Design for life

The principles of product lifecycle management are popping up across manufacturing, despite the continuing reticence of some design-centred firms to adopt PLM software. Charles Clarke reports.

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), an IT strategy for managing products and design data from conception to end of life, seems to be polarising the manufacturing sector into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

Companies that first embraced PLM tended to be those engaged in wider production processes, which needed to share data within and across enterprises; at the other end of the scale were ‘design centric’ companies, whose interest in computers was purely on the level of producing geometric designs.

The distinction between process-centred (or enterprise-centred) and design- centred software users dates back to 1997, when design software specialist Dassault Systèmes acquired SolidWorks as part of a strategy to provide IT services covering the entire production process.

While there is still a distinction between those that adopt either the process or design approach, today even small companies are accepting the PLM concept. According to Mike Burkett, research director of business consultant AMR Research: ‘PLM is not just for big companies — it is for small firms that deal with complex processes.’

The leading PLM suppliers in the CAD field are UGS, IBM/Dassault Systèmes and PTC, with other process or product data management (PDM) vendors such as Matrixone, Documentum and Agile (see www.johnstark.com/epwl4.html for a more detailed list of suppliers).

Meanwhile, the design-centric end of the software market is lead by SolidWorks, Solid Edge and Autodesk, with a clutch of ‘also rans’. But at the margins of this market, PLM is being adopted by companies whose geometric design process is connected to PDM systems, web portals or data exchange management software.

SolidWorks seems to relish its design-centric orientation — you can sit through one of its presentations without hearing the ‘PLM’ acronym once, whereas its competitors mention it twice in every sentence.

However, even Solidworks has virtually every PLM base covered. To paraphrase SolidWorks’ Simon Booker ‘you might call it PLM, but I couldn’t possibly comment’.

US company Hayes of Wichita, Kansas, which makes garden gnomes, lawn ornaments and planters, is a typical example of a small enterprise that has adopted PLM, recognising that it had to change its way of working to keep up with its fickle market. In the ‘lawn-product’ field, last year’s best-selling item can quickly become this year’s reject. So the challenge for Hayes is to sift a few successful products from the thousands of designs submitted by freelancers.

In the past, designers might submit two dozen preliminary sketches and Hayes’s in-house modelling shop would build a prototype from each. At this point the marketing, sales and manufacturing departments would suggest changes, each requiring a new prototype.

There was no easy way to record who requested which design change, or why. Nor did Hayes keep records of prototype weights, dimensions, material costs, or even design drawings. If someone wanted to buy a batch, the company would have to reverse-engineer the products from the sample (‘how are they still in business?’, I hear you cry).

All this meant that prototypes would be ‘express shipped’ back and forth to Wichita. Then came more changes and more prototypes. Because much of the manufacturing was carried out overseas, the prototype then had to be shipped again. Without a database of product information, the company ran the risk of poor communications with its design and manufacturing partners, which could result in costly mistakes at the factory.

In short, Hayes’s way of working created product life-cycle mayhem.

To gain control of the situation Hayes chose the Matrix10 PLM package from MatrixOne, because it required minimal customisation and was well suited to tracking consumer goods. Designers now load digital sketches of concepts into Matrix10 through a web interface. About a quarter of the concepts are eliminated at this stage. The remaining designs receive full digital renderings, and a second review narrows the field by half. The surviving designs are translated into physical prototypes that Hayes’s sales people take on the road.

Everyone involved with the manufacturing stage can access full design and technical information on every product. And at the shipping stage, customers can check packaging dimensions and the number of items in a carton — important for the tightly run distribution systems of Wal-Mart and other retail giants.

PLM implementations can be pricey, but here’s the clincher: while Hayes spent roughly $250,000 to license and implement its Matrix10 package, it has saved $200,000 in express-shipping charges alone since it started using the software in July 2003.

Hayes’s prototype costs have also fallen significantly, and the company’s eight product managers are handling more than twice the new concepts they did in 2002. Plus the staff now get more sleep at night.

PLM users usually say that the major benefits of the approach are better management of their workflow and synchronisation of data across enterprises. Like the ad says, it ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’.

PLM is not rocket science — it is just a business tool based on joined-up thinking and taking every opportunity to allow computers to take the strain internally and externally.

Returning to the question of whether an enterprise-centric or design-centric IT approach gives the right service to the user, at a recent presentation it was suggested that these new, powerful and affordable PLM-based design systems were doing draftsmen and designers out of a job.

However, the opposite is true — fast systems mean you know you’ve got it wrong sooner, so rather than making engineers redundant, fast systems improve product quality substantially. So who really cares which centricity is right, as long as the job gets done and it’s the best job you can do.