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PLM extends reach of computer-aided design and manufacture

Manufacturers are looking for ways to improve efficiency with better monitoring of their projects.

By connecting designers and engineers to other parts of the business, companies have a better chance of not just designing better products but making sure they can make them efficiently and support them for years to come. Product lifecycle management (PLM) software provides some of the means, by providing tighter integration between design, manufacture and support, synchronising information from the initial concept stage through to final production.

Peter Schroer, CEO of open-source PLM software supplier Aras, says PLM integration has gone beyond the check-in and check-out of CAD files. Such management systems were important on big projects to prevent engineers from trying to edit outdated files. These early PLM systems were strongly tied to CAD suites such as CATIA, originally created by Dassault Systèmes for the design of the Mirage fighter jet in the late 1970s.

Today PLM software is used across many industries. An example is in the design of electronic devices, where engineers use change management processes that give them more control over modelling touch-based interfaces in smartphones and tablets for example, helping to simplify the user interface.

Another interesting PLM application comes from French company Lectra, which produces both a PLM and 3D simulation application for the fashion industry that allows clothes designers to experiment with new styles, colours and fabrics without using physical samples, then track the design lifecycle.

But the needs of every organisation are different. Few real-world environments see design teams and engineers using precisely the same PLM processes and tools. Because of outsourcing and other trends away from vertical integration, data interchange is vital. One key to effective PLM is get various different tools to share information effectively without making life too difficult for the end users.

PLM software suppliers such as Siemens have tried to make sure their systems can manage data from different sources. Similarly, SolidWorks has development agreements with a range of PLM vendors that allow models and documents created in 3D design applications to be managed in their software and vice versa.

Schroer says the current emphasis in PLM is to bring input not just from different tools but different disciplines. "They could be running CATIA, Creo or SolidWorks," he says, adding that the need is not just for mechanical-CAD integration but the ability to pull in data from other areas, such as electronic design. The tools need to be "tightly integrated so you are really working on the whole product from one system.

"The electronics design has to fit inside a mechanical enclosure and the mechanical guys are worried about the profile of the electronic components, materials and thermal properties, and that requires both mechanical and electronic simulation," Schroer adds.

It is not just bringing together different types of design tool now, says Mike Frichol, vice president of global marketing at Sopheon, which sells the Accolade PLM software: "The overriding theme we see is cross-function decision making, where businesses are saying they need to determine how they invest in innovation and new products long before they start the design side of things."

Mirko Baecker, EMEA marketing director for Siemens PLM software, agrees: "The big message is realising what innovation means to the company, like being able to develop a manufacturing process that reduces energy consumption by 30 per cent or finding ways of creating cash to invest in new machinery."

Driving competition

Schroer says many companies in the automotive and aerospace industries now rely on software as a competitive differentiator when it comes to selling vehicles and aircraft, a situation which has suddenly arisen due to the market shifting so heavily towards embedded electronics in the last 18 months. He estimates that a third of Aras customers work in the automotive industry, producing parts for vehicles as well as cars and trucks.

"You do not have to go back more than one generation of product when a [car] transmission was completely mechanical, it was all gears. Now automatic transmissions for high performance cars like Audis and BMWs, they learn drivers' style and adjust performance characteristics automatically in software," Schroer says.

"The complexity of the product has increased over time, not just in terms of design but in technologies that enable manufacturers to manage different types of product on one line," says Baecker. "[They can have] a huge variety of variants produced in one production cell or line simultaneously."

Schroer believes that PLM tools will also extend their remit into the territory of broader enterprise resource planning (ERP) and management software currently used in manufacturing environments.

"It goes beyond CAM integration – what customers would like to see is the PLM with version control and configuration management but also driving right into the shop floor systems," says Schroer. "Previously you and I would say that was the domain of the ERP vendor, but the problem is that the integrations there are not so great and you end up with the design being totally under control but the routing and work constructions on the shop floor are not keeping up. So customers have asked us to take a more active role in controlling the versions of information on the shop floor as well."

Future PLM systems may also evolve to provide better support for design engineers who need to make trade-offs between how much functionality they implement within the mechanics versus the electronics of the final product, and whether they have it entirely controlled by software.

"So now you have to think about requirements management at a whole systems level, and this is a very new topic for people," Schroer explains.

Gradual approach

PLM software vendors are aware that some of those smaller companies struggle to justify the cost of implementations that are often lengthy and complex, one reason why they offer modular components that allow a more gradual approach to their installation over time.

Frichol says users have "typically been larger, billion-dollar-plus companies like BASF, Philips and Proctor and Gamble. But more recently we have seen mid-size companies of $100m-plus dealing with the same issues. They are moving beyond the products that put them on the map and which are by and large, already doing well. Now they really need to innovate, to do new product development beyond just line extension, to open up additional product markets and categories if they want to keep growing."

Baecker claims: "For those with limited budgets we offer standalone installations or projects that bring fast wins to the customers, where there is no need for integration with a PLM environment. It could be file-based storage with any database running the back-end, or any integration of interface to an existing system. It is a puzzle piece of the entire PLM platform offering low total cost of ownership, small fast implementations and a fast ramp-up curve via intensive training, which tends to deliver quicker return on investment."

Although Dassault offers a dedicated PLM product, Enovia, smaller customers often find that the integrated product data management (PDM) capabilities already embedded in the company's SolidWorks 3D CAD design software are sufficient.

"For the most part, the PDM system is more than adequate for what 95 per cent of our customer base needs," says Neil Cooke, technical manager for UK and Ireland at SolidWorks. He 'guestimates' that less than 5 per cent of the SolidWorks customer base today integrates SolidWorks with an enterprise PLM application such as Enovia.

Business models

When it looked at buying into advanced PDM software in 2011, Panasonic Eco Solutions decided that Siemens Teamcenter PLM suite was the best choice for integration with the various 3D CAD systems the company employs, which include both NX and SolidWorks software. The ability to manage information drawn from these systems without further formatting or customisation was key. Teamcenter is used to process information such as drawings, bills of materials and specifications.

Some vendors distribute their software using an open-source model in a bid to lower the final cost to the customer. Aras supplies a software development tool, Innovator, which other companies use to build their own PLM and product quality planning applications, for example. The company originally sold the software as a proprietary application until switching to an open-source model based on the Microsoft .Net framework and SQL Server in 2007.

Interested customers download Innovator from Aras' website. When they are ready to put the finished application into production, they begin to pay Aras for a support contract on an annual subscription basis.

As with other types of software, PLM software is moving into the cloud to make it easier for companies to use without deploying their own servers. In concert with that, a number of PLM products are now available under pay-as-you-go leasing contracts. Both Siemens and Aras allow their PLM tools to be hosted either on-premises or in the cloud.

"We are doing that [offering those apps on hosted cloud servers] step by step as demand from the market increases. But the direct licensing model is still the most widely used," says Baecker.

More PLM platforms are also likely to offer mobile versions of the software in the future, something that Siemens has already put in place.

Teamcenter Mobility, which runs on Apple iOS devices, allows field engineers and others in shop-floor operations environments to use location aware tools that deliver specific information depending on which part of a production facility or individual machine they happen to be standing in front of, says Baecker, while there are versions of Tecnomatix for mobile devices running both iOS and Google Android.

By exploring new business models and by tying the data produced by different tools together, PLM provides the glue that keeps design and manufacture projects together.

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