Increasing global pressures for manufacturers to build better, faster, cheaper products is pushing lifecyle technology to new heights of sophistication.
The growing importance of 'lifecycle' IT for manufacturing over the past decade is no accident. Some of the key business challenges facing both multinational and smaller firms have pointed to the need for the development of broad procedures and technologies that have been parcelled under the PLM (product lifecycle management) banner.
PLM, which has its roots in computer-aided design (CAD) going back two decades, has now grown into a panoply of manufacturing IT processes. Ken Amann, director of research for US-based technology analyst CIMdata, points to three fundamental concepts underlying all PLM: access to and use of product-definition information; maintenance of the integrity of that information throughout its lifecycle; and managing all the business processes used to create, share and use the information.
In the manufacturing sector, Amann says that these demands are satisfied by three broad areas of technology application. One area is the systems tools used to create intellectual property, for example CAD modelling. The second is what Amann calls collaborative product data management, (CPDM), which are the systems that manage and share all the information involved.
The third area is the digital-manufacturing process that applies the IT systems which define and implement the necessary production processes.
Amann believes that PLM does not now need to be about a physical product at all. Instead, the 'product' can be "a recipe or a whole manufacturing plant". It can even be a complete system like a railway network. "In such cases there is still a product structure," says Amann.
PLM for manufacturers is now about dealing with business problems that are "multi-media and multi-content" in nature. But, Amann adds, the challenges involved "have been like that for decades". What has changed more recently is the scale of those problems and the pace with which they can develop. Amann identifies key drivers of the situation as the constant pressure to build products 'better, faster and cheaper' and the globalisation of the world's economy.
The latter, though, is a two-edged sword. Alongside the opportunities it offers is the fact that the world is still segmented into multiple regulatory regimes for issues such as product safety and permissible use of materials. As such, notes Amann, regulatory compliance can still mean different things in different parts of the world. Accordingly, PLM is ultimately about the ability to "manage all the information involved", he argues.
Global PLM market
What is not in doubt is that PLM is now big business. The global PLM market was worth $24.3bn last year, according to CIMdata, which predicts it will reach $39bn in 2012.
One of the companies involved in that business is Siemens PLM, formed through the acquisition last year of US-based CAD system supplier UGS by German industrial automation multinational Siemens. This industry consolidation could well continue, creating only a handful of major suppliers of complete software portfolios rather than a larger number of providers of isolated PLM software elements.
Siemens PLM is particularly prominent in the aerospace sector, where customers for its Teamcenter cPDM software suite include US manufacturing giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The latter, for example, is using the software to manage the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a project that involves around 600 suppliers in 30 countries.
Tim Nichols, managing director for global aerospace and defence marketing for Siemens PLM, identifies a number of trends in both the civil and defence markets that are driving the advance of PLM aerospace manufacturing. Nichols, who is based in the US, points out that the concept of complete "through-life" support for products is nowhere more advanced than in the aerospace business. "The aftermarket presents as big a challenge as design and manufacture," he observes.
This has been propelled by the 'power by the hour' business model in which aero-engine manufacturers do not actually sell their products to users but lease them instead, with the boundaries between manufacture, in-service support, and the development of derivative versions of the products becoming blurred.
As a result, says Nichols, companies have to "ensure that service decisions are compatible with original design intent". This means there is a need for a seamless feedback loop in which the 'engineering DNA' that is created in the original design process is retained. If design and service don't match in this way, the costs of wrong decisions based on incorrect assumptions can become prohibitive.
In IT terms, this means that operational data must become the specification data for new parts, and PLM is the essential means for ensuring this happens. Nichols is convinced that this IT trend will only grow. "We are going to see the rapid implementation of this technology in the military and the civil aerospace industries," he says.
Five key drivers
France-based PLM provider Dassault Systèmes claims to be the leading innovator in the field, with a raft of established products including the Catia software and the Simulia, Delmia and Enovia range of products.
A little over two years ago, for example, it trumpeted what it claimed as a major breakthrough for the whole PLM concept when Boeing was able to use its design and simulation packages to achieve a 'virtual rollout' for the forthcoming 787 Dreamliner aircraft. In essence, this meant that the plane maker had built a complete aircraft and proved all the necessary manufacturing processes - but in the digital not the real world. No actual physical aircraft yet existed.
Dassault Systèmes is now aiming to push the concept much further. But, says chief executive Bernard Charlès, it is doing so from the basis of some genuine needs on the part of industry today. Charlès points to five key drivers of the technology.
The first of these, he says, is the need for an initial 'virtual definition' of a product, in other words a 3D computer model, as the basis for all subsequent processes. "There is no debate about this, it is mandatory."
The second derives from the fact that, in Charlès's words, "there is no such thing as a standalone company". Instead, every company has to communicate with other companies in real-time and through the medium of "comprehensive, ready-to-use documentation".
The third pressure is the need to cope with the multiplicity of regulatory regimes around the world. That can be handled, says Charlès, by the sort of database facilities associated with PLM that can store compliance information for various materials as well as data on their physical properties. Such capabilities also make possible the cross-referencing of geometric and regulatory data, for instance by signalling to a designer if a particularly small part is detachable - an important proviso, as Charlès points out, in toy manufacture.
The fourth driver is the ability of PLM to capture the intellectual property embedded in a product and use it as part of the development process. Charlès suggests, for instance, the ability to 'reverse-engineer' into a PLM database, styling information on an existing, possibly rival, product derived from digital photography, in order to compare it with corresponding information about a product under development. Whether that may be done to avoid or enhance similarity is a question that Charlès declines to answer.
Finally, says Charlès, PLM enables "simulation of the user experience", a vague-sounding phrase that masks a highly practical reality. Charlès cites from his own experience the example of a Japanese shipbuilder that found its use of Vietnamese labour for ship construction undermined by the fact that the workers could not understand instructions given to them in either the Japanese language or through the medium of technical drawings. But the problem disappeared when they were given cheap tablet PCs with animations loaded onto them of the required assembly procedures derived from the company's main Delmia database. The labourers could get all the information they needed, Charlès adds, by pushing one or other of just four buttons on the fascia of the devices.
In effect, modern PLM provides the ability to construct complete virtual worlds against which genuine or prospective real-world activities can be cross-referenced, validated, simulated or analysed. "The power of the virtual world as a medium for design and communication is immense," Charlès argues.
But for the future a quite startling prospect is opened up by another element in Dassault Systèmes' PLM portfolio. It has recently introduced a concept called 3D Via in which a genuine, Catia-derived 3D modelling capability has been made available free online for anybody to use. It makes feasible the idea of public participation in the testing of design concepts through online accessing of 3D design data. How that could be exploited as an engineering design and development tool remains to be seen.