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Siemens Digital Industries Mazda image

(Image: Siemens Digital Industries Software)

Product lifecycle management (PLM) is software, right? Well, to a certain extent. An important extent. But not the full extent.

It would seem that when you hear the term “product lifecycle management,” odds are good that it is associated with a suite of products being offered by a company that is in the software business. Which might lead one to think that when you hear the acronym “PLM” that it is primarily of interest or relevance to those who are in some ways associated with the IT department.

But then we talk with Peter A. Bilello, president and CEO of CIMdata, which positions itself as “The Leader in PLM Education, Research, and Strategic Management Consulting,” a firm that does work in the PLM space globally, and discover that that notion, if not entirely wrong, isn’t fully correct, either.

As in:

“We intentionally have never defined PLM or associated terms as a piece of software, because software changes but the need to manage the lifecycle does not.

“We’ve always described it as a ‘strategic business approach.’ It can be enabled by technologies. But it is much more important to organizations what they manage, not what software they might or might not use.”

How the Business Operates

It’s not that software isn’t involved. But it is an organization’s approach to information management that matters—a lot—he points out. That is, information is what both defines and describes an object, whether it is physical (you are reading this on a computer screen or monitor right now and it was necessary that designers, engineers and manufacturing people created the information necessary to bring it into tangible existence) or digital (for example, in order for me to write this I had to organize letters into words into sentences into paragraphs, and I had to work with software that came out of Redmond).

Bilello references a descriptor that is familiar to those who are involved in the CM2 configuration management methodology when describing the handling of information, say that it must be “clear, concise and valid.” Not “clear, concise, valid and digital.” Although the last-named can help.

He says that managing the information is “core” to not only bringing a product to life, but to managing it throughout its lifecycle.

Which is where the software comes in.

Cars to Cans

Bilello says that when considering a complex product like an automobile, there is a huge array of software types that need to be deployed, ranging from those for the initial design and engineering to that for the collaboration that is required across functions all the way along to the support tools that may be necessary to recycle the product when it has reached the end of its useful life.

Peter Bilello

Peter Bilello on PLM and the organization: “It is much more important to organizations how they manage, not what software they might or might not use.” (Image: CIMdata)

He points out that even something as seemingly simple as a can of soda has a multitude of software tools necessary to bring it into existence, from the CAD for designing and styling the container to engineering tools to determine the crush characteristics of the can to the liquid formulation tools to the regulatory compliance software. . . . “All that to get it out the door.” A can of soda. And nowadays there is a handling of that can once it has been drained, which leads to another whole suite of tools to deal with its post-consumer existence.

Here’s something to think about. On the one hand, Bilello says, “All companies do PLM.” Meaning that they all have to manage the lifecycle (or at least a portion of it) somehow, even if it is based on Excel spreadsheets and emails. But on the other, “You’d be surprised at how many companies don’t have PLM.” As in the productized version with their product’s end-to-end lifecycle in mind.

The good news regarding both of those hands is that Bilello says that the auto industry is “one of the most vibrant areas in PLM, the industrial sector that widely uses it,” adding, “There are a lot of good implementations out there.”

What It Is

“Typically in a PLM environment, there will be a core solution,” Bilello says. Something that may be described as a “collaborative product definition management solution.” Something that brings in one of those brand names that you’ve undoubtedly heard of, like 3DEXPERIENCE from Dassault Systèmes, Teamcenter from Siemens Digital Industries Software (which until very recently was named Siemens PLM Software), Windchill from PTC (, Aras Innovator from Aras or another of the 50 or so packages that CIMdata counts.

Bilello says that they break PLM into three major technology spaces:

  • cPDm: or collaborative Product Definition management
  • Tools: such as CAD, CAE and other design and analysis software
  • Digital manufacturing: the capabilities that support the design of manufacturing capabilities

So, if we look at any of those just-mentioned backbone systems we’ll find that each one of them is a collection of associated tools. Yet Bilello points out that it is essentially impossible to buy an end-to-end PLM solution from a single vendor: “I don’t know of one solutions provider that has everything that a company like General Motors or Boeing needs.”

Which brings us back to management.

A Look Way Back

While Bilello says that the capabilities provided by PLM suppliers continue to expand and thereby provide the users with additional tools, he suggests that the bigger factor in PLM deployment is how companies are managed, primarily in the West.

That is, he notes the way that large organizations tend to be managed is in a way that essentially had its start during the Roman Empire.  The Roman army needed communications through the ranks so the division of labor was established. The person at the top of the pyramid (e.g., Caesar) made a command that then cascaded down. There were discrete groups who got information that they specifically needed to know.

Today this continues. “We have the operations guys over here, the engineering staff over there, the sales staff somewhere else, and marketing in another place. All of them have elements of the lifecycle,” he says, “but no one but the CEO has lifecycle ownership—and the CEO doesn’t have the time and/or hasn’t been trained to manage from a lifecycle perspective.”

And having a more holistic view is what is essential: “If lifecycle is about end-to-end management, I’d better have a view of the entire end-to-end so that I know where I should put my resources.

“We haven’t trained people that way. We’re not organized that way.”

And here’s a simple point that crystallizes this: “How many companies have an owner of the end-to-end lifecycle of a product?”

His answer: “We see it almost never.”

PLM can be thought of two parts making up a whole. There is the backend, all of the digital tools that are being updated on seemingly a daily basis by the technology companies, digital tools that are literally on the figurative leading edge of technology.

And then there is the front end, the management approach to dealing with a product from its very inception to its recycle/reuse.

The first half is up to the moment. According to Edward Gibbon, the Roman Empire fell in 476.

Software is important. But so is management.


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