Is PLM the Answer to Your Product Workflow and Data Challenges?
John Hayes posted on October 26, 2017 |

The symptoms of poor product development processes can vary widely, but there are common threads. Do any of these issues sound like your environment:

  1. You rely on email as a reporting tool, which means that you have to ask 3+ people to get a status report on a project, program or order.
  2. Your critical processes are locked within the brains of your long-term employees, the departure of any one of whom would be devastating.
  3. Your product data is in countless locations and formats (ERP, Excel, CAD, MS Access Databases, PDM, Network drives, Sharepoint, Email, etc.).
  4. There are many “sources of the truth” about products, including multiple BOMs, resulting in products that are not built as designed nor as ordered.
  5. There are some doubts starting to percolate about your product quality, but you have no way to confirm or deny because once something ships you lose the ability to track performance or complaints.
  6. Engineering changes are out of control, resulting in confusion, delays and lost revenue.
(Image courtesy of Bradley Inc.)
(Image courtesy of Bradley Inc.)

Most of these issues are process problems. Fixing them requires new processes, but those will have to be supported by software that is more sophisticated than email and disconnected databases. 

PLM has been around for more than a decade, yet most manufacturing companies still have multiple disparate systems. For many, getting started on the path to a unified data and process model is just too daunting to start.

What PLM Does Beyond Managing CAD Geometry

Bradley handwashing station.

Bradley handwashing station.

Another reason why many manufacturers don’t adopt PLM is that they don’t recognize their problems as being ones that PLM would solve. Most PLM vendors are also CAD vendors, and they have historically spoken about a “CAD-centric” approach to implementation, which can make PLM look like a super-charged PDM system. Yet CAD data isn’t always the best place to start.

Consider Bradley, a manufacturer of commercial plumbing fixtures such as handwashing stations. They were in the process of implementing a new ERP system when they realized that they had some gaps in their workflow processes and data management. 

These gaps had reached a critical point due to data being housed in a mishmash of point solutions, CAD systems, PDM systems and new product introduction (NPI) tools. According to Jason Garver, Product Designer and Software Administrator, that data was trapped in disparate formats and systems.  

For example, Bradley’s ERP system was Epicor, their CAD tools included Inventor, AutoCAD, NX and Revit. For managing CAD files they used Meridian, Vault and Windows, and their NPI tool was Bubble Innovator.

Given this set of systems, their problems led them first to look for a better NPI tool to manage processes. As it turned out, better NPI wasn’t going to cover all of the bases either. Eventually, they decided that a PLM solution was the right fit, even though many of their concerns were not about product data in the sense of managing CAD geometry.

Modern PLM systems do a lot more than allow multiple users to have access to CAD data. At their best, they are a hub for product data that connects ERP systems to manufacturing control and customer service applications. They can become a single source of the truth for BOMs, quality data, as-built product configurations in the field, and a repository for critical tribal knowledge. Along the way, they can manage difficult processes such as change orders and quality processes.

It’s this breadth of applicability that can make PLM hard to understand and hard to start. One key to success is to stage the project into bite-sized steps rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once. You can leave your CAD data, for example, in legacy systems while focusing first on the higher value process improvements.

Jeff Hojlo, analyst at the research firm IDC said, “To get the maximum value from PLM, eventually most companies will want to connect processes, such as their engineering change orders and quality management, back to their CAD files and the design team to make any changes. However, they can start with a connecting layer on top of existing systems that will help them address critical issues, like supplier collaboration, ECOs or quality, without having to replace their legacy CAD or PDM.”

If your company has issues managing product data, but you are uncertain as to whether the right solution will be found in the realm of ERP, Workflow tools, PDM or NPI systems, read on to learn how Bradley addressed these issues with PLM.

The Bradley Team had a Number of Process and Data Access Goals They Wanted to Reach

The lack of system support for processes at Bradley led to lots of challenges in the business. They sought a solution that would help them:

  • Get projects out the door faster
  • Free data that was trapped within disparate formats and systems
  • Assign accountability and track progress against commitments
  • Provide discipline and structure without slowing things down
  • Offer visibility to project status

Garver pointed out that, “We had a cumbersome engineering change and release process with multiple disconnected data and document repositories. It was manual, disconnected and inconsistent. We also wanted to reduce our reliance on “tribal knowledge.” 

“We had a cumbersome engineering change and release process with multiple disconnected data and document repositories. It was manual, disconnected and inconsistent.” – Jason Garver

In addition, the company wanted to create dashboards and reporting capabilities that would allow people to do a better job of self-management while also allowing managers to see activity at a departmental and individual level.  

One of Garver’s biggest goals was to get away from email as a reporting mechanism.  As he said, “Email is not a good tool for tracking where responsibilities are assigned, whether tasks have been moved to the next step, and it’s not searchable. Email allows processes to be too compartmentalized. It forces a culture of having to ask people for updates.”

The Bradley team also wanted to have a single place to store all documents related to processes and projects. This set of requirements led them to seek a PLM solution

According to Garver, they considered TeamCenter from Siemens, Arena’s cloud-based solution, Synergis, ENOVIA and Propel. In the end they selected Fusion Lifecycle from Autodesk because they already had a number of Autodesk products and had a good relationship with their systems integrator, D3 Technologies. 

Garver explained that the cloud-based nature of Fusion Lifecycle meant that their implementation expense was low. The breadth of functionality allowed the team at Bradley to co-locate all product-related business processes within one tool. Their new PLM system has helped them create more standardized workflows. As a bonus, they found that they could make minor adjustments to existing workflows to accommodate multiple processes across the company.

Tips on Implementation – Start with Easier Processes

Company executives often get sold on a grand vision. They hear about futuristic concepts like Industry 4.0, Digitalization, or Digital Twins, and can develop heady expectations about making radical changes to their businesses.  Autodesk bundles these disruptive trends into a catch-phrase they call the “Future of Making Things.” According to Charlie Candy, Sr. Manager for Global Business Strategy at Autodesk, talking about these concepts tends to earn attention from executives.

However, Candy points out that, “A manufacturer may have to take several steps to get from where they are to the future vision.  We typically start by improving their business processes, which in turn gives them more time to explore these new disruptive trends.  The conversation that starts with a grand vision often ends up being about PLM and processes. It may not be sexy, but it is very valuable.”

At Bradley, one of the biggest challenges was around their “engineering specials,” which was rife with undocumented processes and tribal knowledge.  Every plant had their own processes. Garver said that to standardize this process they had to, “force the individuals who understood the process to sit down and define it so it could be standardized. It was hard to get people to do this, but it was critical to maintain the long-term health of the business.”

What they got when they documented this complex process was a standardized approach, but it was still complex.  The following image shows a high-level flowchart of the activities along with “post-it” note explanations.

(Image courtesy of Bradley Inc.)
(Image courtesy of Bradley Inc.)

Garver pointed out that standardizing and automating engineering specials has been a tremendous help to Bradley, but that it may not have been the ideal place to start. His advice now is, “Don’t start with a process that is undocumented and already a challenge for your business. Pick something that’s internal to your business and simple to define.”

“Don’t start with a process that is undocumented and already a challenge for your business. Pick something that’s internal to your business and simple to define.” – Jason Garver

Why internal to your business? That’s because starting with a process that does not require external input or participation allows a team to be more transparent about the problems they encounter and to be more agile in developing new workflows. And why simple to define? This is important because implementation teams can use the momentum generated from initial successes to increase user excitement and adoption. Showing completed reports and the ability to search records early in an implementation demonstrates the value of the path the team is following. Garver noted that, “The road to faster ROI begins with a strong plan for user adoption. Starting in the wrong place negatively impacted adoption for us.”

That said, once the team at Bradley got rolling, they found they could address many other processes including:

  • New Product Development/Introduction where they previously had a stand-alone web-based solution
  • FMEA/Documents/CAPA where their files and templates were located in multiple internal network drives that were controlled by individuals rather than having common access.
  • Product Compliance and Certification which relied heavily on the tribal knowledge of a few individuals to maintain and understand the process. The “guy with a spreadsheet who tracked which re-certifications were coming up” was replaced with loading all assets into their PLM system with renewal dates so that the entire team can manage their re-certifications more proactively.
  • Procurement processes that failed to capture the required data at the beginning of the process which lead to rework loops

Garver had two additional implementation tips for anyone seeking to gain control of their business processes:

It is important to focus on reporting requirements as much as process deliverables.  If you can understand what people need to see, and deliver that, you will get more support and enthusiasm to overcome the future hurdles that will inevitably appear.

Recognize that tribal knowledge and embedded processes are challenging to translate. Rather than moving directly to implementing new workflows to replace these processes, he suggests that PLM practitioners clearly define a business process before attempting to implement it in a new system. In many cases you need to get critical information from the people who are doing the processes rather than relying on their manager’s interpretation of those processes. This will allow you to identify all aspects of the processes.

If you do decide to implement a PLM system, Garver pointed to the following benefits that Bradley has experienced with the system they selected:

  1. Easy to configure and very flexible.  Garver had no formal software training, but found that he was able to make changes and even build workflows from scratch.
  2. An agile tool that allows for rapid prototyping, which allowed the Bradley team to build, present, get feedback, rebuild and then present again
  3. A cloud solution was a good fit in that it offers remote access, easy deployment across multiple locations, and minimum setup costs

Now that the first series of workflows are tamed, Garver is bullish on the future of PLM at Bradley, “We still have lots of training to do and documentation to create, but the entire team now sees the value in standardizing and documenting all of our business processes within their cloud PLM tool. We will eventually integrate PLM with our ERP and other systems, but we did the right thing by starting to build value immediately rather than tackling a giant integration project.”

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