Product Lifecycle Management: What businesses need to know

In any kind of production process, whether the end product is a washing machine or a piece of software, there are a number of stages to go through. From the initial idea, through design to manufacturing, service and support, and end of life and disposal, all products go through a similar lifecycle.

Product lifecycle management is about integrating the staff, data, processes and business systems that go to produce a product. This in turn provides a fund of information surrounding the creation of the product which can be used to streamline the development of future products. PLM software allows this to be done cost effectively across the entire lifecycle of a product.

Bringing systems together

Product lifecycle management isn’t just about information, it’s about the way that the enterprise works. If done correctly it can help to consolidate systems to build a coherent data structure. It can also bring together teams in large organisations to design, produce, support and retire products, while capturing best practices and taking on board lessons for future projects - even though those teams may be geographically scattered. Business are able to use PLM to make information-backed decisions at every stage of developing and selling a product.

For this to work information needs to be drawn in from other business systems. These may include computer aided design and manufacturing systems, engineering analytics, finite element analysis, testing software, manufacturing systems and operations management. Marketing tends to have its own, separate lifecycle management focusing on the product’s life in the market with regard to sales, profitability and so on.

The PLM system provides a stream of knowledge throughout the process that ultimately can be used to drive the business to produce successful new products. As the Internet of Things expands there is potential for PLM to extend much further as smart devices are able to feed back information on how they’re used and what problems develop, giving the manufacturer much greater visibility into the use of the product.

The benefits

Implementing product lifecycle management can deliver a number of benefits. Among these are a reduction in the time taken to bring products to market, along improved product quality and reliability.

In the early stages of a project prototyping costs can be reduced and savings can be made by reusing data gleaned from earlier projects. PLM can be used as a framework for product optimization, this in turn can improve forecasting and cut material costs by reducing waste. Because it integrates engineering workflows, PLM can produce savings and can generate ongoing documentation to help prove compliance with industry standards.

If extended out into the supply chain PLM can maximise the benefits of collaboration with suppliers and offer subcontracted manufacturers access to a central product record. At the other end of the process it can lead to more accurate generation of quotes, the ability to identify possible sales opportunities, and help to manage seasonal variations in demand.

Lifecycle phases

There are four broad phases to product lifecycle management. These are: conception, design, realisation, and service. 

The conception phase sets out the product requirements. These will be based not only on the needs of the company but also take into account, customer requirements, research results and regulatory needs.

At the design stage the actual product begins to take shape. This phase will encompass the creation of the design, production of prototypes, and the release of pilots to test markets. While this stage mainly involves engineering tasks like CAD, it also takes into account the sourcing of third-party components that will be incorporated into the design. Of course, products can return to the design stage later in their life for updates and redesigns to create improvements or fix snags identified after they’ve gone on sale.

Realisation is the process of actually bringing the product to production. This will start with the creation of tooling and the formulation of the process that will bring turn the product into reality. In the case of a completely new product line this may encompass factory and production line layout as well as testing and inspection of parts as they’re produced. Parallell with all of this will be the production of packaging, creation of user manuals and the generation of sales and marketing material, all of which will have access to PLM data from earlier stages of the project.

At the service phase PLM is about providing information for support and maintenance of the product. This might be manuals and procedures for service engineers, or information aimed directly at end users. It should also take account of what happens when the product reaches the end of its useful like and arrangements for safe disposal and recycling.

While PLM can be broken down into these phases they shouldn’t be seen in isolation. None of them operate on their own, there is an overlap and a flow of information between them in the form of graphical, text and metadata all of which needs to be effectively managed and tracked.

The market

PLM is big business. According to recent research the global market for PLM software is set to be worth almost $76 billion by 2022. It’s clear therefore that many companies are taking seriously the advantages that it can offer.

Major suppliers of PLM software include CAD specialist Autodesk, Oracle, SAP and automation company Siemens. There are also a number of smaller companies, some targeting specific markets such as software development. Increasingly offerings like Autodesk’s Fusion Lifecycle are available in the cloud, making collaboration between dispersed teams easier.

Business impact

Product lifecycle management has an impact on many areas of business and as such it mainly benefits larger organisations. It helps to control change, cut out bottlenecks and aid collaboration across large and complex projects. By bringing together information from a range of business and engineering systems PLM makes the status of a product development project much easier to monitor. Over time this builds into a knowledge base that can ensure future products benefit from the experience of previous ones, even if key individuals are no longer with the business.

Whilst it isn’t in itself an essential part of business operation, the competitive advantage conferred by business lifecycle management is making it increasingly hard for companies to ignore if they want to success.