Joining the dots can spark innovation

More than just another class of business IT, product lifecycle management is helping companies benefit from ideas across the whole organisation and stimulate innovation, writes Lindsay Clark

The economic recovery is sustaining a strong pace in UK manufacturing. The bellwether purchasing managers index hit a 33-month high in November 2013, while in December expansion in production and new orders reached their highest point in the 22-year survey, according to research group Markit.

As companies emerge from recession, they are investing in product lifecycle management (PLM) software to meet demand for innovation in products and services, says James Wright, manufacturing expert with PA Consulting.

“Post-recession an awful lot of large organisations are looking to use new products and innovation as a source of competitive advantage and growth,” says Mr Wright. “Company annual reports show this is one of two key things they’re focusing on.”

PLM tools can boost innovation by creating better design, bringing new products to market more rapidly and improving service offerings, he says.

“Many larger firms have been updating and upgrading their PLM software because they see it as a way of accelerating new product development and demonstrating shareholder value. Companies are doubling R&D and product launches, but do not want the headcount to match. PLM can help them to be more efficient.”

PLM is often synonymous with manufacturing or engineering, but other sectors can use the approach

As such, PLM has become embedded in the manufacturing processes of some of the world’s most innovative companies.

In 2013, the prestigious America’s Cup yacht race saw a leap forward in sailing performance with the AC72 catamaran design. Winners Oracle Team USA use PLM technologies to help gain an advantage over the other teams. They use the 3DExperience Platform from Dassault Systèmes, which allows engineers around the world to work on the same design data.

Collaboration in design is one of the major benefits of PLM, says Mr Wright. “PLM helps break down functional boundaries in and outside the organisation. That is key to innovation. Individual or cross-functional teams can work more effectively.”

Global aerospace company Rolls-Royce uses Dassault Systèmes’ Catia tool to integrate design and testing in the product lifecycle. The programme simulates the performance of carbon fibre laminates as they are being built into a design.

Darren James, Rolls-Royce composite design technologist, says: “Very often we need to investigate the properties of new materials, new types of construction and new manufacturing processes in potential applications. This involves developing digital 3D software models of components and whole systems.”

The software helps complete more design iterations and more digital testing in less time. “We can now optimise structural models for impact, weight, aerodynamics and manufacturability,” says Mr James.

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PLM specialist research group CIMdata says the market for simulation and analysis software was worth around $4 billion in 2012 and will grow to more than $7 billion in 2017, nearly 12 per cent annual growth.

While large manufacturers are investing in PLM, smaller companies want to achieve a similar boost to innovation.

Irish engineering firm Suretank, with a turnover of €71 million, expects to grow 15 per cent annually. The company is a year into a PLM project to support manufacturing of its products, including chemical and acid transport tanks, helicopter fuel tanks for oil rigs and offshore containers.

It first deployed a module of Autodesk’s PLM360 to support quality control, which allows the employees to flag concerns in engineering, manufacturing, customer care and purchasing, and record on a single system how each alert is resolved.

It is also mapping and re-engineering many of its processes on to the platform, using workflows to share data collected by salespeople to ensure that engineers design to customer specifications.

Saoirse Colgan, Suretank’s PLM project co-ordinator, says efficiencies, including avoiding duplicated effort, will save engineers nine hours a week or around 5,000 hours across the company each year.

“We feel the process we have designed is innovative in the way that we are supporting our customers,” she says. “It involves customers in the workflows. But it is also cutting down administrative time, so we are allowing engineers to spend more time on R&D projects.”

During 2014, Suretank will be rolling out a new product introduction application to help manage “stage gates”, which ensure the safe and controlled launch of new products in a more efficient way. This is expected to help speed up the introduction of new products, Ms Colgan says.

While the application of PLM is often synonymous with manufacturing or engineering, other sectors can use the approach to support innovation.

In the financial services sector, innovation is being driven by changing consumer markets and legislation introduced since the financial crisis, says Capgemini UK’s head of innovation Rick Freeman.

“Classic engineering companies understand PLM because it is at the heart of the way they build new products. Service firms do not have a clue about PLM and what it can offer them,” he says.

“The financial services sector was beaten up massively for too much product innovation, making products which nobody really understood. That was innovation in product only, not in the approach to the customer. Now innovation is customer centric. This approach is going to continue and shape innovation coming forward.

“The fact that PLM is about joining up various parts of the lifecycle is really important for the services industry because innovation is being driven from a customer perspective.”

Social media can be used to ensure businesses get a consumer viewpoint. It can help innovation by bringing valuable data into the product lifecycle, says Simon Ward, chief executive for Europe at Holmes & Marchant, a brand and innovation consultancy.

In the games industry, for example, social communities influence product development. After a game is released, monitoring social channels can help pick up faults, helping to amend the next release. “Interacting with the customer in digital and social media channels can directly link back into the product lifecycle,” says Mr Ward.

While the economy is growing, competition intensifies as markets globalise and the internet lowers barriers to entry. PA Consulting’s Mr Wright says PLM can help boost the innovation necessary to compete by supporting collaboration, cutting administration and helping businesses focus on customer needs. But, he warns, while software can provide the tools, firms must manage the necessary change in processes to exploit the opportunities offered by PLM.

CASE STUDY

PLAIN SAILING WITH PLM

With the America’s Cup focus on space-age technology, it’s easy to forget that sailors remain at the heart of the sport – but 2013 winners, Oracle Team USA, did not.

Following every sailing session, designers would take the crew’s feedback, make changes to components and start production immediately.

Jimmy Spithill, Oracle Team USA’s helmsman and skipper, says: “The sailors are the end-users so they have to be involved in this process. One of the most important parts of the game is the relationship between the designers and the sailors.”

Collaboration like this is at the core of the team’s design and build philosophy. Using the 3DExperience Platform, from PLM software supplier Dassault Systèmes, the team was able to create 3D product designs, test simulations and collaborate using shared database and design processes across team sites in New Zealand, Europe and the United States.

“The America’s Cup teams are typically spread across multiple locations,” says Christoph Erbelding, Oracle’s senior structural engineer. “We have people working in different time zones on different projects that are often overlapping. Without the integrated design platform, it would be a big challenge to keep all the data synchronised and make sure everybody is working off the latest set of data.”

For the 34th America’s Cup, organisers classified two new boats: the AC45, a smaller, wing-sailed multihull boat for the America’s Cup World Series regattas leading up to the 2013 America’s Cup; and the AC72 catamarans, with a hull length of 72 feet, for the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series and America’s Cup finals in 2013.

Teams were allowed to build two versions of the AC72, based on what they learnt from sailing the smaller AC45, which Oracle Team USA designed on behalf of the America’s Cup community.

As well as 3D design, the integrated PLM suite offered the Oracle team virtual testing with the Simulia package, which captures problems within the 3D design prior to build.

“The America’s Cup allows such a small timeframe to design and build that you really can’t afford to do any real hardware testing on a large scale,” Mr Erbelding emphasises.

The design software, Catia, helps manufacturing engineers to map out both finished parts and the layout in one step, which accelerated production.

The 3D design software also releases data to benefit the team later in the product lifecycle, during promotion and advertising, design engineer Aaron Perry adds: “It not only helps us in modelling concepts for the boat that we’re building, but we use it on our website, for marketing applications to show the fans what they are going to see in the race.”