"A unified approach . . . extended enterprise collaboration . . . your product lifecycle . . . work in concert . . ."—not that you haven't noticed, but PLM solution providers are using some pretty heady language these days. It sounds good, this concept of an all-encompassing electronic system for improving product development, but will it ultimatelly result in better products?
Of course enterprise collaboration is necessary. We know that when people gather to focus on product design and share ideas from their own particular expertise, products do improve. The question is, will PLM foster the right kind of collaboration, or will it reduce the interpersonal interaction required to achieve good design?
There is a social dynamic to product design that is dependent on face-to-face meetings. When you are in a roomful of people responsible for making decisions, you are agreeing to be accountable. Believe me, it is much harder for an engineer to defend a bad design when the product is right there on the table and the factory worker is showing the group how difficult it is to assemble. We have seen many times the resistance of a designer melt away as the group explores how eliminating or revising parts will significantly reduce cost. We have also seen how rarely this fading resistance happens in a web meeting, where people cannot communicate nonverbally to establish trust.
The move toward outsourcing especially has made it very difficult to sustain the level of interpersonal critical thinking that is vital to good product design. Our ability to instantly beam designs around the globe for manufacturing compounds the problem. The supplier will have the details necessary to manufacture the product, but will not know why certain processes and materials were chosen and will not have the time to suggest less costly alternatives. The designer will see the finished product but will not receive feedback about manufacturability issues that increase costs or lower quality.
I agree with PLM solution providers that the various systems used in product development must be able to send and receive information more efficiently. But let's step back for a minute and ask ourselves whether the information these systems are sending and receiving is any good. Some systems are so automated, they actually allow us to do bad design more quickly.
For example, you can now electronically manage your bill of materials to maximize part re-use. So you might have upper management requiring a new product with 70% part re-utilization that costs 50% less and takes half as much time to make. But how can you achieve those cost results when you have 70% of the same parts? As Albert Einstein reportedly said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Throughout a number of product generations, no one has taken a close look at the part and asked whether it even needs to be in the design.
All the heady language aside, it boils down to this: achieving design consensus through collaboration is not the same as achieving design innovation. Behind a corporate-wide information system must be a product development culture that constantly questions its own design assumptions. Go ahead and hunt for a total solution. But if your company's goal is to create the best, most profitable products, it is the interaction of people scrutinizing the small details of a design that will really lead to innovation.