One size doesn’t have to fit all

Smaller firms should not be daunted by product lifecycle management systems developed for large-scale operations as there’s a size to fit all, writes John Pullin

Ignore the software vendors, ignore the literature, ignore the academics – go out and decide for yourselves. David Keeley, engineering manager at Suretank, says mid-sized companies like his should find out for themselves the benefit they might get from product lifecycle management (PLM).

Mr Keeley is leading the implementation of Autodesk PLM 360 at Suretank, an Irish company that makes secure tanks for handling chemicals, acids, fuels and other goods for worldwide customers in regulated industries, such as oil and gas. His priorities for PLM are some way from the conventional routes into the technology as a clever system for storing product design data.

“The starting point for PLM is usually on the computer-aided design (CAD) management function, but we wanted to look at areas that provide more value for Suretank,” he says. “Our priorities are capturing customer requirements and loading them into a technical specification and then managing the delivery of it; making sure that what we supply is what we said we’d do and what the customer wants.”

For Mr Keeley’s boss, technical director Dermot Short, a key factor in persuading his boardroom colleagues to adopt PLM has been the ability to start small with urgent tasks and then grow it. “PLM used to be mentioned in the same breath as ERP [enterprise resource planning] and other systems that are the preserve of large organisations with huge IT departments. We don’t have an IT organisation: the users here will be implementing it.”

Small and mid-size businesses found plenty of reasons to be daunted by earlier PLM systems that were developed primarily to handle product information from complex and large-scale assemblies, often for cars or planes or ships.

“The mid-market has been a problem because the earlier systems focused so much on the mechanical CAD side,” says Leon Lauritsen, director of Minerva, a Danish-owned consultancy linked with the Aras open source PLM software. “They were all very complicated and in a mid-size company just how many design engineers are there? You focus all the effort on maybe just 5 to 10 per cent of the company and if it’s just two or three people they can probably manage the CAD files in the way they’ve always done.”

Aras customer Nick Redfern backs Mr Lauritsen’s view, but comes from a different angle. The new production introduction manager at telecoms start-up Sub10 Systems, based in Devon, says his company’s products are indeed complex, but the mechanical elements are limited and not the main focus. “Big PLM is centred on CAD and that’s right if you’re making a helicopter,” he says. “But the universe in my products is centred on electronics and there is also a strong software element.”

What Mr Redfern is looking to achieve is “orderliness” in the creation of new products, and PLM will record product and process details for later re-use: it’s a business process driver as much as a product-driven need.

“We’re a small company and we think about the money we’re spending and also I want it to be simple,” he says. “A key objective was a system I could grow into in terms of bandwidth, so I didn’t have to have it all working immediately to get benefit, and I don’t have to sit everyone down and stop doing business for six months while we configure it.”

Being able to start PLM small and grow its applications is a driver for adoption by mid-size companies and the advent of cloud computing, where data is held remotely, helps a lot. It removes the need for big IT infrastructure and updates happen seamlessly.

“It’s very important that it’s scalable,” says Mr Keeley at Suretank. “So initially we’ll have a very simple process, but the options are all there. We don’t have to invest in high-end modules to achieve what we want to.”