Big savings from love of lifecycle

The merits of a collaborative approach to developing products, concern for a product’s total lifecycle and the benefits of customer feedback, have pushed product lifecycle management into new sectors of mainstream business, as Will Stirling reports


Once the domain of blue chip companies, such as Toyota and Boeing, product lifecycle management (PLM) is filtering through the mid-market to small and medium-sized companies.

The common drivers are a better understanding of what PLM does and the economic constraints facing business. People have realised PLM is a powerful tool to get the most out of several design stakeholders within, and outside, an organisation.

And companies want to interpret the vast amounts of data they amass into intelligent product development. PLM can provide this interpretation.

Established in the automotive arena, PLM is pushing hard into aerospace. Analysts Cambashi forecast that the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of PLM in the aerospace and defence sectors is 7.5 per cent – compare this with CAGR rates of any other business IT class and the power of PLM is clear to see.

Marshall Aerospace and Defence, the large mid-market, privately-owned engineering group with a £300-million turnover, is currently exploring its PLM requirements. The group works with prime contractors, such as Lockheed, on complex assemblies.

“Every customer has their own practices which we adopt to enable close collaboration that ensure the delivery of the project on time, to cost and to specification,” says Marshall’s head of marketing support Oliver Drury. “PLM allows us to benefit from significant efficiencies, increased visibility and transparency, which help us to manage the variety of processes through the whole lifecycle for our customers and our suppliers.”

However, is PLM, relevant to companies’ boards as well as their design studios? The answer must be “yes”.

When big primes like Airbus, Rolls-Royce and more recently retailers such as Marks & Spencer implement PLM, they are signing up to a new means of working – a form of change management – for the organisation which can involve pain.

Retail, along with the finance industry, is the big new market sector for PLM

The challenge for companies, PLM experts like Cambashi’s Peter Thorne says, is where stakeholders of an existing product line have a vested interest in it, perhaps in a commission structure linked to sales, and are resistant about the effect collaboration could have on their stake in the product. PLM gets under the skin of design hierarchies in companies and, in that sense, is a disruptive influence.

Despite the pain that a truly collaborative PLM network can inflict on well-established systems, this is normally outweighed by strong economic and efficiency drivers.

Look at Crossrail, the UK government’s £16-billion civil engineering project. With 42 kilometres of new tunnels, it is the biggest works on the London Underground in 50 years.

When Transport for London specified the contracts for Crossrail, the use of building information modelling (BIM), a form of PLM for the construction industry, was a pre-requisite to tender. All the prime contractors, such as Balfour Beatty and Laing O-Rourke, including their board directors, as well as the multitude of construction manufacturers supplying parts to the project, needed to commit to supplying BIM-versant data. The driver was waste reduction, better data flow and time savings.

As with PLM, the traceability in BIM helps immeasurably on these vast engineering projects, pinpointing modifications and fault-finding. “When choosing BIM for Crossrail, a key factor was the desire to simplify future maintenance and overhaul of a 100-year-old system that uses different drawing standards throughout,” says Malcolm Taylor, head of technical information for Crossrail.

PLM is also disruptive in the semiconductor industry, which for years applied Moore’s Law – make more of it and cheaper every year. “Recent studies show that the number of PCs and even mobile phones globally will fall. This ‘stack it cheap’ model no longer applies and people are thinking more conservatively about resources and better delivery, where PLM can help,” says Cambashi’s Mr Thorne.

Multi-site collaboration of design teams for PLM is well known, but other benefits of the software class are becoming more familiar. Capturing customer tastes via PLM is now firmly established in the retail industry.

High street labels, such as per una, part of Marks & Spencer, and Austin Reed, are examples. per una is considered by some as an important factor in the revitalisation of Marks & Spencer’s women’s clothing business. The label uses PLM platform Buyerplan, acknowledging that the software has made a “significant contribution to our success” by providing customer feedback to shape lines.

Retail, along with the finance industry, is the big new market sector for PLM. Two thirds of Fortune 500 retail companies are PTC customers, the vendor of PLM solutions says. PTC customers include Deckers, who attribute $5 million of savings from implementing PLM.

Product lifecycle management may become, as Cambashi’s chief executive Mr Thorne says, a serious challenger to enterprise resource planning and computer-aided design as the number-one, de facto IT class for businesses that make and sell products.