Leveraging product lifecycle management in manufacturing

Anders Rasmussen, senior principal software developer at Configit, explains how to leverage product lifecycle management to master product complexity

Traditionally, product life cycles were linear processes, with product lifecycle management (PLM) systems handling design and engineering from start to finish. But today, more and more products are customisable (aka configurable) meaning that manufacturing companies let buyers alter their goods to suit their specific requirements. While this allows more freedom and flexibility for consumers, it’s also introducing greater complexity for manufacturers. 

At the same time, many are also embarking on a digital transformation journey and must find ways to control this new environment of increasingly complex products. The old, linear methods won’t work; a new approach is needed to meet the growing complexity of products and dynamic customer requirements without impacting existing system installations and processes.

 

A wealth of complexity in product lifecycle management

When we talk about complexity, there are two factors at play: product complexity and complexity of processes. The complexity of products stems largely from the number of variations – and how to handle these. Even something as simple as, say, gift wrapping can have high complexity associated with it. So, it’s not necessarily about how technically complex the actual product is (or isn’t), but rather about the number of the available variations, the number of choices to make during the configuration of the product, and the interdependencies between these choices.

Processes should be simple, but they can quickly become convoluted and unpredictable, which implies an increase in complexity. Ideally, the ordering process should be streamlined and simple; customers are guided through it in a straightforward and transparent way. From there, the order should go through all the next steps in a similarly straightforward and automated manner, all the way to manufacturing.

But when you’re dealing with configurable products – and those multiple variations – that’s when the process can become very complex.

Anders Rasmussen, senior principal software developer, Configit

Creating a more streamlined process for manufacturing departments

One problem that may arise with configurable products is that there’s a lack of full visibility between sales, manufacturing and other departments. Consequently, what can happen is that a salesperson makes a sale based on the limited knowledge they have, without knowing whether the configuration they’ve just sold to a customer can indeed be produced by the manufacturing department. One way that many companies attempt to manage this complexity is with a PLM solution.  

This is a good start, but PLM falls short in some areas. It tends to focus on solutions instead of focusing on requirements. When you’re dealing with product complexity, what you’re really trying to express are the different requirements that you can satisfy.

If you think of PLM as being the master of parts, assemblies and CAD documents, then you’re very focused on what you can offer – that is, what solutions you have. However, the connection between the requirements and the parts is hard to figure out; it’s not transparent. This is where configuration lifecycle management (CLM) plays a role.

CLM creates a single source of configuration knowledge, providing the foundation for closer departmental collaboration. This enables product designers and engineers to execute configurations and connect to the rest of the organisation – not to mention vendors, supply-chain partners and customers.

 

Bringing configuration lifecycle management and product lifecycle management together for enriched automation systems

Why not just replace PLM with CLM? The two tools play distinct roles that work in tandem but don’t necessarily rule one another out. PLM is focused on control change management; it often has product definitions, whereas CLM primarily focuses on configuration management. In other words, PLM Is where you engineer; CLM is where you gather and combine. The ideal situation is to couple the two systems. 

You need the ability to establish an environment where information can easily be shared between departments to create a single-pane-of-glass view. To use these combined systems in a successful way, you need to start thinking in abstractions – about requirements versus solutions. You need a common language. When you talk about your requirements from an engineering perspective, you need to use the same language as you would for sales, as well as for manufacturing, after-service, etc. This will help the sales team and others understand what’s possible and it will enrich automated systems with information about what is and what isn’t possible. 

 

Mastering modern complexity in manufacturing 

In a digital world, manually managing product life cycles is a no-go. Now that more products are configurable, customers have a growing expectation that they’ll be able to customise products according to their unique needs. More and more manufacturers are willing to offer this option so they don’t lose customers, but they’re finding that their PLM alone can’t handle this level of complexity. 

Integrating a PLM system with CLM can provide the necessary scale to address the growing complexity of products and dynamic customer requirements without impacting existing system installations and processes. As a bonus, you can harvest the resulting data and behavior patterns to detect new trends and develop the next crop of products your customers need. 

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