Managing products from conception to disposal

Industry is increasingly integrating people, data, processes and business systems to benefit from product lifecycle management, writes Nick Martindale

The concept of product lifecycle management (PLM) was first developed in the automotive industry in the mid-1980s, but it is perhaps an indictment of just how vague the notion is that providing an accurate definition remains tricky a quarter of a century later.

“It is a chronic challenge in this space,” says Kevin Prendeville, lead of Accenture’s North American innovation and product development practice. “PLM means many things – and therefore nothing.

“The way we describe it is all the business capabilities required to take a product or a service from idea through to the end of its life. It covers everything from ideas management to programme management to development of the product, direct material sourcing, product launch and maintenance.”

Use of PLM has now evolved from first-generation users, in sectors such as aerospace, to industries including oilfield services, food and beverage, retail, apparel and consumer packaging, he adds.

The last decade has also seen the concept become more established as an enterprise application, taking its place alongside other practices, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and supply chain management, says Peter Thorne, managing director of analysts Cambashi. “This has been driven by firms recognising they can keep things moving faster and at lower cost if they stop treating design, engineering and manufacturing as silos,” he says.

It lets people foresee the impact on the environment and the economy of any product or service, while giving businesses a sustainable competitive advantage

“Its technical applications make it possible to dip inside the package and answer questions of design intent, such as confirming that test sequences will verify requirements are being met; tracking product characteristics back to the original requirements; and looking for implications of the use of materials, manufacturing processes, suppliers and design features.”

The concept has also benefited from the increasing need for organisations to become involved in the entire lifecycle of products, including the environmental issues around disposure or recycling, says Gavin McDermott, managing director, Northern Europe, at software vendor Dassault Systèmes.

“The dream is that it lets people foresee the impact on the environment and the economy of any product or service, while giving businesses a sustainable competitive advantage,” he says. “It lets people easily understand and experience how products, services and even whole cities interact with and affect other systems and the overall environment.”

There are, though, still plenty of obstacles to overcome before PLM reaches its potential. Roger Tempest, co-founder of the PLM Interest Group, says persuading boards to take PLM seriously – particularly when there are costs around IT systems – is difficult, while assessing which systems can work alongside existing applications is also a headache. “Then there’s the management aspect where the person who is responsible for PLM has a much wider role than you would expect,” he says. “Someone working on PLM will need to get manufacturing, purchasing, pre-production and field service people to work together, and that can create a barrier.”

In the longer term, three issues will continue to drive adoption, says Cambashi’s Mr Thorne: the growth of industry networks as organisations look to work closer with suppliers; the emergence of software as a core component of products; and the development of social networking approaches to team communication.

Mr Prendeville, meanwhile, urges any organisation looking to adopt PLM to have a clear end-goal in mind. “They need to identify what the outcome is that they’re trying to achieve and, based on that, decide how they are going to define the PLM programme,” he says. “It sounds simple, but often people get very focused on software and don’t think about the end-to-end business process. Ultimately that’s what the goal should be.”