Easing headache of going global with PLM panacea

Potentially inefficient and complex global business processes can be handled by product lifecycle management when the alternative could be costly chaos, writes John Pullin

Very clever people work at Integral Powertrain, a mid-sized automotive engineering consultancy in Milton Keynes that develops innovative engine and drive ideas not just for today’s vehicles, but also for the electric and hybrid vehicles of the future.

Integral Powertrain punches above its weight among the giants of the global auto industry because of the calibre of its engineers, and because its systems are in tune with those of its customers and suppliers. And product lifecycle management (PLM), says marketing manager Mike Hegarty, is key to that.

“We moved to a PLM approach because we have to work with our clients as if we were part of their organisation,” he says. “We also make our own products, so we always have a lot of complex projects going on at any one time.”

Integral has been using Catia from Dassault Systèmes as its primary computer-aided design (CAD) system for many years and also needs to link into customers no matter what systems they use or where they are. “But with the number of parts and specifications, and the information that comes with them, you need a PLM system over and above CAD,” Mr Hegarty says. “Really it wraps together everything we do.”

It’s the complexity of a global business process that justifies PLM investment

The work involves highly complex assemblies that have a lot of design data in themselves. “When you add in materials, engineering analysis results, suppliers and so on you grow a huge amount,” Mr Hegarty says. “We need management systems for that, and with PLM we can capture the intellectual property we’ve generated and reuse it in other projects while maintaining individual security for our clients, many of whom are competitors.”

Integral Powertrain recently upgraded to Dassault’s V6 system and Mr Hegarty says his engineers are excited by the visualisation enhancements that can be shared with clients. “But it’s not just the engineers,” he says. Non-technical people inside the company and customers can see information, for example, on stresses and strains in report format or as visuals – pictures speak louder than words for this.

The company is using PLM to collaborate on complex high-technology products, but in other industries it’s the complexity of a global business process that justifies PLM investment. The fashion and apparel industry is a prime example.

Shopping for clothing is still often local; you go to the shopping centre or the high street.  But the clothes on the rails have had a much longer journey, perhaps from China, and yet they are there, ideally with the right number of each size, fit and colour, following an unseen but complex logistics operation.

Don’t underestimate the complexity of clothing either, says Judy Gnaedig, a director of fashion PLM specialist Lectra. Before joining Lectra, she was a buyer for Marks & Spencer. “There are 80 different components in the average bra,” she says, “and that’s without thinking about colours and sizes.”

PLM has enabled a global fashion industry in which retailers and brands capture their information about designs, and then co-ordinate and control downstream operations, such as manufacturing, that are increasingly outsourced. “When your suppliers were just down the road or an hour away, it wasn’t needed,” says Ms Gnaedig. “But now you often can’t get there easily and your suppliers own the production. A lot of big names don’t do any manufacturing; the trust they put in their supply chain is huge.”

PLM in this context is still very much about “product”, but it also links into other supply chain and customer relationship systems, logistics software, and transactional business systems such as ERP. “PLM is on the web and it’s about data management, but it also pulls together calendar management and budget management,” says Ms Gnaedig. “It’s an enterprise system.”

But globalisation aided by PLM is not just about supply chains. Ms Gnaedig notes a trend in BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and especially China – for clothing companies there to invest in PLM, not as part of export plans to supply global brands, but to meet domestic demand. “These are substantial and growing markets in their own right,” she says, “and they see PLM helping them grow very fast. Maybe later they will leverage themselves into Western brands, but maybe not. Maybe they don’t need to.”

For many medium-sized groups, though, there is still a lot of scope for further PLM development in supply chains. Cabela’s is a North American supplier of outdoor gear: hunting, fishing and the clothing to go with the lifestyle. It is rolling out Flex PLM from PTC as a strategy across its entire business and that includes some of its 300 suppliers, many in South-East Asia.

PLM manager Gabriel Garcia says selected outside contract designers have been included for the first time in the design and development discussions for the spring 2014 range. “PLM gives us a full 360-degree view of the development process and we’re extending it next year with access for some of our partners to see the tech pack, the materials they use and the jobs they’re working on,” he says.

But that is just the beginning. PLM allows Cabela’s Hong Kong office, which handles day-to-day supplier issues locally, to load data such as fabric test results or prototype evaluations in real-time and these will be used in supplier selection. Problems with components, such as zip fasteners or colour matches, can be tackled quickly through the system.

It also helps other kinds of compliance. Items shipped into the United States need to be customs-compliant, and that can be built into manufacturing routines and documented through PLM. In supplier selection, the system can record factors, such as environmental performance and working conditions. “There was always a black hole in the system for any retailer,” says Mr Garcia. “You’ve got the product, but how do you extend the system to the supplier? PLM does that.”