This article focuses on the need for improvement in product lifecycle management (PLM) interoperation. PLM interoperation would allow companies to work with the best tools for its business and not be limited in communicating with customers and suppliers. PLM systems are getting a fresh look and one should expect to see more of the type now often called end-to-end open systems. The secret is the middleware, dubbed service-oriented architecture (SOA), which links all these applications in an interconnected web. IBM introduced plans for its Product Development Integration Framework, which will tie all business applications via SOA to create an end-to-end, open PLM system. The company is also marketing an enterprise service bus that can loosely couple its own business applications with other applications, which will then operate on the system. According to an expert, by linking research to engineering, Samsung’s products could hit the market quicker than if the two functions worked separately, and products could be designed in ways that had only just been conceptualized.
Q: When is a product life cycle management system more than a PLM system?
A: When it smoothly links everyone involved in the company's business-including suppliers and aftermarket dealers-no matter what software application they're using, with no clunky translation. When it electronically ties people in sales and marketing to engineers, so they can all exchange ideas before a product is even truly conceptualized. When it tracks product returns and part malfunctions, so engineers know exactly what to change about future designs. And when it plugs right into legacy systems to retrieve old data in no time and to quickly bring an acquired company into the fold.
PLM systems are getting a new look and you should expect to see more of the type now often called end-to-end open systems. Openness is the new buzzword as it relates to PLM. The trick is that these systems won't have to rely on one vendor's PLM system across the board.
Rather, they'll be a series of different applications, many of which serve different purposes-like computer-aided design and inventory control. They'll be tied via middleware to allow disparate software codes to speak back and forth, and to let manufacturers bring their own applications into the system. The secret is the middleware, dubbed service-oriented architecture, or SOA, which links all these applications in an interconnected web.
SOA isn't a technology in and of itself; rather, it's a way to loosely couple a company's installed and varied software systems, regardless of platform or protocol.
You can think of SOA as analogous to schlepping your desktop computer from America to Europe. As it stands now, you'd need a converter to plug your machine into European power outlets. An SOA infrastructure is tantamount to a means of plugging it right in without giving a thought to messy meltdowns. Nothing has really changed behind the walls of your hotel, or even within your computer. And you never see the converter. It just kind of happens, much like service-oriented architecture.
"It acts as a universal translator that transforms the many proprietary pro to cols currently in use around the world into a standards-based universal interface," said Bernd Patzold, the chief executive officer at Pro step AG of Darmstadt, Germany, which makes product data integration software and is an IBM business partner.
IBM is one of the first players to enter this space. In December, the company introduced plans for its Product Development Integration Framework, which will tie all business applications via SOA to create an end-to-end, open PLM system, said Mark Wilterding, a global PLM leader at IBM. To deliver its PDIF product, IBM plans to package its various software applications linked via middleware as a complete system much like enterprise resource planning systems, but with a unique focus on coupling installed applications, rather than bringing in one big, new information architecture. And with a focus on the engineering and manufacturing realm.
The company is also marketing an enterprise service bus that can loosely couple its own business applications with other applications, which will then operate on the system. They'll all interoperate independently of the underlying platform.
Eight PLM and other software vendors have signed on to the IBM project, pledging to build products that can work within this open framework, so that companies using those vendors' systems could easily pass information back and forth among applications. The eight vendor companies are: Agile Software of San Jose, Calif.; Centric Software, also of San Jose; Engineous Software of Cary, N.C.; Geometric Software Solutions of Mumbai, India; MSC Software of Santa Ana, Calif.; Prostep AG; PTC of Need ham, Mass.; and UGS of Piano, Texas.
For now, customers are only just getting on board with PDIF, although about 40 companies are set to implement it next year, according to Waiter Donaldson, IBM's general manager of PLM. These soon-to-be customers aren't ready to speak, although Wilterding expects that to change soon.
End-to-end PLM is meant to tie not only manufacturing and engineering software-CAD to bill-of-materials, for example-but also CAD to suppliers and marketing to aftermarket.
The point is, whether it's with Big Blue's PDIF or with another SOA system, data moves freely among systems; no one need take into account that they're working on two separate systems, which by rights shouldn't be interacting so easily. Other SOA vendors include Oracle, HewlettPackard, SAP, and Microsoft, although none of those vendors specifically targets the PLM sector.
The quest for PLM openness is at the forefront of everyone's minds of late. The more a vendor does to make its software operate smoothly with both its own line of applications and with other developers' systems, the more it will reap from the return of investment on its solutions, said Charles Foundyller, chief executive officer at engineering software market research firm Daratech in Cambridge, Mass.
PLM interoperation would allow companies to work with the best tools for its business and not be limited in communicating with customers and suppliers, he added.
Why Here. Why Now
Why this seemingly sudden interest in implementing SOA ideas in the PLM space? The architecture is ready and the time is ripe, analysts say. PLM has evolved from a technology used mainly by engineers to one that enterprise heads know they need to adopt across their manufacturing operation to remain competitive, said Marc Halpern, who heads PLM research at the Gartner Group Inc., the analysis firm in Stamford, Conn.
"In many ways, PLM today is where ERP was 10 years ago," he said.
Just as ERP systems integrated disparate functions, such as finance, inventory management, and material requirements planning, PLM tools are being used to tie together product design, engineering documents, product management, and configuration data, he added.
Halpern said that SOA is poised to influence how PLM will look in the not-too-distant future because it gives users a way to interact with all the different applications and activities that bring a product to market. SOA offers a way to tie together these tasks and to easily link outside suppliers. So SOA is taking its first steps into the PLM realm, with companies like IBM announcing their entrance.
To illustrate the benefits of linking the marketing and sales with engineering systems, Wilterding points to Eric Kim. Kim once headed global marketing at Samsung Electronics and was one of the drivers behind Samsung's turnabout from purveyor of rather stodgy electronic goods to seller of hip, must-have cell phones, flat-panel plasma TVs, and the like. Kim holds a master's degree in engineering. from UCLA and an M.B.A. from Harvard.
His combination of engineering and marketing background led Kim to order a redesign of Samsung's Nexio handheld device. It was successful in Korea, but Kim's reading of the market research convinced him that it needed a better screen, a keyboard, and a wireless local area network connection before its stateside debut.
It was around that time Kim talked to IBM, outlining a system he envisioned that could funnel market research information to engineers and keep ideas moving back and forth. Kim's researchers showed that users in Asian countries were looking for smaller handheld phones; they wanted tons of features included like cameras and games. The pairing of phone and photography was unusual then, but has become commonplace now.
By linking research to engineering, Samsung's products could hit the market quicker than if the two functions worked separately, and products could be designed in ways that had only just been conceptualized.
"Market researchers come up with ideas for new technology, engineers create it, and the marketing department positions it in the marketplace for commercialization," Wilterding said. All would be served better by seamless communication along an end-to-end PLM system.
As the name implies, end-to-end PLM systems go beyond a company's walls. Not only can a company's suppliers get in on the SOA architecture, but aftermarket dealers can be tapped into such a system as well.
Although the technology isn't yet available, IBM foresees giving aftermarket dealers the capability to use a radio frequency identification reader or another, similar device to scan returned parts. The parts would have been affixed with RFID tags during manufacture. The scanned information would be automatically sent to the manufacturer's PLM system.
IBM has already proved in its lab that the idea can work.
The ability to track all its parts in the field can help a company spot trouble fast. If a steering column keeps failing in the same way, that information has to 'get back quickly to executives and to the engineers who designed it, Wilterding said. Dealers work independently and don't necessarily know that what they think of as a few isolated cases of malfunction might really be a trend. A PLM system could extract such trends from aftermarket data.
The PLM system could be programmed to alert executives and engineers when particular part failures pass a certain number, for example, so a specific problem could be isolated right away, Wilterding said.
And end-to-end would go beyond what manufacturers sometimes think of as a product's end. PLM systems could be tied to end-of-life requirements that ensure proper product disposal. They could serve as an easy way for manufacturers to prove they're in compliance with the requirements: All information for disparate parts and products is available at one's fingertips, after all.
End-to-end PLM could tap into legacy information. Valuable information is languishing on outdated software. Maybe part of a subassembly still used today was originally designed in one of those legacy systems and engineers would like to get their hands on the data.
"Our developers are working to get data from very old applications written maybe 20 years ago and to capture that," Wilterding said. "All companies plan to migrate their legacy data to commercially available applications, but they have to totally rewrite it. Now they wouldn't need to."
Like the aftermarket return system, IBM has proven legacy conversion in its lab and will eventually include this feature in the end-to-end SOA plan. Some companies can do this now. At Centric Software, Ron Watson, vice president of product development, said his company's Open PLM system uses an SOA approach to retrieve legacy data from. A company's outdated or no longer used applications.
So while SOA is making inroads into the PLM marketplace, the open approach to application architecture has the potential to reshape the way that systems of the near future will look.