From aerospace to appliances, how PLM is tackling costly data issues

PLM Road Map & PDT, a collaboration with Sweden’s Eurostep Group, is CIMdata’s annual North American gathering of product lifecycle management (PLM) professionals. This year’s event was a deep dive into product data and information and how they can be better managed. Presenters zeroed in on one of PLM’s biggest existing challenges—how it plays a critical part in an organization’s digital transformation.

Digital transformation is increasingly recognized as critical to overcoming the data complexities that frustrate every organization. In my opening remarks I stressed that successful digital transformation requires keeping an eye on the evolving trends and enablers—CIMdata’s Critical Dozen.

I also pointed out that:

  • Maximum PLM value will only result from a holistic, end-to-end approach to connectivity, strategies, and tactics provided they appropriately address people, process, and technologies. Nearly all PLM failures result from not following through and not staying the course.
  • Organizational change management will be required; it always plays a critical role in maximizing the adoption of new processes and technologies, and delivering bottom-line value.
  • Evolving customer demands and market opportunities are motivating investment in comprehensive product lifecycle digitalization.

I outlined the major focal points, including enterprise application architectures, configuration management, extending bills of materials (BOMs) through bills of information (BOI) structures, model-based structures, the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data and analytics, augmented intelligence, digital skills transformation, organizational change management and, of course, digital twins and digital threads.

Each of this year’s presenters, whether from the private or public sector organizations, are hands-on in some aspect of the digital thread. Several presenters were from CIMdata’s Aerospace and Defense PLM Action Group (AD-PAG) member companies, celebrating its tenth year under the leadership of James Roche, CIMdata’s A&D practice director.

Keynoting was David Genter, director of systems design engineering for Cummins Inc.’s Accelera unit, which was formed to leverage design for sustainability (DfS) by “developing a design optimization culture.” Cummins, based in Columbus, Ind., produces more than 1.5 million engine systems a year and is driving a decarbonization transition as it refocuses from diesel engines to alternative-fuel internal combustion engines; fuel-cell, battery-electric, and hybrid powertrains; and electrolyzers that generate hydrogen and oxygen from water.

Genter stressed “moving analysis to the left,” which means using analysis early and often to engineer sustainability into designs from the start. He cited DfS test cases saving more than $1.4M in the first year by removing non-value-added material in the designs of engine mounting support brackets and exhaust manifolds. When a commitment is made to early analysis for material-use optimization, he noted a typical 10% to 15% material savings, a five-fold return on DfS engineers’ salaries and big improvements from right-first-time design results. 

“Addressing climate change is daunting but DfS is not!” Genter observed. Cummins is committed by 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, water use by 30%, waste by 25%, organic compound emissions by 50%, new product Scope 3 emissions (indirect but related) by 25%, and generating circular lifecycle plans for every new part.

Optimizing designs with right-first-time techniques can seem “tough” when “everybody is already overwhelmed with the other work,” Genter said, but Cummins has verified that DfS need not add any organizational burdens or stretch normal design times for new products—quite the opposite.

Several presenters addressed the elimination of paper documents. Robert Rencher, a senior systems engineer and associate technical fellow at Boeing, shared some numbers and described a highly successful solution. In his work with the AD-PAG, he has probed airlines’ continuous checks of aircraft and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Form 8130-3 Authorized Release Certificate (ARC).

Form 8130-3, the FAA’s airworthiness approval tag, is the airline industry’s good-to-go certificate. It is ubiquitous and mandatory for every aircraft inspection and every new or repaired part.

Rencher’s numbers were eye-openers. He reported that a single FAA 8130-3 may require many as 600 engineering and inspection documents, and documentation for a single bolt can add dozens of pages. One large U.S. airline conducts over 200,000 aircraft checks every year, he said, and:

  • 90% of this documentation is still handled on paper.
  • The labor cost to file one document was $20 in 2020.
  • Between 2% and 5% of these documents “are lost or misfiled.”

In his presentation, which was delivered on behalf of the AD PAG and draws on the experiences of all the members, including Boeing and Airbus, Rencher said Airbus can now electronically generate and verify all the info needed for an 8130-3; this is establishing a digital data exchange for aerospace quality certification. Digitizing this documentation could save the aerospace industry €80 million annually in Europe alone, with over €20 million in annual savings already reported.

Rencher summarized that combining the digital thread with distributed ledger technology has proved to be a success: users of 8130-3 gain the digitization, traceability, provenance and accessibility of part data across the part’s product lifecycle from design to final disposition.

Rencher also covered AD-PAG’s benchmark study on furthering the use of PLM’s digital twins and threads. In this effort’s fifth phase, AD-PAG is working with numerous industry standards bodies, Rencher reported. The intent is to gain consensus and acceptance of results, increase the brainpower in the project, increase AD-PAG’s leverage with PLM software providers, and testing PLM digital twin/thread definitions with more than 20 distinct use cases.

AD-PAG’s other focus is on the Systems Modeling Language (SysML) as an enabler of model-based systems engineering (MBSE). In an update, Chris Watkins, principal engineer, MBE/MBSE at Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, who is the AD-PAG MBSE project leader, reported on open, standardized application program interfaces (APIs), common ontologies, and new SysML tool providers. He highlighted persistent shortcomings in syntax, notations, and interoperability plus ambiguities and “poor support” for Universally Unique IDs that promise to address many challenges. The AD-PAG is addressing these in a follow-on project phase.

McDermott International Ltd. is actively driving the use of PLM in the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) industry which regularly joins discrete and process capabilities in its multibillion-dollar energy infrastructure projects; these are a tough challenge for any digital technology. Houston-based McDermott designs and builds on land, at sea, and underwater worldwide.

Jeff Stroh, McDermott’s senior director of digital and information management systems, said every McDermott project has millions of documents and digitalization is increasingly urgent. Many documents are from Microsoft Office, but many more are from other digital tools that are not integrated or only partially so—and they reference many sources.

Challenges abound, Stroh stressed. The re-use of prior document content is limited in EPC, and quality controls are “purely manual,” so change identification and management are difficult. EPC projects rely heavily on offline commenting and mark-ups that must be manually processed, he pointed out. Documents and sources are disconnected, so EPCs have no effective way to “bake in” lessons learned.

As yet there are no effective processes for knowledge management amid nonstop additions, deletions, clarifications and replacements, Stroh added. Nor are there any ways to link content from engineers’ applications to a project’s narrative documents.

Stroh, too, had some eye-opening numbers. In EPC, clients supply thousands of documents but McDermott’s engineering deliverables mushroom to many multiples of that; moreover, each individual document goes through multiple revisions and approval cycles. In one project, the client made nearly 60,000 comments on more than 3,000 documents, he noted, all of which had to be responded to.

Project manhours have ballooned in recent decades, he continued, and the EPC business climate has become very risky, as “cost-plus” contracts are gone and now many contracts are done on a fixed price.

To cope, McDermott engineers need data that is available and usable in their tools and applications; data that reduces the friction in work and finding answers; that drives collaboration and visibility across tools, functions, and disciplines; and that augments the workflow, “not interrupt it.” Legacy approaches, “voluminous narrative documentation and manual processes are not fit for the fast-paced world…”

Finally, Stroh commented that this was McDermott’s second PLM try. The first failed because it focused on “document management instead of reimagining processes based on data and information management.” Success in this new implementation is also tied to adopting the users’ terminology into the processes and tools rather than expecting users to adopt the tools’ terminology.

Mabe, a Mexico City-based white-goods manufacturer, presented its efforts to get new products to market faster, extend and improve product families, reduce business complexity and improve productivity across the organization. With eight factories, Mabe annually produces nearly 10 million refrigerators, ranges and other appliance. General Electric Appliances is Mabe’s largest reseller.

Speaking were Gabriel Vargas, director of engineering systems, and Maria Elena Mata Lopez, leader, technical information and modular architecture.

Through digitalization, automation and a modular product family architecture enabling the automation of product configuration, Mabe’s benefits were dramatic, according to Vargas and Mata Lopez. The resources needed for new product introductions fell by 90%, Mata Lopez reported, and for product maintenance 80%, she added; effort to manage BOMs was reduced by 80%; parts counts for ranges fell by 60% and refrigerators 42%. Cost management was speeded up and made accurate, she added.

Digital transformation leaders from General Electric Aerospace, the Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., and Moog also spoke at the conference.

A persuasive case for using artificial intelligence (AI) in product design was made by Uyiosa Abusomwan, senior global technology manager for digital engineering at the Eaton Corporation. He asked whether AI could be used to optimize product design “the way nature optimizes each new creature?”

Addressing the application of AI to supply chains, Abusomwan pointed out that AI can identify features, extract parameters and put them in 3D CAD formats. As an example, he noted, data can be fed into quality management solutions and into PLM so failures and causes are detected and not repeated; Eaton is already doing this.

For AI to be used to optimize designs, he continued, open minds are needed along with new data management tools, which can cut across design solutions including PLM, and an understanding of the values being sought. Abusomwan predicted that third-party solution providers in PLM and IT will be buying up start-up companies that offer these capabilities.

The conference’s second day focused on the public sector with presentations from or about the U.S. Defense Department’s Research and Engineering, the Defense Acquisition University, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, NASA, and the U.K. Ministry of Defence. All addressed digital transformation issues and their agency’s progress.

In a keynote presentation given by Daniel Hettema, director of digital engineering, modeling, and simulation in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. His office is “getting into systems engineering big time” and has launched a review of the DoD’s modeling and simulation policies.

The DoD, he noted, has 700,000 employees, over 1.4 million contractors, and 709 policies that address some aspect of digital model creation. Because of its size and complexity, “DoD doesn’t make big moves but…we can move the needle with small wins” such as leveraging digital technologies and using (newly) optimized customer models.

Government agency responsibilities are so much broader—and fundamentally different—than any private-sector organization’s responsibilities. So, the public-sector presenters focused on policies and guidance rather than solutions and processes.

Most presenters at this year’s PLM Road Map & PDT zeroed in on the many different challenges in digital transformation and individual companies’ priorities in tackling them through PLM and some form of digital engineering. They all reported solid successes and rapidly evolving plans to complete their transitions.