Knowledge Workers Collaborate Globally

Oct. 1, 2004
Product Lifecycle Management, or PLM, is more than just a set of software applications. A successful implementation involves understanding the business process to help manufacturing knowledge workers bring products to life in a global manufacturing environment.

About five years ago, we still had product information on microfilm cards. We were mailing hard copies around the world whenever someone needed that information,” says Rick Huibregtse, vice president of engineering at Remy Inc., Anderson, Ind., a maker of automotive electrical components. With about 40,000 part numbers coming from a variety of areas of the company, or companies that it had acquired, this situation amounted to an enormous headache assuring that everyone was building from the same print.

Remy started to digitize its product information and bill of materials structure in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the supplier of the product chosen to accomplish this work decided to get out of the business. Huibregtse says the company researched the market and found a product called Product Sight, supplied by Bellevue, Wash.-based Product Sight Corp.. “We had to put in a fair amount of effort in the engineering and information technology (IT) departments to adopt the new processes. Because of the previous paper-based system, we had to make workflow changes and do a lot of training. We had to commonize the parts and computer-aided design (CAD) systems from among the various parts of the company and the companies we had acquired,” he adds.

Huibregtse knew that getting started with such a large project would be tough, so the first part of product lifecycle management software that Remy implemented was engineering change management. As people across the company became familiar with using digital product information, bill of material processing was added.

The company has multiple engineering sites scattered around the world. Not every site has direct access to a corporate IT structure, so the ability to put all the digital product information on the Web was crucial. To do this, a 2-dimensional drawing is filed, along with bill of material information, test data and product specifications for each part number. Typical files sizes for the standard 3-dimensional CAD drawings are too large to make Web-based file transfer feasible.

Huibregtse says it is hard to quantify the prevention of problems, but the difficulty of getting correct drawings to purchasing and manufacturing people around the world has been greatly reduced with the Product Lifecyle Management (PLM) system in place. Success was enhanced with a champion who worked in engineering but had an IT background. He could bridge the chasm that sometimes exists between the two departments. “If you don’t have cooperation of IT and engineering, you could never do a system like this.”


Talk about planning ahead. Pete Schaubach, chief information officer of ev3 Inc., says that this relatively new medical device manufacturer headquartered in Minneapolis decided to build a global supply chain and put an infrastructure in place upfront. The company was able subsequently to acquire new businesses and integrate them into the fold more quickly than would otherwise have been possible. “We put the IT structure in place ahead of time so that it wasn’t on the critical path of company and product integration projects. We run eight or nine centers in Europe and Asia, all on the same platform,” says Schaubach.

The first element of the strategy was to implement financial transaction applications. Then the data warehouse and analytics were put in place. “Look at it this way,” says Schaubach, “Enterprise resource planning (ERP) has been around forever. It’s just a given that you need it. But PLM is part of the business that is unstructured space. People are doing different things on products and product data management. We didn’t want to end up with three or four different applications to manage that space. So, we purchased MatrixOne in November to handle all the document management in R&D.”

A major challenge for a medical device manufacturer is handling federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compliance. ev3 implemented the engineering change and “program central” tools of MatrixOne Inc., a Westford, Mass., PLM software vendor, developing what it calls “FDA Accelerator” to make this problem easy. “The low hanging fruit in this project is the program’s ability to handle original files in their native format. And since every group deals with documents in some way or other, the sooner we can do it electronically, the better it will be for the entire organization,” adds Schaubach. In addition to better file management, Schaubach sees a valuable benefit in document routing management so things don’t get lost.

The business process and software tools to manage product definition documents and engineering changes in order to assure that all users have access to the same information is part of what product lifecycle management is all about. One problem of defining PLM is that seemingly every PLM vendor has a different interpretation.

For example, Kurt Anderson, vice president of solution sales at MatrixOne, says, “PLM is an IT category. A product that works for one company may not fit with a similar company because of differing priorities and practices. Products must have flexibility.”

Chuck Cimalore, chief technology officer of Wilmington, Mass., PLM supplier Omnify Software, says the founders of his company saw some issues related to the engineering department interfacing with manufacturing, especially that point when engineering is finished with design and passing the baton to manufacturing to build. “The core is to understand bill of materials management,” says Cimalore. “Key issues to manage include component data management, change management, collaboration and leveraging the Web in order to get better communication with fewer e-mails and phone calls.”

There are companies that supply stand-alone PLM applications, several specifically targeted at medium to smaller size companies. Providing a view from a large, enterprise integrated application is Doug Macdonald, Director of Business Development-NPDI for Walldorf, Germany-based SAP AG. “The key issue is increasingly how well all the systems work together. One of the biggest challenges is tying PLM into the financial and supply chain applications. The traditional focus of PLM has been on engineering and product development. There are other important areas to consider, such as market research, product data beyond the bill of materials, project portfolio management and managing the market launch process.”

Some companies need that fully integrated approach, while others, especially smaller companies, may just need parts of an overall application that can be more loosely tied together. In either case, the goal is providing tools for people within the company to collaborate on product innovation. James Horne, senior director of product management at Burlington, Mass., PLM supplier Framework Technologies Corp., says, “PLM includes collaborative product management, along with a method to capture and manage ideas. We view it as an information portal into product ideas.”

Todd Black, product manager for PLM supplier CoCreate Software Inc., in Fort Collins, Colo., says, “There are lots of problems when you introduce distance into a team: too many databases, firewalls, e-mail attachments, engineering changes, misunderstandings and delayed decisions. Collaborative product development solves these problems.”

The usual way to deliver software applications is in a box with compact disc read-only memory (CD-ROM). Some applications work almost out of the box, while others may require extensive integration efforts. Michael Topolovac, chief executive officer of Arena Solutions, Menlo Park, Calif., cites another way of delivering applications called “on-demand.”

Coming attraction

Topolovac contends that the on-demand model is a big coming attraction for customers. “Customers are not happy spending upwards of $300,000 for a complete PLM solution. With an on-demand system, they pay for the application as they use it. In addition, updates are completely painless to the user. All updates are done once on our servers and every customer is now running the latest revision.”

The on-demand model includes one server based at the supplier’s location, managed by the supplier. Customers load their data on the supplier’s secure servers and access the information over the Web. “We’ve used the latest Web technologies including XML (eXtensible Markup Language) from the beginning to make information integration easier,” says Topolovac.

Ryan Dengate, engineering and process documentation administrator for automotive components supplier Delphi Corp., in Grand Rapids, Mich., was looking for a way to manage and control a large set of multiple file format documents. These included CAD documentation and various Microsoft Office documents. These documents all related to various applications on the plant floor, such as machine set up, process set up and repair and replacement documentation for maintenance. He wanted one system to manage and view all the documents. When you make over 400,000 valve lifters a day, having instant access to the proper documents to keep machines running is crucial.

“What drew us to Product Sight,” says Dengate, “was full-text search. In this scheme, users are only on the system when they need to view a document. They may not know a file name or how it’s labeled in the system, but the document is easy to find. If they are looking for specific purchase detail and want to see where the part is used, they can put in a product number and do a full-text search. The system looks through Microsoft Office documents, plus AutoCad and SolidEdge drawings and will let users know all the various documents and uses that the product has.”

Another of the major attractions of Product Sight for Dengate: “We weren’t told how to structure the file systems to fit the application. We could work within our existing business process.”

Installation and migration—which, at the time included 125,000 documents—took less than a week for Delphi personnel. Delphi users in Grand Rapids, as well as in Europe and Asia, could all see the same documents at the same revision level. Product collaboration was significantly enhanced.

Making tires

Todd Wilson has been the project manager of Technical Systems at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. for more than 14 years, in the engineering and IT areas at the company’s corporate headquarters in Findlay, Ohio. Wilson and his group are responsible for supporting and developing engineering systems for the development of new products. One of the main initiatives of Cooper Tire’s technical groups is revaluating the new product development process and product change order from a Lean perspective.

Time to market was the key factor spurring the team to develop a PLM solution. “We sell to the automotive aftermarket, so we have to get new tires out quickly,” says Wilson. “We use Lean Manufacturing methodology and work in a collaborative environment. I work on the IT end of things and started looking about three years ago for a solution to get data to people sooner.”

One objective was to cut down on the constant use of e-mail and replace that with a Web-based client server architecture. “We looked at large PLM solutions and custom designs,” Wilson notes. “Then we looked at our workflows and the fact that we use Microsoft applications like Office extensively. Microsoft was willing to work with us to develop a collaborative system, so we went with them. As we went to work on this, we mapped out the process in true Lean methodology. This became not just an IT project, but involved the whole company.”

The result is a portal view of data that is Web-based and easy for people to use. The system went from concept to production in six months. “We’ve seen improvements in time to market from 18 months to nine to 11 months,” says Wilson. “But we’re in a state of constant improvement on this system.”

Acme Packet is a start-up company providing products for network services. The company was experiencing difficulty keeping track of all of its electronic parts and all the associated documentation. Steve Norton, director of hardware engineering for the Woburn, Mass., manufacturer, says the company was using a combination of Microsoft Excel and Access products to keep track of parts, part number assignments and “where used” information.

This system was very limiting for design engineers. “We couldn’t do a search for a part number, then increment to the next number and repeat the search,” states Norton. “We could potentially use the same number twice plus have many outmoded numbers. We needed a way to assign part numbers and maintain the documentation.”

The software solution from Omnify Software allows designers to put a symbol in the description for existing parts. They can just put this symbol in a schematic, thus keeping the centralized system intact. “The great thing about the tool is that it has a part number schema for higher level assemblies. If a resistor ends up on a printed circuit board, we have a part number for it, then a part number for the higher-level product. The system assigns numbering and does release tracking, so we can go back and pull information on shipped product,” adds Norton.

See sidebar to this article: A PLM Model