Advances in cloud computing, visualization aid PLM integration projects

Three-dimensional visualization, social networking and the cloud are transforming product lifecycle management from an engineering-centric tool to a companywide platform for better decision making.

As product lifecycle management (PLM) rounds the corner on its second decade, the maturing software category is being transformed by a handful of technologies designed to open up product-related data to a broader audience outside of engineering. Now the information is presented in a way that facilitates more effective decision making and makes PLM integration easier across manufacturing.

The rise of cloud computing as a more flexible and cost-effective deployment option, the integration of social networking capabilities, and new methods for visually presenting rich product-related data to a wider spectrum of users will have the greatest impact on next-generation offerings and help expand PLM’s reach throughout the supply chain, according to analysts.

“PLM is now a process that involves people from different disciplines, different backgrounds and different cultures,” said Joe Barkai, a practice director covering PLM trends for IDC in Framingham, Mass. “It’s not really about providing one version of the truth, but providing people who are decision makers within the product lifecycle their own version of the truth … in a way that’s comfortable and that they can trust so they can make effective decisions.”

Finding the right visual mix for PLM

One way to facilitate that interchange is to make more pervasive use of visual information so users -- be they design engineers or maintenance-support personnel -- can participate in the product-development process armed with tools and data that make sense for their role, Barkai said. PLM platforms have traditionally had visualization capabilities, but they have been limited, restricted to viewing three-dimensional geometries from a single computer-aided design (CAD) system with a focus on individual parts instead of full assemblies.

Expanding the definition of 3-D data beyond CAD files to encompass such things as bills of materials (BOMs), finish information or customer requirements and then serving that material up in a visual context will promote better collaboration and more analytical decision making earlier in the development process.

To foster interaction, PLM platforms are beginning to incorporate such technologies as role-based portals, dashboards and analytics tools along with improved 3-D visualization functions that present product data in a richer context. As a result, a design engineer might interact with a 3-D model to optimize tolerances or make structural changes, while a quality-control engineer could work with the same visual model to pinpoint problems related to the close proximity of parts.

“If you just get a list of parts and failure rates and you have two [parts] with high failure rates in different parts of the BOM, you don’t necessarily see the relationship between them,” Barkai explained. “But if you look into a 3-D model of the product, and parts with failure rates above the threshold are color-coded, all of a sudden there is clarity when two parts happen to be near each other.”

3-D product data is not the only ingredient in this new visual mix. Equally important is finding a way to incorporate unstructured data that resides both inside and outside the organization in a way that helps people understand its context, according to Peter Bilello, president of CIMdata, a PLM consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Product-related data sitting in blogs, website comments and market-trend information are valuable additions to a PLM repository that can have a major impact on product designs, Bilello said. In addition, as social networking creeps into the product-development process, it will generate a wealth of information and foster knowledge sharing, both integral to PLM.

“We believe it’s critical to understand all information no matter where it exists -- inside an organization, inside the PLM environment, or outside an organization in the cloud,” Bilello said.

PLM heads to the cloud

The still amorphous universe known as the cloud is another area likely to have a significant impact on PLM. To date, hosted and Software as a Service (SaaS) PLM systems have lagged behind such other enterprise platforms as on-demand CRM or ERP. Companies have been hesitant to embrace the cloud for PLM primarily because of concerns about the security of moving critical intellectual property out from under their control.

Yet as security concerns ebb and trust in the cloud grows, there is plenty of opportunity for leveraging the technology to gain scalability and efficiencies for compute-intensive applications like computer-aided engineering and collaboration within a globally-dispersed design team. “Being able to provide more computing services without requiring companies to increase their number of servers is key,” said John MacKrell, vice president of CIMdata.

Rather than first floating traditional product data management or design  functions in the cloud, analyst Marc Halpern sees potential in other areas of PLM. Field maintenance and service applications or product analytics are likely candidates to take advantage of the flexibility and scalability of the cloud without raising issues over the security of core intellectual property, said Halpern, vice president of research and manufacturing at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Despite the potential of the cloud and other technology advances, Halpern contends the industry still needs to do a better job of solving the core problems that PLM originally set out to address. “Many manufacturers are still sorting through the fundamentals of product data management,” he said. “As vendors head into greener pastures, [manufacturers] are thinking the promises of the 1990s still haven’t been fully resolved.”

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