Answering 3 top PLM questions

Going back to basics to help users understand PLM.

In this PLM article, Peter Bilello, president and CEO of CIMdata, draws inspiration from, a marketing-focused platform that helps people find common user questions entered into search engines.

(Stock image.)

(Stock image.)

I will answer three basic questions from the platform

  1. What does PLM actually mean?
  2. How do I know if I need PLM?  
  3. What should I ask to understand if my company needs PLM?

Two of the main reasons for PLM failure are a lack of awareness and misunderstanding of it. My hope with this article is to minimize and address both head-on.

For context, let’s first explore CIMdata’s formal definition of PLM. It is “a strategic business approach that applies a consistent set of business solutions in support of the collaborative creation, management, dissemination and use of product definition information across the extended enterprise and spanning from product concept to end of life — integrating people, processes, business systems and information.”

Let’s then expand on this concept with insight from my recent webinar, “AI & PLM: Beyond All the Hype.” In the webinar, I stressed that PLM is a company’s innovation engine orchestrating the creation, maintenance and reuse of product-related digital assets.

For software developers and service providers, these definitions sum up PLM pretty well. But as a PLM consultant, researcher and educator, I realize that users need better insights — if only to help justify a purchase. By leveraging we can see gaps in understanding and present our insights from a crucial, yet almost always overlooked, viewpoint: the user.

Q1.  What does PLM actually mean?

To help contextualize PLM, I find it useful to spell out five key lifecycle elements of PLM and three sources of the connectivity it must provide. The five elements are: 

  1. Customer insight: Figuring out what customers want and need by monitoring products in use, assessing customer acceptance or annoyance and measuring the utility of new features by remotely monitoring their use.
  2. Concepts and detailed design: Robust architectural concepts and detailed design based on user feedback joined with design considerations, manufacturing capabilities, maintenance and repair feedback.
  3. Testing: Monitoring the performance of prototype systems, bench-testing subsystems and optimizing performance and management via proving grounds and testing labs.
  4. Visibility in manufacturing: Readily available feedback on manufacturing defects, supplier quality control, supply chain logistics and OEM or supplier operations.
  5. After-sales service via feedback loops: Field defects, success and failure in diagnostics and repair, product health and scheduling of maintenance. This includes the use of new products and specific features.

Users will recognize these five elements as the major sources of information that must be fed into a PLM’s digital twins — the virtual representations of the enterprise’s products, systems, assets and associated process definitions. Meanwhile, the three sources of data, information, knowledge and intelligence that feed into these five PLM elements include: 

  1. Applications that help develop insights, root-cause analyses, planning decisions, their execution and control strategies.
  2. Information for use with data storage, search/find, analysis and development of new applications.
  3. Data from edge computations. This includes sensors, devices and on-board data-processing and IT systems.

Users will recognize this trio as the information fed into their digital twins, gathered by PLM’s digital threads. These threads represent the myriad of links up and down a product’s lifecycle and the data pipeline that enables connectivity and information gathering.

Q2: How do I know if I need PLM?

The characteristic strengths of PLM — the collaboration and innovation enabled by its processes and data management platforms — are needed when:

  • Lifecycles of products, systems and services must be tracked for reasons including effective field maintenance, resolving customer complaints and pinpointing innovations for upcoming products.
  • The solutions to join, track and collaborate innovation effectively are unavailable. PLM’s “rivals” extend the capabilities of their offerings by adding toolsets to address this, but they are not always well-integrated and often have limited functionality. In PLM, these capabilities are native.
  • Products, systems and services grow in complexity with user demands and the accelerating rates of market changes. This makes it essential to track the lessons learned from users in the field, design, development and manufacturing.
  • Product becomes a data-driven service via the ongoing transformation of conventional, physical products, systems and services. Many factory equipment and other product providers now rely on a product-as-a-service (PaaS) business model: leasing their products to users while maintaining them and invoicing based on usage.

Q3. What should I ask to understand if my company needs PLM?

Some questions to keep in mind when considering PLM include:

  • Do your products and assets require multiple disciplines? No development application or toolset — electrical/electronic, mechanical or software development — can adequately track changes made by one discipline, unless all disciplines are appropriately integrated within a PLM solution providers’ product innovation platform. And if you have multiple platforms, it is time to rethink the need for PLM.
  • Are your product designs so complex that you need multiple computer-aided design (CAD) tools? Does using multiple CAD tools lead to siloed data, workflows and information? Those CAD tools may or may not communicate well, let alone enable the necessary collaboration, integration and tradeoff optimization needed to design today’s complex products. PLM, however, can address these needs.
  • Do you have varying relationships with suppliers? For instance, do some build to print, just sell to you, support production, service your finished products or share in your product development? The complexity here can disrupt the collaboration and integration needed to create the competitive products that sustain your organization. PLM can make sense of this complexity. 
  • Does your organization develop, manufacture and support products across multiple sites? Or, put another way, does your organization seek to design anywhere, build anywhere and support everywhere? This means product personnel are scattered geographically and probably have different backgrounds and skill sets. If so, these coworkers need to collaborate among themselves and integrate their work. PLM can help verify that this is done. 
  • Are your products configurable and are sales, build and usage options included in development? Here, complexities arise regarding what is and is not configurable and which options users are given. Configurability often grows in response to user demands, but regardless of its cause, single-purpose toolsets and overly focused/restrictive applications will always struggle with it, while PLM can shine.

Complexity is far from the only challenge experienced during a product’s lifecycle—from concept through life. CIMdata always asks its clients what they are doing, or plan to do, if:

  • Margins and selling prices are under competitive pressure.
  • Product launches are delayed.
  • Warranty claims and recalls are on the rise.

Each can have several causes. Sorting them out and addressing them requires effective collaboration and the integration tools found in PLM’s digital twins, digital threads and connectivity. These fundamental capabilities enable collaboration and integration throughout a product’s lifecycle. Their mutual dependencies address complexity challenges by continually building on each other. 

Running through this narrative are the themes of collaboration and innovation. These are processes PLM supports like no other technology can. Without PLM-enabled collaboration and innovation, the gathering and management of information, insights and inspiration will flounder. Only collaboration and innovation can ensure the long-term sustainability of an enterprise.