Following the software revolution of the mid-90s, PDM (Product Data Management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning), were buzzwords sweeping through major OEMs. Now in the new millennium comes PLM (product lifecycle management).
There are plenty of suppliers willing to sell this new philosophy, preaching that companies must track their new products from initial development through design and manufacturing, into sales and maintenance, and finally through to disposal. PTC (Needham, MA), EDS (Plano, TX), and Eigner (Waltham, MA) all sell PLM "solutions."
That last word is important, because it signifies that PLM is a general business philosophy, not a specific tool. So who needs the software companies' advice (not to mention their price tags)?
While some smaller companies can handle the challenge internally, big corporations have much more to lose. The American automotive industry, for example, has never been under more pressure to perform. While Japanese auto makers tend to collaborate with their suppliers, U.S. companies are split by bickering over price negotiations (such as recent tiffs over U.S. steel tariffs), price pressure in lean times, and breakups like Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone.
So a growing trend is for the auto OEMs to push design-responsibility and warrantee-responsibility down the supply chain, by granting design authority to tier-one or tier-0.5 suppliers, says Jonathan Boyce, automotive industry marketing director at PTC. For example, Porsche subcontracted the entire design of its Boxster to Valmet Automotive (Uusikaupunki, Finland), leaving the OEM doing just image marketing and brand syndication.
So the new dynamic is an intrinsically distributed product development process, he says. But such outsourcing must be carefully planned, in the face of brand mergers, such as Ford owning Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and much of Mazda. It must differentiate within its own brand portfolio, and not cannibalize itself.
That adds up to a tough challenge for the design engineer, who is now charged with carrying a single design theme throughout a broad range of products, yet still differentiating that range, while still adding new features, and always lowering the cost of the vehicle.
One way to do that is delivering cars that are built-to-order. Another way is to bring items like telematics and software from the luxury market down into the mass market. But both those design approaches demand a new type of collaboration, Boyce says. "The new challenge is not to collaborate so much at the document level or at the CAD level, but at the DMU (digital mockup) level."
That means it's more important than ever to manage data from a variety of CAD sources, to make sure all those parts fit together in the end. And yet the OEMs applying these tools want to install new software quickly, and to train their employees even faster.
"They want us to plug it in and go away," Boyce says. So most companies are taking a modular approach to PLM, taking a nibble instead of a bite.
For instance, the PLM solution to heterogenous CAD data is happening at the visualization level, but is not true interoperability, Boyce says. That means you can get a true geometric representation of CAD data, squeezed into a more efficient form. So a 10 MB file can be viewed at under a single megabyte, yet still allow viewers to see cross-sections, make measurements, and annotate parts. Such a solution is good enough for 75-80% of collaborative activity, with occasional use of the original, "deep" data, for CNC applications, he says.