Close the Loop on Product Lifecycle Management

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) has proved valuable as a means to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of product development.

However, in control system terminology, PLM has been operating “open loop.” While PLM systems facilitate a complex and interrelated progression of product development activities, there has been no real-time feedback loop of product performance. Machine-to-Machine (M2M) implementations enable ongoing long-term feedback on products as they operate in the field.

Field monitoring by vendors of their deployed products is not a new concept, but dial-up access or monitoring via proprietary networks can be cumbersome. And in the case of dial-up, it certainly has speed limitations. By contrast, M2M technologies take advantage of the enormous Internet-based infrastructure to provide tremendous bandwidth while lowering costs and simplifying equipment monitoring. The term Pervasive Internet (PI) describes the content, computing and communications capabilities that can be leveraged for a wide range of applications.

Closing the loop

Suppliers and users of PLM systems have an opportunity to positively influence future product designs by “closing the loop” via M2M monitoring. By their nature, M2M implementations enable continuous monitoring. This sharply contrasts with the “post mortem” reviews that are listed as part of stage-gate and other development time lines, which are seldom done in a meaningful way. Even when completed in a thoughtful manner, post mortems are often single-point events and not implemented in a way that ensures ongoing input to the design process.

In terms of the traditional product life definition, monitoring via M2M can provide valuable feedback from market introduction through growth, maturity and decline. In the later stages, facts on long-term performance cannot only influence new designs, but also provide better information upon which decisions on field service can be made. As with most system and product developments, the implementation of M2M monitoring ranges from internal development and deployment to full outsourcing. However, alliances seem especially well-suited for early adopters of wireless monitoring.

In many industrial applications, the latest wireless sensors and networks offer promise of minimal installation cost with extreme flexibility. The continued growth and interest in Zigbee-based systems for industrial applications is due in large part to their robustness and long battery life, as well as the ability to connect to many devices at once.

A representative sample of the wide range and capabilities of M2M partners was exhibited at the recent Zigbee Alliance conference in Boston. At the chip level, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. (www.freescale.com), a Motorola spin-off based in Austin, Texas, showed chip solutions. Ember Corp. (www.ember. com), Boston, adds an application programming interface (API) to a Chipcom IC and also provides development tools to support it. For endpoints, routers and gateways, Millennial Net Inc. (www.millennial.net), Cambridge, Mass., has tiny assemblies that can be packaged inside other products. Sensicast Systems Inc. (www.sensicast.com), Needham, Mass., showed fully packaged sensing products that combined signal conditioning with Zigbee networking. For those seeking assistance in application development and integration, San Juan Software (www.sanjuansw.com), Friday Harbor, Wash., is an example of firms with this type of capability.

Regardless of the path to implementation, continuous feedback from your installed products is extremely valuable and should “feed” ongoing enhancements and future designs. The availability of powerful wired and wireless communications and the associated support from partner companies make it easier than ever to close the loop on PLM.

Mark Knebusch, mgk918@comcast.net, is director at Harbor Research, a Boston and San Francisco business research and analyst firm.

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