How PLM Is Evolving to Address the New World Order of Product Development

Autodesk’s Stephen Hooper discusses the evolution of PLM and the future of designing products.

Engineering has always been driven by change. In the past, much of that change was driven by innovations in process efficiency. But, according to Autodesk’s Stephen Hooper, the biggest changes in modern engineering are being driven by the technologies and ideas about product design and making products come to life.


What does he mean? Let’s take a look.


Product Lifecycle Management Used to Be a Linear Process


The historic view of product lifecycle management (PLM) was pretty linear. First, a problem (or a product void) would prompt engineers to pencil out a concept. Once a concept was agreed upon, designers would create CAD models, which would in turn be delivered to a production team. That team would make the products from drawings based on a master model. Only then would marketing begin selling the product. At this point, the design team’s connection to the customer was at an end. Customers then used the products until it was time for them to be tossed into the trash.


And then something happened.


“We had the rise of the Internet and, more importantly, cloud computing. Consumers became more sophisticated. Offshoring and microfactories grew,” explained Hooper.


More likely than not, it was a combination of these and additional factors that gave rise to dramatic changes in manufacturing and changes to PLM as we’ve known it.


Now Product Lifecycle Management Is More Complex and Iterative

The huge shift happening in PLM all starts with the consumer. Gone are the days where product design teams are siloed within a company’s walls, making one-size-fits-all products. Now, consumers demand a personalized, tailored and responsive product that says something about who they are while also meeting functional needs.


In addition, product designers have to consider that they’re not only selling to North American and European markets. Global product markets are pushing product teams to develop features that reflect different cultural, aesthetic and product experience values. 


What’s more, customers all over the world demand a product that’s connected. Not only is it becoming standard for a product to have an app that can control it, consumers are now demanding that products grow and improve as technology advances.


Finally, consumers are becoming much more conscious of how products are affecting the environment. For many consumers, both the recyclability of a product and the sourcing of its materials are becoming critical deciding factors. For product designers this means that collaboration with vendors—whether they are material suppliers, manufacturers or industrial recycling operators—needs to be transparent and environmentally sensitive.


Put simply, today’s products are more personalized, regionally specific and sustainable.


Beyond customer needs, modern PLM systems also have to manage a manufacturer’s business concerns such as IP security and end-of-life recycling.


Just as it’s become easier to create a new product, it’s also become easier to make knock-offs of a popular item. While some say that filing for and enforcing patents is the best way to protect IP, the reality is that protecting IP is like playing a game of whack-a-mole.


Today, many companies are realizing that the best way to protect their IP and create a sustainable competitive advantage is to build innovation into their product development processes. Foreign competitors can make low-priced versions of existing products. What they can’t do is rapidly release new products with customized, consumer driven add-ons and other developments based on product research and big data.


The solution seems clear. In a world where imitation products are becoming ubiquitous, innovation is the only way to keep your brand relevant and valuable.


So with all of these demands in mind, how can a product design team manage this new, complex PLM paradigm?


The Unified Future of Meeting Product Design Demands


Because of the complexity of today’s PLM, the tools required to conceptualize, design, manufacture and dispose of a product are becoming increasingly more unified. Now, almost all CAD vendors, including Autodesk, with its Fusion 360 and PLM 360 offerings, are building integrated software platforms and portfolios. Their goal is to create an environment in which everything from collaborative conceptualization with freeform tools to building milling paths for CNC machines can be addressed within a common platform. Add more modern and intuitive ease-of-use, built-in rendering engines, and the ability to process files for additive manufacturing, and you can see how the tools you need to manage a complex product lifecycle can actually fit under one roof.


“Not only are today’s product development tools being combined into a powerful whole, they’re coming in subscription form, which slashes the high upfront costs historically associated with CAD and PLM  tools,” Hooper said.


Because of these reduced costs, designers with little more than an idea (and maybe even a bit of crowdsourced funding/demand) can afford a fully-functional solid modeling tool, build a world-beating product and bring it to market in record time.


Given that freedom, the engineering world is seeing an explosion of quality products, serving niche communities with a dedication that wasn’t possible under the old product lifecycle regime.


Change has always been part of the engineering landscape, but it seems like this new, connected and more flexible way of making things is a future that is here to stay.


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Autodesk has paid a fee to to promote their product design solutions. All opinions are mine. —Kyle Maxey