Is PLM Ready For The Future?

David G. Sherburne, Director of IT, Carestream Health Inc
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David G. Sherburne, Director of IT, Carestream Health Inc

In today’s fast paced and globalized world, the need for PLM has never been greater. Are PLM tools ready to meet the challenges of today’s distributed, mobile world? Is your IT department ready to configure, integrate, evolve and operate a critical platform that will help manage your future revenue streams? Let’s examine the current drivers for PLM implementation and how the market and internal IT needs to evolve to meet the challenges of tomorrow.  

In a world that’s getting smaller every day, driven by the ease of sharing of information, is anyone in your organization considering the complexity that your knowledge workers are facing? Multi-discipline development teams, distributed manufacturing and the rise of the Internet of Things are just a few trends that promise a future that will continue to get more challenging. Market expectations and governmental regulations will require companies to have precision configuration management processes and corresponding IT application suite to be successful at managing the growing business risk. Complexity, if left unchecked, may become the Achilles heel of your company, just ask General Motors. So how can a strategic IT department help mature the company? Investment in a PLM platform is a critical step; because PLM addresses the configuration management challenges directly and becomes the basis for proper management of the master data. There are four critical baselines that must be controlled throughout the products lifecycle. Figure 1 illustrates the key baselines and their relationships to the overall product lifecycle. These baselines are typically under appreciated by senior management and most people outside of engineering. The PLM platform must become the single system of record for all of the information contained within these baselines.

 PLM platform architecture will have to provide a seamless data integration layer to access the core database information in a simple efficient manner. 

Given the importance of PLM in solving this problem of complexity, is today’s PLM industry ready for the challenge? One of the major issues faced by PLM implementers is making the system "simple". PLM's scope reaches across the organization and all the way to the bottom of the supply chain. A good rule of thumb is to realize that users don't know what they don't want until they use it, so getting simple right the first time is not really an option with today’s architectures. So why is "simple" such a challenge? In order to be able to cover all the functionality required to run a complex global organization, legacy PLM manufacturers have continuously built functionality into a single monolithic application. This has led to so much functionality being packed into a single interface that users get lost in the haze of too much functionality. Mobile devices cannot be easily enabled, casual users are overwhelmed and systems cannot extend outward into the supply chain quickly. Systems are equally hard to upgrade and manage for IT departments because well-meaning implementers try to satisfy all subject matter experts and over customize the application. The future platform challenge is to enable functionality in simpler smaller pieces, creating applications targeted for a specific processes and single user roles within a manageable interface or "App". PLM manufacturers must provide the technology and tools needed to enable rapid application development alongside built in software configuration management, so that targeted interfaces can be rapidly developed, maintained and deployed in an iterative manner. Interfaces will have to be easily and quickly adaptable to multiple mobile platforms. PLM platform architecture will have to provide a seamless data integration layer to access the core database information in a simple efficient manner. This is not a very small order, but required for the industry to be successful as we move forward. 

 Another industry blocker is the business models associated with PLM platforms. License models have been an issue in the industry for years and lots of articles have been written on the topic. Business needs the ability to share information captured within a PLM platform globally with whoever they choose to. Companies need to have the right to extend PLM systems outward to meet global demands associated with managing those key baselines across the supply chain. Suppliers of PLM technology must realize that customers can no longer write a check up front and hope that the comprehensive solution might someday materialize. They need to facilitate implementation in smaller chunks and align spend with the value derived once a module goes live. The industry needs to shift business models to align with actual usage of the platform and the value being obtained and not rely on overblown sales estimates of productivity to garner upfront payments. The IoT actually might be the enabler for a “pay for use” PLM model as actual use could be measured and shipped back to PLM manufacturers and payments could start when companies start generating value. These are big challenges to today’s monolithic industry and my hope is that the new players will continue to disrupt the current norms as we progress forward, leveraging the cloud and IoT to offer better options to boost ubiquitous access to PLM platforms and information. New SaaS based players will also be able to offer less expensive and pre-configured options for smaller organizations which will begin another wave of PLM expansion. 

Is your IT department up to the challenge? Internally, strategic IT organizations must evolve and become nimble to properly take on PLM challenges and the proliferation of smaller more targeted interfaces. Systems decomposition and process re-engineering will become paramount to the IT skill inventory as business processes and master data problems are decomposed in unison and enabled by the PLM technology platforms of the future. Platform implementation teams will need to behave in an AGILE manner to capture the right processes steps, decompose requirements and implement them in targeted App like interfaces. IT will have to commit to multiyear investment cycles designed to optimize instead of a "one and done" deployment strategy. CIOs must transition from cost managers to strategic thinkers and be closely attached to the businesses C-Suite to be successful as our new PLM world evolves. 

This is an exciting time for the PLM industry and for the IT and business knowledge worker. The next wave of productivity unleashed by rapid application development, cloud, mobile and the IoT will lead to rewarding opportunities to contribute to the business successes for years to come.

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