used effectively in PLM evaluations, the participants should be given plenty of detailed information about the deployment so a fair comparison can be made, advises Peter Bilello, vice president at PLM market research firm CIMdata Inc.
"Tell the vendor exactly what you're trying to do in your different phases," he said. "In order to try to compare one system to the others, you've got to get to the nitty-gritty. Otherwise, you're getting an apples-to-oranges quote."
Bilello also suggests having the vendor demonstrate the system in the context of what you are trying to do. For instance, if you're looking at a PLM solution to streamline ECOs, give the competing vendors a real-life test case -- your own CAD files and bill of materials information -- so the evaluation specifically gauges how the individual product performs with your particular set of information.
Integration capabilities key to PLM software selection
Finally, since it's likely an organization's PLM platform will end up being a best-of-breed selection rather than an all-in-one platform, decision makers should keep integration capabilities in mind when evaluating their different choices. They should start by looking at the systems in-house and seeing whether they meet the company's needs. If that existing investment doesn't satisfy the requirements, then look to new technology, which will require integration, or determine whether it's possible to wait for their existing vendor to develop the capabilities they need.
Mike Burkett, vice president of PLM Research for AMR, suggests aligning with candidates that solve your biggest problems and moving out from there. "Your primary PLM vendor should support your biggest problem," he explained. "If you have two or three to choose from, choose the vendor that can fill in some of the other gaps as well, but don't ignore your primary business problem for the sake of getting a full suite. You'll end up with a lot of breadth, but no depth."
About the author: Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has extensively written about manufacturing techniques and manufacturing IT technology.