QMT Features: November 2013
Cloud PLM is the answer
A new defining moment for Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)? Cloud technology allows PLM to be more flexible, useable and affordable. By Colin Watson, corporate director of Symetri.


In a world of sound-bites and slogans, PLM’s flexibility defies the quick sell – especially now cloud computing has made possible a new affordable, easy-to-use version. However could this be its strength, rather than its weakness? Colin Watson, corporate director of Symetri, believes the solution’s value lies in its flexibility and those implementing the solution will be the ones to define it – in their own terms.

The early promise product lifecycle management (PLM) held when introduced to the manufacturing market 30 years ago has not been realised. Old-style PLM never filtered through to smaller manufacturers. Solutions were difficult to customise and were usually expensive and complex.

Recently, the software developer and vendor, Autodesk identified that using cloud technology, PLM could become a more flexible, useable and affordable version of its old self and introduced Autodesk PLM 360. For manufacturers across both the batch and continuous process industries, the benefits of the approach in terms of streamlined product development, higher project and process visibility and reduced costs are perhaps particularly compelling but the solution can brings benefits and advantages to all types of businesses.  

Symetri was the first Autodesk partner to be named a PLM 360 specialist. However, this article explores the issues surrounding PLM adoption rather than discoursing on why manufacturers should buy a particular solution.

To help provide a broad, accurate market view, Symetri recently set up a roundtable discussion on these issues with a small group of clients. Most were manufacturers but the group also included an architect interested in using PLM in the world of construction where the increasing use of off-site fabrication is strengthening ties between architects and suppliers. Attendees had much in common; they had all been relatively early adopters of 3D digital design software and were willing to evolve their businesses to match changing conditions. They all represented small businesses with a turnover of less than £30 million – and as such had never previously been in a position to consider investing in traditional PLM.

Symetri wanted to encourage them to talk freely so agreed not to name them here. However, all the quotes throughout the article come from them, unless attributed otherwise.

What’s this got to do with PLM?

Manufacturers, and particularly those in the process industries where the focus is always on optimising continuous or batch processes have been searching for ways to become leaner for decades. The supply chain revolution of the 1990s onwards helped trim away any slack and most believe they have little left to give. Many dinosaurs of business have already become extinct, but smaller organisations can be more flexible and adapt more rapidly to change. All Symetri’s roundtable guests had demonstrated foresight by adopting new technologies and processes such as digital prototyping and design data management. Yet they are wondering where they can go next to become even leaner and more competitive. Meanwhile, there is one further development fundamental to the use of a new kind of PLM to address all these challenges – the cloud.

The outlook is cloudy
In the design world, the impact of cloud computing could be profound. Designers need increasing computer power to visualise, simulate and analyse complex data-rich 3D models – yet, investing in high performance computers can in the short term cancel out some of the economic gains of digital prototyping. Taking tasks to the cloud eliminates the need for this capital investment. Instead cloud space can be paid for on an ‘as-needed’ basis out of an operational budget. If the cloud can make design tasks, lighter, easier, faster and better, it holds great potential for applications such as PLM.

What manufacturers need now
“I know what I want, but I can’t do it yet.”
PLM in some form may be able to help – but what exactly do today’s manufacturers want from it?

All businesses at the Symetri roundtable said they felt the pressure to respond to these global trends. “If we stand still we will go out of business,” was a typical comment. They agreed digital prototyping and design data management had delivered significant cost and productivity savings. But they were still facing three main further challenges:

• Re-use of data: All those present design and manufacture bespoke products as part of their portfolio, so the ability to re-use and adapt existing data is paramount to making this customisation efficient and viable. When designers hit on a product people want to buy, they want to recreate it – or at least the core of the product that can then be modified to fit individual customer needs. Problems arise when they need to find the original bill of materials and the part numbers that first helped create that magic. They need an organised way to collect information and piece it together, instead of starting from scratch every time.

• Sharing knowledge: There was a consensus that, while a good design data management system is useful for bringing together all the engineering and production elements, it still leaves out the marketing, innovation and creative side of the business model. There is still a big divide between creative and the engineering minds. There was also an overriding view that PLM should be able to capture not just data but the knowledge surrounding it. This would help maintain the integrity of the design and avoid diluting the ‘magic’ that made it a success in the first place.

• Anywhere, anytime information:  Workforces are increasingly disparate, with teams working in multiple global locations. Without a single, integrated source of totally current, accurate information, errors are almost inevitable. Even a small mistake can create a major crisis when perpetuated unchecked throughout an entire project. Likewise, managers need fast access to correct figures to make the best possible decisions.

How do we see PLM now?
There still seems to be uncertainty as to whether PLM is just a database, a process, a business model or a business enabler. It was agreed that in its physical form, PLM is basically a relational database, but its power comes into force when it has been designed to fit an individual business with data and knowledge entered. PLM’s flexibility and all-encompassing nature makes it more difficult to sell quickly. However, in reality this is its key benefit. Its basic function is always the same, but when it comes to the rest, the potential for customisation is part of its value.

Next-generation PLM
While Autodesk’s cloud-based PLM 360 is different from traditional PLM, it delivers all the benefits, without the downside. For a start, because it is paid for as a service – and then only when needed – there is no need for substantial capital expenditure and all the decision-making meetings this involves.It can be switched on instantly via the internet and off again if no longer needed, so can be used for specific projects only if required. Maintenance is carried out by the vendor and upgrades are automatic. This simplicity and affordability means SMBs are no longer excluded from the advantages of PLM. But do these benefits address the issues raised by Symetri customers at the roundtable? Autodesk PLM 360 is made up of a range of building blocks or apps which can be used according to a user’s demands. These cover all product-related functions from project management and engineering to sales and marketing, and can be easily customised and integrated with existing business systems.

The benefits for manufacturers across the process industries where PLM offers the potential to radically transform previously fixed or static processes, are likely to seem particularly compelling  but in a few years’ time it may well be unthinkable for a manufacturer not to have PLM. l
www.symetri.co.uk
  
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