Protecting Intellectual Property

Companies of all sizes look to innovate, bring their products to market, and ultimately compete successfully in a global marketplace.

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This often is accomplished in an extended, disparate, but highly collaborative partner/supplier environment. Many companies find that they need an enterprise-level product lifecycle management (PLM) solution set that provides a collaborative environment across their global value chain.

Accessing and exchanging product and process data across all domains of the product lifecycle requires companies to share engineering design, manufacturing processes, project and portfolio management information, and all forms of product development collateral with partners and supply chain providers. Successfully designing and building a product that meets both market and customer demands requires more than just managing and exchanging product design data. The sum total of engineering design and manufacturing processes represents a significant repository of intellectual property and core competency that companies need to manage and protect in an extended global environment.

While state-of-the art collaboration technology is built into current PLM solutions, companies and organizations must make the effort to identify and classify their critical intellectual property (IP) and strategic core competencies, and, in many cases, apply digital rights management (DRM) approaches to protect the IP.
The major PLM suppliers all offer comprehensive product data management (PDM) solution sets that can provide a highly collaborative design/build environment. This is all well and good, as long as all engineering models, manufacturing process information and other collaborative data is managed and controlled within the confines of the PDM system.

Risk in sharing

However, in a typical extended partnership/supplier network, it is not uncommon for partners, suppliers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to use different PLM/PDM systems. In fact, even internally, many companies have a heterogeneous PLM environment consisting of a variety of computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) applications. Often, without integrated DRM capabilities, even the use of common PDM systems will not ensure that IP can be adequately protected.

Collaboration and outsourcing have become facts of life in the global economy. However, it’s important to consider the difference between outsourcing manufacturing operations that require only non-professional labor, vs. outsourcing engineering design and product development. Normally, outsourcing production doesn’t require companies to expose much of their product design IP (although it can expose proprietary manufacturing processes). Contract manufacturers focus on producing product and generally lack specific engineering skills and knowledge to duplicate a product.

Conversely, outsourcing engineering design can significantly increase the risk of exposure to IP theft. A company’s product line contains ideas, innovations and concepts, as well as IP. These all contribute to that company’s market and competitive position.

While state-of-the-art collaboration technology is built into current PLM solutions, companies and organizations must also make the effort to identify, classify and define their critical IP and strategic core competencies. Without integrated DRM, PLM/PDM systems can only protect information while it remains internal to the system. Once product and process data is outside of the physical protection of the IP owner, there is usually nothing to prevent its intended or unintended disclosure to third parties, competitors, the press and other non-authorized parties.

When adopting and implementing DRM systems, companies should first define and formulate a DRM policy and procedure strategy. This includes establishing usage rights, organizational roles for both individuals and organizations, and a need-to-know procedure for internal organizations and partner/supplier networks. Additionally, a robust DRM system would work to enhance most PLM/PDM systems by enabling access to correct versions of engineering models and disabling access to all other versions that may be outside the managed environment of the current PDM system.

Dick Slansky,, is a Senior Analyst at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.

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