Primed for rapid response

A new concept which integrates all information on a product throughout its life cycle is set to boost efficiency, reduce time to market, and increase customer satisfaction.

E business is forecast to change every element of the way a company operates. Most companies are still focused on the ‘low hanging fruit’ of e-procurement, which covers buying, selling and trading online. But organisations such as IBM are promising total integration of information throughout the lifecycle of a product from design, through manufacture and distribution, to end customers and future web-linked service providers.

This adventurous idea comes under the label of product lifecycle management. It is still early days, but IBM and car manufacturing giant DaimlerChrysler are taking the first steps towards adopting the system themselves. PLM promises greater business efficiency, faster time to market, and the ability to offer more customised products, with easy access to a wealth of product and business information up and down the supply chain.

Today’s product data management (PDM) systems tend to operate in isolation, and are used for design and manufacturing to control geometry and structural information. PLM, on the other hand, will extend beyond the engineering environment. It will link CAD/CAM/CAE and PDM applications with supply chain management (SCM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM), as well as business intelligence and e-commerce functions.

Martin Jetter, general manager of IBM’s PLM initiative claimed at a recent Catia conference that ‘we are witnessing the birth of a new economy which will require major changes in perception throughout the engineering value chain’. He argued that 85% of the value in the product cycle derives from product cycle information on quality, sales, repair, services and installation — the other 15% covers billing. ‘So there is real opportunity for engineers to be key players in the value chain, using collaboration to drive value chains with product content.’

IBM’s PLM business manager Kim Stuckey says: ‘Our vision of PLM is to integrate digital product data for all systems from the design concept, through production and manufacture to dealing with the product in service.’

During the lifecycle of any product, most of the data is held in discrete, disparate islands of information, such as the CADCAM department, the shopfloor, or back office. ‘There is tremendous benefit in creating an active database for all this information in an easily accessible form,’ Stuckey says. PLM has only become feasible because many vendors have decided to adopt open data integration standards, so a wide variety of applications can share common databases linked via the web.

The earliest examples of PLM simply link SCM and design engineering systems to maximise the use of preferred suppliers and standard components to create multiple variants, for example, in the auto industry and aerospace. The next step involves integratingproduct data with sales configuration. In a move towards mass customisation, customers in car showrooms will be able to choose a variety of models and options which can be configured to individual needs. That CRM configuration will then be passed to an SCM requirement planning module, where specific requirements will be developed and managed, using previously defined configurations or specific customisation. The SCM data will then pass to the PLM system where it enters the conceptual design stage, to help determine the final engineering configuration. Parts and materials will be sourced using a component supplier management system.

The on-line PLM portal will be used to handle all engineering stages as the design matures, including verification of manufacturability using advanced simulation, and issue of the final manufacturing bill of materials. Rapid and easily accessible data exchange will allow tooling and material resource suppliers to react quickly up and down the supply chain. The information will then be passed to ERP and SCM systems for production stages. Subsequently, the data will be available for after-sales support and service providers.

This ambitious PLM concept was launched last June by IBM following alliances with e-supply chain management experts i2 Technologies and Siebel, as well as building closer collaboration with SAP and beefing up its long-held relationship with CAD/CAM/CAE partner Dassault Systemes, which offers Catia, Delmia and Enovia PLM solutions.

PLM demands full supply chain integration, often with standard parts and platforms. IBM, i2 and Siebel have identified 26 touchpoints where data needs to be integrated within the supply chain for effective PLM. These cover areas such as the exchange of bill of materials, and information relating to standard parts.

IBM Global Services is developing a standard integration solution with alliance partners and key customers in the automotive and aerospace industries. These solutions will be available by the year end, Stuckey says.

He reckons it will be a few years before all the facets necessary for PLM are in place. Data will have to be accessible on a variety of hardware including personal digital appliances, and will require extensive, reliable networks with associated bandwidth. ‘Most of the individual elements exist, but PLM depends on the provision of robust integration to pull these applications together,’ he says.

DaimlerChrysler is at the forefront of PLM development with its FastCar programme, which it is carrying out with eConnect. Speaking exclusively to The Engineer, eConnect director Karenann Terrell says: ‘Fastcar is unquestionably the highest priority in our e-business initiatives, and will have enormous impact on our business. It is a flagship programme that spans our vehicle landscape from product creation to volume production and back to our customers through eConnect.’

The internet-based programme will connect the car group’s design, engineering, manufacturing, quality, finance, procurement and supply, sales and marketing activities. It will provide real-time transparency to the product development process. ‘Most importantly it will dramatically increase the speed and precision of development, reduce waste, and increase the quality of products,’ according to senior vice-president Gary Dilts at the system’s launch last August. ‘DaimlerChrysler is not simply web-enabling old systems, but creating a completely new way to communicate information and data within the organisation.’

Fastcar is a new e-architecture that will drive product creation, linking the company’s Catia design pipeline with the business infrastructure. It is a natural progression from the Chrysler Development System which focused on product innovation and quality, while reducing costs and cycle time. The Fastcar programme will provide dynamic, real-time and precise assessment of all metrics during the development process.

DaimlerChrysler is working with Dassault Systemes, i2 and IBM. Despite the name, the programme is not just about getting cars faster to market. ‘We consider it is less important to have faster order-to-delivery than to focus on becoming more efficient in the development process, production and customer connection. Fastcar is focused on efficiency and driving down waste in the full cycle,’ says Terrell.

‘The new e-architecture allows us to interface with our suppliers in real-time,’ she says. ‘Instead of just sharing CAD information, we are able to collaborate with suppliers on business process goals as well via the web.’

On-line collaboration is already showing improvements in costs, investment and timing. Most of the collaborative work has been carried out with tier-one suppliers. Terrell says: ‘Joint sharing of timing-related information through the web-based collaborative network gives suppliers real-time visibility to design changes. In any development there are numerous changes, so the faster suppliers can feedback and react, the greater the impact and the avoidance of purchasing obsolete tooling, for example.’

Collaboration will also reduce product design costs as material suppliers will be able to react to design changes far earlier in the product development cycle.

‘The beauty of Fastcar is that it only relies on a web browser for communica with suppliers,’ she says. Security of the system is currently maintained using a hard-wired system called ANX. However, the future will lie in using the Covisint e-trading exchange as a secure portal into which DaimlerChrysler will feed information, for access by suppliers and internal users.

Total enterprise integration for PLM is about five years away, predicts Terrell. The pilot stage is being implemented in select vehicle systems, such as body-in-white exterior. And there are plans to scale up to cover the complete vehicle.

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