Analytical Instrument Startup Clears Its Path to Growth with PLM
Kyle Maxey posted on November 19, 2015 |
Excellims uses PLM tools to manage complex products and robust growth.
One of Excellim's ion mobility spectroscopy systems, the GA2100.

One of Excellim's ion mobility spectroscopy systems, the GA2100.

Massachusetts-based Excellims is one of the world’s foremost producers of ion mobility spectroscopy systems. The company provides these complex analytical devices to a number of industries, including chemical, food and beverage, security and forensics and, of course, fundamental research.

The uptake of their unique designs has been excellent, and Excellims has been growing rapidly as a result. The downside for the product development team is that this mounting customer interest quickly led to a challenge in managing all the orders.

As Mark Osgood, vice president of engineering at Excellims, described it, “Managing Excellims’ growth has been like building an airplane in the sky.”

As you can imagine, building ion mobility spectroscopy systems isn’t that easy. While the company strives to standardize certain products, many of these machines are custom-designed and built to order. Though that might not seem like a problem on its face, when a sensitive scientific instrument has to be meticulously assembled from over 5,000 parts, assemblies can become complex in a hurry.

To add to that complexity, Osgood and his engineering team were also breaking new ground on product enhancements that would make their machines perform better and have new capabilities. As development was happening across Excellims’ product line, new sub-assemblies were being added to each product, making the spectroscopy system more useful and more complex.

Spreadsheets Are Not the Answer to BOM Management

Woah! How are you going to manage that spreadsheet?

Woah! How are you going to manage that spreadsheet?

In the beginning, Excellims used spreadsheets to organize their product bill of materials (BOMs). But with products that are modular, and sub-assemblies that can be common across products, the nested nature of the spreadsheets became almost unworkable. The company knew that the situation wasn’t going to cut it if it was going to scale.

As Osgood explained, “Soon our product spreadsheets were so complex that we needed a spreadsheet guru just to navigate all the complexity built into our products.” If customers requested any changes to a product design, technicians couldn’t access the data themselves. They had to ask the expert to explore the deep recesses of a spreadsheet. Because of the complexity of the company’s spreadsheets, the manufacture of each machine took more time than Osgood and his team would have liked, and created a drag effect on the entire development process. Eventually, certain processes would be end-run in the interests of getting the product out the door.

Osgood knew that a change had to be made, and that a database-driven system was necessary to manage all of the items, BOMs and change orders that Excellims’ product engineers and production technicians would use on a daily basis.

Sourcing a Solution to the BOM and Item Management Challenge

The Excellims team looked at open-source PLM solutions, such as OpenPLM and other proprietary software. However, Osgood concluded that open-source solutions couldn’t be implemented without a ton of heavy lifting from his IT team (which, in true start-up fashion, is also Osgood). In order to minimize the work required from IT, Osgood searched extensively for cloud-based solutions. Along the way, he learned two things:

1.       Well-featured cloud-based systems couldn’t be customized to meet their needs.

2.       Hosted and cloud-native are different terms. Hosted applications can run very slowly, whereas software that is designed for the cloud can run as though it is local.

PLM 360 makes managing complex products and their BOMs much more manageable.

PLM 360 makes managing complex products and their BOMs much more manageable.

After some extensive research, Osgood found Autodesk’s PLM 360. This cloud-based solution met Excellims’ requirements for low costs of both licensing and implementation. Osgood also mentioned that PLM 360 was customizable, allowing his team to create an interface that worked with their needs. Excellims used this feature to import the BOM data from the company’s spreadsheets into the Autodesk package and reorganize it into a more accessible format.

Down the road, Excellims also plans to integrate PLM 360 with a cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution from NetSuite. 

“In today's rapidly moving world, the traditional maxim of PLM of ‘one truth’ is not sufficient. The new requirement is: one truth, in real-time, globally available 24/7. A well-engineered SAS-based system makes this possible even for a startup to achieve. Moving forward, Excellims will continue to leverage cloud-based services to integrate not just product structure data and change management, but also inventory, production process status, test records and product support status,” said Osgood.

Excellims’ use of cloud-based PLM tools to manage the litany of sub-assemblies embedded in their products is a prime example of how software can clear the way for growth. Because everyone from the company president to production technicians have a view into the most up-to-date product information, work can continue without production stops. Not only does that increase productivity across the board, it removes the drag effect on product innovation. That’s something no start-up can afford to lose.

Autodesk has paid a fee to ENGINEERING.com to promote their product development tools. They have had no editorial input to this story. All opinions are mine – Kyle Maxey.

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