There’s only one version of the truth

Linking software systems to make better use of disparate data pays dividends, as Malcolm Wheatley reports


In a flat market, touring caravan and motor home manufacturer Eldiss has seen its share of sales grow. The reason? Innovative products, delivered through a long-term investment in specialist design software.

And now the company is upgrading its design technology to a broader system of product lifecycle management (PLM). 3D computer-aided design (CAD) tools, digital prototyping, product visualisation and performance simulation – taken together, the goal is a complete transformation of the Eldiss design and development workflow, delivering a fully integrated and seamless design-to-manufacture capability.

“We’re aiming to reduce our time to market to weeks or months rather than taking up to a year,” says Eldiss project manager David Styles.

And key to the eventual success of the project is the objective of linking the emerging PLM system to Eldiss’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, in other words, the company’s transactional backbone, which handles its sales, purchasing, accounting and inventory control functions. In particular, says Mr Styles, there’s a need to build links between the design system and the bill of materials held in the ERP system.

“It’s more of a necessity than an aim,” he says. “We want a completely integrated process, connecting the weight of a product, for example, with cost data, in order to test a design’s commercial validity and to produce a bill of materials for the supply chain.”

And such integration is increasingly something that manufacturers aspire to achieve.

“PLM’s strong suit is collaboration and design, but other enterprise systems have their own, very different, strong suits,” says Tom Shoemaker, vice-president for PLM at CAD and PLM software firm PTC. “The strong suit of ERP, for instance, is around how products are built, where the parts are sourced from, and how much it costs to source the parts and build the products. So it makes sense for engineers and designers to be able to see and access that information.”

We’re aiming to reduce our time to market to weeks or months rather than taking up to a year

If a component, such as a pump, fastener or valve, is already in use within the business, for example, then it makes sense to design that same component into other products, says Dan Burrows, account director for manufacturing industry at management consultants Waterstons.

Pooling volumes in this way not only reduces the burden on buyers, he adds, but also offers opportunities to exert greater price leverage on suppliers. Likewise, armed with the information that certain suppliers have a poor delivery reliability or quality performance, designers can make a conscious decision to prefer the offerings of other, more reliable, suppliers.

Likewise, it makes sense to link PLM systems with data held in field service management, maintenance and customer relationship management systems, says Professor Rajkumar Roy, director of the EPSRC [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council] Centre in Through-Life Engineering Services at Cranfield University.

These systems capture a huge amount of data about how, why and when products break down or require maintenance, data which is not normally visible to designers sitting at their desks.

“If you can inform design decisions with operational service data, you can reduce maintenance costs by making products more reliable, and prolong product and component life,” says Professor Roy. The result is products which are easier to maintain, longer lasting and more reliable.

And attention is increasingly focusing on getting data not just from maintenance and field service administration systems, but directly from products and devices themselves using the so-called Internet of Things.

PLM vendor PTC, for instance, has just announced the $112-million acquisition of ThingWorx, a developer of technology to enable such connections.

“In the Internet of Things era, streams of real time operational data are captured, analysed and shared to deepen a company’s understanding of its products’ performance, use, and reliability,” says PTC.

But the benefits of PLM integration go further than simply better informing design choices, say experts.

“True integration is when something changes within the ERP system and it instantly changes within PLM as well,” says Andy Hadley, PLM solutions manager at Symetri, a firm specialising in digital design training and consultancy using Autodesk design software, and which has been closely involved in the implementation at Eldiss. “It’s about having a ‘single version of the truth’, without the costs of data duplication and manually re-keying information.”

Better still, adds Neil Ferguson-Lee, solutions architect at Microsoft Dynamics enterprise applications gold partner eBECS, true two-way integration improves data quality. “Without proper integration, data gets re-entered manually, giving rise not only to the possibility of simple keying errors, but also errors of interpretation,” he says. “The result: two or more versions of the truth and a damaging debate about whose version is correct.”

FUTURE PLM TECHNOLOGIES

Enterprise resource planning

Field service management

Maintenance

Customer relationship management

Internet of Things