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5 trends that will disrupt the future of product lifecycle management (PLM)

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Entrepreneur and Blogger, Beyond PLM

The idea behind product lifecycle management (PLM) in regard to analytics is pretty simple. It’s all about collecting and managing the information and processes related to all stages of product development. 

PLM can be helpful to anyone, anywhere, no matter where they may work within the manufacturing organization (or extended enterprise). But one challenge for PLM is extending coverage beyond the boundary of the engineering department; the historical roots of PLM solutions go back to mechanical computer-aided design (CAD), design and engineering, and this association has prevented the broader acceptance of PLM software. 

But times are changing. Several trends and technologies are disrupting the future of product lifecycles: big data, messaging and mobility; Internet of Things; and the explosive growth of electronics and software in manufacturing.

Connected devices essentially expand product lifecycle

Connected devices are going to change a lot in terms of how we can communicate with products, beginning with the ability to get into the real physical environment with customers. IoT data improves insights into customer requirements and monitors product performance in real life. Also fueling this growth: sensors are improving and becoming more affordable and efficient than ever, opening new opportunities to track and research how customers are experiencing products in all industries. From aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, fashion and others, product monitoring in real-time opens opportunities to develop new types of maintenance and operation solutions. 

IoT applications can expand existing product lifecycle applications and technologies in three key ways:

  • Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO): Maintenance and service are getting expanded focus these days, and manufacturing organizations have increasing interest in advanced service business models. Sensors can provide a data foundation to connect and communicate with products for servicing purposes. This foundation is expected to help optimize future service schedules and reduce maintenance costs.
  • Requirements management: Focus into this area help provide visibility into how customers are using products. Knowing that some product functions are not in use and injecting this information in future requirements analysis and management tools can be highly beneficial.
  • Product performance monitoring: What if you can get real performance data from the engine and other parts of a car, airplane, computer or even a toothbrush? This data helps in handling the growing set of regulation and other environmental requirements. Many interesting opportunities for how to leverage data produced by devices and products are emerging, and I can see a growing demand for data analysis tools capable of handling this data.

A switch from workflows to interactive user experiences

Workflow is one of the fundamental paradigms of enterprise software today: every engineering and business process can be modeled and executed as a set of tasks with conditions and rules. Workflows have been a good, formal way to organize operations, but can prove far too challenging to incorporate into existing organizations. In addition, new generations of people (such as Millennials), are rejecting current user-experience paradigms—especially those that are related to formal workflows. The demand for new, interactive experiences is coming from a new generation of users. 

What does this demand mean for the developers of PLM technology? In a nutshell, that interactive technologies—from mobile phones to websites to mobile applications to software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications—need to provide the most usable, self-guided, hiccup-free, efficient user experiences. Younger generations can make anything work, but their expectations for slick user experiences are fairly substantial. Millennials, in particular, are experts at finding alternatives, and they simply won’t put up with bad user experiences that get in the way of accomplishing their tasks. If something doesn't work, they move on to the next thing.

This behavioral trend brings the need for quality, interactive user experiences into the organization from different locations, devices and data sources. Advanced, collaborative user experiences are changing the way people communicate and do work. The switch to interactive experiences is changing the way customers interact with data, creating another level of access across the extended enterprise.

Integrating product lifecycle management in an era where software is eating the world

We live in the era of smart products: consider the modern smartphone. Average people keep in their pockets a computer with computational capabilities that are equal to or even more than the computers that the aerospace and defense industries use for navigation. In addition, smartphones have communication capabilities—WiFi and Bluetooth—make these devices even more powerful. Affordable, as well—if you keep in mind the cost and availability of boards such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

For these and other reasons, the omnipotence of smartphones is revolutionizing product lifecycle management these days, and smart products are bringing a new level of complexity. Engineering and manufacturing need to handle new, complex, multidisciplinary problems related to a combination of mechanical, electronic and software pieces.

And this last piece—the software piece—is a critical addition to product information. 

Software is eating the world, which may have an interesting impact on manufacturing and product lifecycle software. Bills of material need to cover not only mechanical and electronic parts, but also, software elements. As the complexity of software in manufacturing increases, products will demand deeper integration than ever into the product development process and overall lifecycle. Manufacturing companies will be hard-pressed to keep mechanical, electronics and software teams in silos, as enhanced integration among mechanical, electronic and software elements of product data is going to be in demand.

Internet of Things data closes the design loop but overwhelms engineers

Connected devices and associated technologies can help close the loop between virtual and physical product environments. A virtual environment is associated with product design, engineering and manufacturing, but being connected to a physical product environment equipped with sensors and big data provides new information about how devices are performing in the field. While each company is developing its own approach with regard to PLM and the Internet of Things, the overall trend shows growing interest from PLM vendors to see what benefits the Internet of Things can bring to their businesses. 

The demand to provide solutions that are capable of connecting data from both ends is growing and raises questions about the amount of data interaction that engineers are going to have. What was previously in the domain of the design and engineering environments only, now can bring data points related to product performance and efficiency to the rest of the organization. Products are getting more complex by adding electronic and software components, and our social interaction online brings even more information to the table. In short, the Internet of Things creates a next wave of data, which in my view will become even bigger than everything we’ve seen until now. 

A look ahead at manufacturing technology disruption

What can we expect as we move ahead into the next 10 years of manufacturing technology disruption?

Total connectivity involving sensors and a variety of data-capturing features, integrated into products. Smarter software. And disruption when in the sphere of product design, engineering and manufacturing cycles; soon they will incorporate the agile, lean methodologies currently employed by modern software developers.

The complexity of products is likely to disrupt existing development environments with multidisciplinary interconnected data sets.

And consumer demand for integration in global product development and operations can lead to a new form of interactive experience, starting from capturing product requirements and ending up with predictive product maintenance and services. Combined information about virtual and physical products is expected to introduce a new level of demand for data science, data management and related information technologies, and the scale of data combined with its complexity is expected to be a future challenge for information systems that provide solutions for industrial companies and the end-to-end product lifecycle. 

Taken altogether, I believe these considerations are the future of manufacturing networks. Soon enough, they’ll all be looked upon as just the everyday operations as we know them.