Smart, Connected Products and PLM-the Role of OSLC

Stan Przybylinski, VP of Research, CIMdata Inc.
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Manufacturing used to be much more simple. In the 1960s, most products were mechanically focused, with some electrical and other systems, depending upon the application. Advancements in electronics made their way into all manner of manufactured products, making them “smart,” or at least smarter than previous generations by adding capabilities and making their use more convenient, but the electronics were still relatively fixed, with little or no software. Today’s smart products rely on software to deliver an increasing portion of the customer value, and the trends toward connectedness and the Internet of Things (IoT) will just make things even more complex.

Managing development of these mechanical, electrical/electronic, and software components across the product lifecycle from conception through life is at the core of product lifecycle management (PLM), a concept first espoused in the late 1990s. 

CIMdata defines PLM as 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. PLM spans from product concept through life and integrates people, processes, business systems, and information. PLM forms the product information backbone for a company and its extended enterprise.

Over the years, many of the data and process management solution providers in the PLM market space have used a similar phrase in their marketing: “our solution provides a single source of truth.” In fact, most of these solutions focused on the development of the mechanical and electrical parts of the design (at best), with separate tools and workflows used for the electronics and software components. At designated points in the development process electronics and software intellectual property (IP) would be attached to the bill of material (BOM) to provide a complete set of product definition information, the truth if you will for that product.But the work to create those elements of truth was often conducted by different groups, using different tools, different development and delivery processes, and even very different definitions for the same common terms, like version and revision. 

While a single physical source of truth has some value, the differences in development processes and artifacts make this approach impractical. It also sub-optimizes tool usage because no one solution can provide all of the best of breed offerings needed across the mechanical, electronics, and software development processes. Work to integrate all of these offerings can be never ending, difficult and, in the end, does not really add much value to the development process unless done very well. What is much more important and workable is that all of the artifacts are logically managed in a consistent and appropriate environment in which they can be found and linked as necessary to other elements of the evolving product. This is at the heart of the Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration (OSLC) initiative.

 PLM spans from product concept through life and integrates people, processes, business systems, and information 

OSLC relies on standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to uniquely identify content managed by different systems using resource identifiers much like the URL with which we are so familiar. Using this approach the system managing the engineering BOM could link directly to the native system in which the electronics or software is being developed and managed to provide a virtual (or logical) single source of truth. This approach does create some other issues around security and data persistence, but these are manageable. Other technical committees are working on requirements management and traceability and the integration of PLM solutions and the application lifecycle management (ALM) solutions used for product software development to support key areas complimentary to OSLC.

But just how well has the PLM economy picked up on OSLC? According to the OSLC Website, many companies enabling product development participate in OSLC, including Aras, Atego (now part of PTC), BigLever, CONTACT Software, dSPACE, IBM, Intercax, Mentor Graphics, Method Park, Oracle, Perforce, Persistent Systems, PROSTEP AG, PTC, QSM, SBE Vision, and Siemens. Mentor Graphics is notable on this list because they are the electronics design automation (EDA) company with the biggest commitment to OSLC.

Of the more traditional PLM market leaders, IBM is one of the leading proponents of the OSLC work, which makes sense given the market position of DOORS, their requirements management tool, and the strength of their ALM portfolio. They are actively promoting OSLC, and have a very visible project with Aras, a leading data and process management solution provider, on connecting configuration and engineering change management across PLM and ALM. The reference architecture being developed will be an archetype for others to follow. Many other solution providers also support the standard at different levels. PTC has a commercial offering, and is leveraging the knowledge and technology of their MKS and Atego acquisitions. Dassault Systèmes, Siemens PLM Software, and Oracle support the techniques underlying OSLC, like using RESTful services, among others, and their services organizations are ready to help customers pursue the OSLC approach. In fact, Siemens just upped the ante in the ALM space with their November 2015 acquisition of Polarion, a leading provider of cloud-based ALM solutions. SAP does not have an offering, but the need to manage software as part of the product structure is on their marketecture, which is an important first step.

The OSLC work done to date is a great start, and will help enable a single virtual source of truth, and support requirements traceability through the product development lifecycle.  

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