Solutions for life

After six years or so of getting used to PLM as the ‘catch-all’ acronym for high end manufacturing technology, the alphabet soup that characterises technical software marketing seems to be nurturing a challenger.


After six years or so of getting used to PLM as the ‘catch-all’ acronym for high end manufacturing technology, the alphabet soup that characterises technical software marketing seems to be nurturing a challenger.

Seasoned industry commentators Ralph Grabowski and Jeff Rowe in the US have recently suggested that a potential replacement is 4DV. This is defined as 4D (3D + Time) integrated with Virtualisation — physics-based, animated 3D rendering of CAD models.

Dassault Systemes, arguably the pioneer of PLM as we know it, is leading the charge with Virtools4. With this you can create and experience the work behaviour of an employee in a manufacturing plant, or visualise the ergonomics of an operator as he drives a forklift through the factory.

‘This new release demonstrates Dassault Systemes’ ambition to democratise 3D,’ said Dassault’s executive vice-president, Strategy R&D, Dominique Florack. ‘The new Life Platform brings to the market a unique solution to deploy 3D experiences pervasively on personal computers, games consoles, intranets and the web, and shows our commitment to bringing the power of 3D to all communities.’

According to the company, this ‘3D For All’ release allows users to imagine, share and experience highly interactive 3D content and provides enhancements and new capabilities.

Among these is Product-Context-Scenario (PCS), a highly-intuitive means of capturing the 3D experience and mapping it to product behaviour, as well as the experience of the contextual environment.

With PCS, the Virtools4 Life platform allows for the creation of virtual experiences such as driving, shopping, usage, maintenance, and marketing.

Two more new products, 3D XE Player and 3D Office Player, have been introduced to the system for deployment on corporate intranets. These products are PC-based and allow both 3D specia ists and non-specialists to experience products and situations in context. Providing ‘a common language’ for everyone to share 3D experiences gives them a unique means to fully comprehend a product in the most intuitive way possible.

The Life platform also extends the variety of target environments for deploying 3D experiences, and now supports Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS computers, Microsoft Xbox and Sony PSP game consoles, intranets with 3D Office and 3D XE players, internet with 3D Life Player, as well as immersive environments.

This broad scope underlines the diversity of possible deployments for the software and provides diverse communities with a powerful tool to create and experience life-like content.

‘When I was first exposed to Dassault’s acquisition of Virtools last year, I didn’t quite get the reason or the fit,’ said Rowe. It seemed just another engineering software company getting into gaming and entertainment.

‘However, since the acquisition, things have begun to make more sense, even if they haven’t yet come to full fruition. The interactive 3D development nature of Virtools seems like it could go far beyond gaming and entertainment to encompass and include some of Dassault’s other offerings, such as CATIA, DELMIA, or ENOVIA. Whether this will actually happen, though, is another matter.’

He said that Virtools software gives life to 3D by creating applications with game-like 3D interactivity. ‘I guess you could say it’s a multimedia production tool that takes the animation capabilities found in most major MCAD products to the next level.’

Virtools has a lot of potential as a communication tool for marketing and educational purposes, as well as a simulation tool for evaluating models and other types of engineering projects.

Where Dassault goes others are sure to follow — especially if they already have products that come close.

Autodesk has previously animated realistic rendering capability with 3ds Max. More recently, with the acquisition of Alias and Maya, and UGS with EAI in the late 1990s, it was capable of producing computer-generated animated sequences that would rival anything Hollywood was offering at the time.

More immediate PLM lessons were on display at the 2nd European PLM Summit in London earlier this year. Here a variety of presenters and industry veterans held workshops, adding practical support to the latest technology.

Peter Thorne, director of consulting at Cambashi, attended the workshop hosted by UGS, entitled ‘Powering new product development and introduction (NPDI) success’.

He said: ‘I liked the way UGS addressed the business processes that make up NPDI. The company was looking at the big picture of NPDI, handling the delicate subject of i nnovation and positioning PLM as a tool that can help.’

He pointed out that in many ways this approach is not new — vendors have been using business processes as a way of introducing their software capabilities for many years.

But he added: ‘In this case, UGS seemed more interested in the processes themselves, and didn’t simply use them to lead up to a “this is why you need our product” sort of presentation. Of course, the company was indicating where PLM fits in and the value of capturing product data for re-use throughout a product’s lifecycle. However, it seemed comfortable enough with its technology to avoid making it the focal point. For me this was refreshing, and enhanced the value of its workshop.’

Thorne went on to say that the UGS discussion blended examples, vision and pragmatism. He felt that it will have helped managers responsible for NPDI to bridge the gap between the realities of day-to-day tasks and the value of higher level processes, strategies and tools.

‘These insights are the framework every practitioner needs to plan change and the appropriate ways to use tools — including PLM. The best-practice briefing documents distributed by UGS as part of this workshop provide a structure and agenda for business initiatives relevant to just about every company’s NPDI processes.

‘Coming away from the workshop, my overriding feeling was that these were people you would want to talk to if you were trying to find your way through the maze of product development and introduction processes,’ Thorne said.

The other challenge for the PLM industry is to make it applicable to small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), rather than just to the large automotive and aerospace concerns that have the time and resources to deploy these applications internationally.

This challenge has been met to some extent by ‘on-demand’ hosted PLM software suites that offer quick start- up and a change from the complex IT infrastructures that are normally used to run enterprise PLM systems.

In addition, on-demand applications offer a wide range of ‘big company’ PLM capabilities without requiring dedicated IT personnel, or making any major changes in company practice. This all helps SMEs to get on with doing what they do best.

Today, SMEs and larger companies can use a range of hosted PLM software offered by Agile, Arena Solutions and PTC, along with on-demand collaboration systems from other vendors, such as CoCreate and the partnership between UGS and Autoweb.

Arena Solutions — which started as BOM.com — was developed specifically as an online hosted service, originally to help manufacturing companies handle multilevel bills of material (BOMs) in an efficient manner. Now it offers two tiers of software: Arena Workgroup, for start-up companies or workgroups within an organisation, and Arena Professional, for enterprise users.

Workgroup offers basic capabilities, including part and item control, BOM management, document vaulting, costing and version control.

Users can migrate to Professional, which includes change management, request and issue tracking, CAD/ERP interaction, advanced supplier access, and sourcing tools.

PTC has a two-tier (Standard and Dedicated) PLM on-demand solution in conjunction with IBM hosting and consulting. The standard product is geared mostly for SMEs, while the dedicated version is aimed at larger companies that prefer outsourced IT.

On demand uses PTC software together with IBM middleware and is hosted at a large IBM facility in Boulder, Colorado. For smaller companies, the software offers collaboration, vaulting, and overall management in an environment similar to an application service provider model.

IBM, in conjunction with PLC, also offers consulting services to companies that may need to transform their business practices using PLM.

With the on demand service, non-engineers can participate in the design process using embedded ProductView visualisation to interrogate, validate, and mark up design information.

Addressing small companies’ needs has been Agile’s forté from its inception. As a sign of its commitment to SMEs, it recently introduced Agile Advantage 2006, the latest version of Agile’s PLM software suite for SMEs.

This suite now includes Product Compliance Management, Standards Compliance Management, Engineering Data eXchange, and enhanced security and search capabilities.

Advantage recognises the different needs of SMEs competing in a global economy. It continues to feature the characteristics that have made it a leading PLM software supplier for small and medium-size customers.

These include ease of management; ease of implementation; quick time to benefit; low total cost of ownership; and flexible licensing options that take into account limited IT resources, including Agile OnDemand— a software as a service option — as well as more traditional licensing.

The latest enhancements provide SMEs with a more comprehensive overview of the entire product lifecycle, helping them to speed up product innovation, reduce product development costs, enhance quality and improve profitability.

So PLM — or, in its latest form, 4DV — is thriving at all levels. With leading vendors now offering PLM-on-demand facilities, there has never been a better time to get involved.