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Expert advice for deploying and using PLM effectively

Beth Stackpole
Once the time comes to deploy Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software, organizations should take a hard look at lessons learned from the days of ERP rollouts. Just

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as the Big Bang approach sparked huge project delays and cost overruns that derailed many early ERP efforts, experts agree that incremental deployments are the surest route to delivering real value with PLM.

The cross-functional evaluation team, along with the IT department, should break down the PLM effort into manageable pieces that can be deployed, tested and promoted among employees to show management hard-and-fast results. In contrast, a large implementation can go on forever before it shows any real value, often leading to lost momentum, lack of interest among management, and budget changes that cause priorities to shift along the way. A lot of that can be avoided with a staged rollout.

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"When you get incremental implementation, that can be translated into incremental wins," said Mike Burkett, vice president of PLM Research for AMR. "From a political standpoint, you can be more successful if you show wins along the way."

Setting metrics, timelines for PLM deployments

Building a system of metrics is also critical to proving the success of these targeted deployments. Peter Bilello is vice president at CIMdata Inc., a market research firm specializing in PLM. He suggests that after the pilot stage, companies should roll out the pieces of their PLM deployments to limited areas, ensuring that those pieces work as required before extending the implementation any further.

"Set time limits and metrics, which will tell you when it's appropriate to roll it out more broadly or roll it back," he said. "The time frame... will vary depending on the capability you're testing out, but the rule of thumb is a couple of months."

Employee training programs critical to PLM success

Having a well-thought-out training program to acclimate users to the PLM environment is another critical component. Yet training on PLM is as much a cultural exercise in changing the way people work as it is teaching them the features and functions of the actual software.

"You can't underestimate the resistance of humans to change," said Ken Versprille, PLM research director at CPD Associates LLC, a consulting company specializing in PLM. "This is a people issue -- more so than any other enterprise application." The issue becomes even more acute when training engineers on new productivity tools.

"It's like asking an artist not to use [his] favorite brush all the time and to throw it away and use something else," he added. "People become very comfortable in the use of a particular piece of software for engineering or manufacturing, and even though they may complain about it constantly, it's difficult and uncomfortable for them to change."

Migrating data from legacy systems to PLM

Beyond training, the other essential and equally challenging component of a PLM deployment is migrating data from legacy systems to the new PLM backbone, along with integration work -- connecting to homegrown systems, to other PLM components and especially to manufacturing and ERP platforms. Many of the PLM vendors now offer packaged integrations to leading ERP platforms, and many that come from the engineering disciplines have modules for syncing up product data and 3-D models from multiple CAD systems.

Despite this progress, integrating PLM with other enterprise platforms is still a huge effort and one that is likely to require custom one-off work or consulting services as part of the overall PLM engagement -- either directly with the PLM provider or with a consulting company or software integrator that specializes in this discipline. Be sure you factor the integration requirements into the initial RFP and resulting consulting engagement so that your needs are fully covered.

Many PLM implementations get led astray when the initiative is approached as an IT project instead of an enterprise-wide business transformation effort charged with delivering strategic results.

"It doesn't mean IT can't and shouldn't be involved, but if PLM is strictly an IT project that the business has not asked for, no one will be able to determine its impact on the business," Burkett said. On the flip side, IT needs to be wary when the business side asks for PLM because someone read somewhere that it's the catalyst for solving product development issues.

"If business hasn't done [its] job of identifying the problem and understanding what's broken," he said, "it's going to be tough to evaluate [whether] PLM is the solution."

About the author: Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has extensively written about manufacturing techniques and manufacturing IT technology.


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