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Just Another Acronym

Just Another Acronym

By the year 2000, the dot.commania had produced a financial valuation "bubble" that exploded in spectacular fashion. Companies that offered advanced solutions to fill questionable market needs disappeared in mini-mushroom clouds.

A similar phenomenon will occur again, but with an unspectacular fizzle rather than an explosion or even a "pop." This time, the mania's name will be PLM.

Collaboration is the heart of PLM. In simpler times, we called it "working together," "talking," and "communicating." In typical marketing fashion, however, those simple concepts don't adequately inflate advertising copy, so marketers use bigger words, which they then morph into acronyms. Their aura leads career-building "early adopters" to initiate new pilot projects, and draws praise from financial and industry analysts whose stock in trade is big words and big concepts.

And what do the rest of us get for all this? Never-ending implementation projects. There is little innovation here that transforms the way we do our jobs in a brilliantly new and beneficial way. The acronym PLM is a proxy for lack of innovation.

Even in a self-contained engineering department, where everyone is a yell away, it's unlikely that meaningful collaboration includes all the events that developers of PLM software tell us should occur. Many of the technical capabilities in full-blown PLM products are there because they are possible, not because we need them. The complexity of managing "real-time" collaboration through "electronic yelling" often results in increased confusion and uncertainty.

PLM vendors and their promoters need to take a cold shower. What they're calling new is what engineers have always done. So-called "PLM" has been around since the Egyptians designed the Pyramids and the Romans designed the Apian Way.

The really useful-and used-elements of technology, other than such things as the telephone, video-conferencing, or FedEx, are email, FTP, and Google. They represent the essence of "working together," "talking," and "communicating." And, guess what? They are largely free.

Companies could throw out all the hyped peripheral products that are part of a PLM package, save large amounts of money on implementation costs and staffs, use the truly innovative/useful parts of the Internet, and probably introduce products quicker than they do today with fewer errors.

Instead of pedaling PLM, companies in that business should instead be concentrating on real innovation, much as PTC did with feature-based modeling and IBM did developing personal computers.

If they need suggestions, here's one: Among the most fertile areas for innovation in mechanical design is simulation. It's been accomplished in the electronics world because of that world's digital nature. But, mechanical-product predictability is still the great frontier, and to simulate it accurately will require a fundamental breakthrough, for example bringing probabilistic design techniques to the engineer's daily world. Those sorts of tools could totally change the playing field in mechanical product development.

Acronyms come and go. The PLM term will disappear because companies will not buy acronyms as proxies for innovation. True innovation, however, will have staying power.

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