The Internet of things (IoT) is becoming the way of the world and because of it, there are now more components being manufactured and more intricate design chain challenges than ever. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will have to learn to trust data and analytics, where once they relied on people. To truly embrace this digital transformation, manufacturers need to step out of their comfort zones to learn new habits, acquire new disciplines, and implement organizational transformation that extends to their supply chain.
For small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), this may be a bit of a challenge. Turning to their product lifecycle management (PLM) system to manage backend activities typically stored in customer relationship management (CRM), issue tracking, and data collection systems -- as well as all the supply chain activities associated with procurement -- can help SMEs take advantage of the IoT like larger companies.
PLM’s Role in Leveraging Big Data
PLM technology provides a system to centralize product data, standardize business processes and streamline communication of information across distributed product development teams. It helps to shorten development cycles, improve quality and cut the time-to-market by enabling access to current and accurate product data. Anytime. Anywhere.
To aid in the development of more complex, smart device-enabled products, PLM software has evolved from the backbone for managing multiple discipline processes, product documentation, complex BOMs, and engineering changes, to capturing downstream activities such as manufacturing planning, quality processes, and product and customer/field-level feedback.
PLM is capable of integrating data on both the front end and back end to support a bigger picture and better-designed products. The amount of data interaction that engineers are going to need is increasing, especially since the domains of the design and engineering environments are no longer silos unto themselves. Data points related to product performance and efficiency can now be shared with the rest of the organization. Products are getting more complex by adding electronic and software components, and increased digital customer interactions bring forth even more information and opportunity.
Some of the PLM vendors that cater to SMEs have taken the steps to build simple-to-use tools to leverage data and communications in new and more meaningful ways. Let’s face it, communication continues to be the cornerstone of product development, manufacturing, and support. Meetings, emails, and phone/conference calls are important aspects of any team that builds products. It is all about transparency and finding the best ways to get everyone on the same page. Capturing these discussions and associating them to product records provides all personnel with the visibility to understand the full impact their products have had on user, consumers, and customers. Understanding this impact has a direct influence on product features and quality for future designs and updates/upgrades.
Embracing Customer Input
Customer feedback is commonly used throughout the product development process to ensure that the end product is something that solves a customer’s problem or fulfils a need. The companies that can intertwine product development and customer feedback will be the ones that reap strong competitive advantages, have sticky customer loyalty, and earn raving customer advocates. The best business decisions are based on data, not hunches. And this is especially true as the IoT adds an extra layer of complexity with a higher volume of customer feedback from both the consumer and products. Too many times, business owners’ and executives’ decisions are made based on inaccurate data.
Customer feedback is the holy grail of tangible data. It allows the product engineering team a better ability to gather real insight into how their customers really feel about the product or service. Bill Gates put it best when he related that a company’s most unhappy customers are actually the company’s greatest source of learning.
The Role of Communication Tracking Within PLM Systems
If a large percentage of customers suggest a product feature or want an additional customer service channel, it has now become possible to capture this information using PLM. PLM provides a communication platform to capture issues, feedback, and discussions from internal resources, customers, suppliers, and devices. Tracked items can automatically associate customer feedback to product records and translate to quality items and/or engineering changes/ECOs. This improves product development, quality, and timelines. Such systems can even provide product data links to internal and external feedback that makes the process easy and highly intuitive.
PLM systems have gotten smarter and many offer an efficient pre-filtering process before an issue becomes a quality item (such as a corrective action, nonconformity, process, change, etc.) or introduces product changes (ECOs). There is now a way to conduct closed-loop processing of PLM-related issues as well as non-PLM related ones.
It can also deliver a user with a blogging environment to encourage additional communication. Often it can help manage and route help tickets as well as track help ticket closure. Most importantly, it builds solutions and develops a more in-depth knowledge base to address common questions and problems for the purposes of improving product design and corporate policies.
Better Products Come from the Communication Loop
SMEs are coordinating 75% or more of their supply chain activity outside their four walls, using data derived from tapping into such areas as IoT, mobility and cloud-based technologies to achieve a more collaborative PLM framework, according to Frost & Sullivan. The results can deliver positive impacts in the design and engineering of products. This information SMEs are now tapping into is providing greater data accuracy, clarity, and insights, leading to better decision-making.
Extending PLM capabilities to include downstream processes, data sharing and analytics improve insights into customer requirements and make use of product performance data in real life. With PLCs, sensors, and smart devices improving and becoming more affordable and efficient, there are now more opportunities to track and research how devices are performing and how customers are experiencing products in all industries. Meaningful data gathered from customers, devices, suppliers and multiple departments internal to an organization, can seamlessly be filtered and leveraged throughout PLM processes to create better-engineered products.
Chuck Cimalore is president and CTO of Omnify Software, a company that designs, delivers and supports product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions for the Electronics OEM and Electronics Manufacturing Services industries. He is a graduate of Worchester Polytechnic Institute.
Image courtesy of Omnify Software.
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