How AI and PLM Maintain Order When Project Chaos Threatens

Resilient designers step up focus on smart connected products; the pandemic’s PLM tipping point.

October 19, 2021

10 Min Read
Siemens Simcenter Studio.Siemens Digital Industries Software

Peter A. Bilello

The working environments of designers are changing rapidly, according to CIMdata’s clients and partners.  Drivers of this change, which is both deep and far-reaching, include booming demand for countless new Smart Connected Products, new approaches to old problems (e.g. the application of Agile to all product development), new tools on designers’ desktops, and nonstop digital transformation—all swept up in the disruptions of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Designers are not alone in this; production workers, managers, and numerous enterprise processes have parallel sets of disruptions.  Smart Connected Products, for example, are growing ever more digitally complex, requiring frequent upgrades and rebuilds of manufacturing equipment. (Meanwhile, the output of virtually all simple but vital “nuts and bolts” items is completely automated; output is now often merely weighed rather than counted.)

Some specifics:

  • New approaches include artificial intelligence (AI, a.k.a. machines that think and self-adjust), Agile product development methods, and model-based systems engineering (MBSE)

  • New tools include machine language (an AI subset), topology data analysis (TDA), and new and more powerful design tools with endless enhancements to existing systems 

  • Underlying new design approaches and tools is digital transformationNOTE 1

  • Tying all this together is product lifecycle management (PLM) with its digital threadsNOTE 2 and their associated digital twins.NOTE 3. In disrupted environments, PLM is unmatched for maintaining order when chaos threatens, i.e., for not losing visibility of information, assets, and processes or access to them

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Much has been written about the dire impacts on the design and development sectors of the economy due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Aside from problems and disruptions, however, what goes on inside enterprises has largely been ignored and countless new opportunities have been overlooked.

True, gloom and doom is all around us.  More than 675,000 have died in the U.S. (as of October 1, 2021).  One in ten Americans has tested positive for Covid-19 infection and millions have been hospitalized.  Retailing has been upended, restaurants and entertainment have been clobbered, and airlines have been left at the gate.  Some disrupted businesses may never be seen again. 

With so many people who are in, or were in, some form of lockdown, providing for basic household needs is spawning new business models; the success of Amazon is an extreme example.  Accenture’s consumer products group reported a 343 percent increase in “…the proportion of online purchases for products such as food, home décor, fashion, and luxury goods by previously infrequent e-commerce users … since the outbreak.”

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But to almost everyone’s surprise, industrial companies have proved to be highly resilient.  So have delivery businesses, Cloud services, and other large parts of the economy.  This is why so many industrial- and digital-technology companies are booming. 

We at CIMdata see countless new ways our clients and partners respond to unanticipated changes in customer demands.  We too endured many of the pandemic’s pains and were as surprised as anyone by this unexpected resilience of our clients and partners.  For PLM and for digital transformation more broadly, both 2020 and 2021 were better years than anyone predicted; 2022 looks stronger yet.

Our client companies include aero and defense manufacturers, automotive suppliers, providers of consumer-packaged goods, and many others.  They tell us that Covid-19 led to unprecedented opportunities to push through needed change.  We at CIMdata see two vital elements in that change:

  • Digital transformation, specifically the end-to-end, bidirectional connectivity of data, products, functions, and analyses, which is accelerating

  • Implementing and/or upgrading Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and Product Innovation Platforms, which are the essential enablers of product-centric digital transformation

As many readers know, CIMdata does annual PLM Status & Trends surveys.  These showed healthy gains in 2020 and ’21 and projected solid growth for ’22 and beyond.  We believe that three vital years will prove to be the Ground Zero of resiliency, along with innovation and sustainability.  These three mark a tipping point for PLM and the technologies that enable digital transformation, as well as an upheaval in new-product design.  

Similarly, in nearly all their first-half 2021 financial results, seven leading technology developers (and PLM solution providers) reported sharp increases.  The seven are Altair, ANSYS, Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Dassault Systèmes, PTC, and Synopsys. 

Despite those gains, no one says achieving and sustaining resilient design environments will be easy, especially as new technologies pop up in every marketplace.  A June 2020 survey by McKinsey & Co. revealed that few executives felt equipped to pursue the innovation opportunities in Covid-19 disruptions and beyond. 

  • Only one in five respondents told McKinsey they felt they had the expertise, resources, and commitment to pursue new growth successfully

  • Two-thirds said they believe the pandemic will be the most challenging moment in their career 

  • 90 percent said the pandemic will fundamentally change the way they do business

CIMdata’s PLM Status & Trends surveys also uncovered persistent challenges:

  • Too many implementations still focus on product data management (PDM, critical core of your typical PLM environment)

  • Too many installed PLM solutions have become “legacies,” nearing end of life—while resources to reimplement are scarce

  • Widespread management disconnects despite agreements to focus on faster, better, and cheaper

  • Confusion about the roles of enterprise-level systems

  • Conflicts among business cultures, practices, and priorities

  • Resistance to change

Many designers wrestle with these daily.

As a leading independent global strategic management, consulting, and research authority, CIMdata focuses on PLM and the wide-ranging digital transformation that is facilitated and supported by PLM and its enabling technologies.  

At CIMdata, we see the PLM Economy continuously enabling ongoing resiliency in design and development as designers and managers:

  • Drive innovation and business sustainability by embracing change; change makes life interesting, even in business

  • Demand and support capabilities, business unit learnings, organizational changes, and new processes that continue to foster product and process innovation

  • Insist on budgeting for robust, internally integrated design tools and platforms with expanded collaboration to manage data and processes, no matter how widely distributed or complex

As in previous difficult periods such as the 2008’s so-called Great Recession, nearly all companies made significant changes and some had to change nearly everything.  Then as now, in rising to meet critical challenges, most were successful and many are in fact thriving. 

How industrial companies are making this happen

Yes, thriving.  Early in 2021, tech powerhouse Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) reported big gains in digital transformations by TCS clients as they move “from crisis management to adapting to new beginnings.”  

Among these “new beginnings,” fifth-generation wireless telecommunications (5G) will greatly improve connectivity for all the office and design staff who abruptly began working from home (WFH) early in 2020.  With many key employees and decision-makers still working remotely, employers are implementing or extending bidirectional connectivity (an essential element of digital transformation).  With cybersecurity ramped up, CIMdata sees WFH and remote work in general as two of PLM’s new best friends, along with digitalization and automation.

At the same time, the use of Cloud-based capabilities is soaring while the adoption of Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) and other model-based initiatives is being stepped up or completed.  Designers are big beneficiaries.

As for PLM solution providers themselves (and all tech companies), being successful in today’s business environments means staying focused.  Now is the time to carefully invest in new and extended capabilities. 

Some of the most stubborn disruptions faced by designers, and industrial companies in general, are internal and not always technical.  Tech consulting giant Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. provided a useful overview in its 2021 Manufacturing Industry Outlook.  “Manufacturers seek to be disruption-proof,” Deloitte Touche observed, and this is a four-part effort:

Navigating disruptions better by improving visibility in forecasting.

Investing in Digital Twins and Digital Threads of products, processes, and production environments to enhance the flexibility designers and companies must have to quickly meet unexpected challenges.

Reassessing supply chains; strategic supply chains with sole-source suppliers may be unsustainably brittle.

Adapting to newly agile workforces by re-architecting workplaces and creating new ways for designers (and all employees) to gather information and collaborate. 

Smart Connected Products, Digital Twins, and Digital Threads

By now designers, leaders, and managers in every industrial company understand that resilience is central Smart Connected Products. They have sensors, microprocessors, controls, software, an operating system, and a digital user interface.  They also are connected to some data network, often the Internet of Things (IoT).

There can be no enterprise resilience without Smart Connected Products—and they don’t just happen.  In multiple, complicated ways, they are enabled by Digital TwinsNOTE2 and Digital ThreadsNOTE 3, and both are deeply embedded in PLM solutions many designers and their managers use regularly.

Both Digital Twins and Digital Threads are enabled and supported by robust, end-to-end-connected MBSE processes.  These include completing the digitalization of analysis and design within the overall Model-Based Enterprise.  Because Digital Twins and Digital Threads are fed endless amounts of data from the IoT and from embedded sensors, they are indispensable for designing Smart Connected Products. 

Within manufacturing itself, new technologies, enablers, and synergies are helping create Smart Connected Products.  Along with machine language (ML), these include generative design, advanced materials, and additive manufacturing, a.k.a., 3D printing. All are increasingly familiar to product designers.

The quality of our data is a big challenge and one that seems to be growing for many companies.  Product/asset data is normally scattered through many departmental silos and is therefore incomplete or opaque.  This is why designers working on Smart Connected Products often feel they barely scratched the surface of what is possible.

There is help for designers (and long-term resiliency) in analytics with Topology Data Analysis (TDA).  TDA uncovers predictive and actionable insights by revealing hidden patterns and relationships, even in unstructured data, according to SIAI.  According to SIAI (a SymphonyAI Group company), Topology Data Analysis can help uncover both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”

And there is help as well in product development by using Agile.  Compared to conventional (“waterfall”) coding methodologies, Agile is more responsive to unexpected changes in resources and requirements.  These always pop up as products are designed and developed—ordinary or Smart Connected, mechanical, electrical, or digital.

Key decisions are yet to be reached in many areas.  AI, for example, and machine language, are in early adoption with a lot of experimentation underway.  The same is true for predictive analysis.  Early adopters in design environments are also hunting for the best ways to handle open feedback loops, such as those in decision-making and follow-through.  Open loops are also problematic when measurements are fed into Smart Connected Products. 

Industrial enterprise leaders and designers also tell CIMdata that decisions are urgently needed on:

  • More robust cybersecurity to deter paralyzing ransomware attacks

  • Growing shortages of workers with skills needed for tomorrow’s tasks

  • Recurring scarcities of vital commodities such as electronic chips

  • Next steps in production automation such as Industry 4.0

  • Sustainability throughout the enterprise

All of these are critical as designers strive to build for the resiliency to build sustainability, in their work and enhance innovation, and overcome disruption.

In conclusion, the industrial resiliency we are seeing does indeed constitute a tipping point.  And like every tipping point, difficulties will arise.  Lest complacency slip in, we offer two cautions familiar to every designer: “Change is often not what we expected it to be” and “Most significant changes happen on the edge of chaos.”

We at CIMdata believe there is no going back.  

Note 1: In simplest terms, digital transformation means getting rid of paper and the data-sharing constraints of documents and file formats.  Despite documents’ ease of use, their information is never shared widely without difficulties such as fitting data into in ever-changing contexts in engineering and analysis.  Getting rid of paper also upends the departmental silos that generate and hoard it.

Note 2: A Digital Twin is a virtual representation—a digital surrogate—of a physical asset that uses data flowing to and from the physical asset. 

Note 3: A Digital Thread is the connected communication framework that enables integrated digital views and data flows throughout any product’s lifecycle or that of any asset.

Peter A. Bilello, is President and CEO of CIMdata Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich.

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