PLM Propels Productivity and Profits

June 29, 2011
Whether a manufacturer is small or large, bringing a steady stream of new products to market has never been easy. But doing it in today’s hyper-competitive and globally stretched marketplace adds other ripples to an already turbulent process.

At Mercury Marine (, for example, churning out commercial and recreational boat engines now requires collaboration among engineering centers in six countries, and manufacturing and supplier facilities in 11.

Since the $1.5 billion manufacturer installed its product lifecycle management (PLM) system, it has been able to glide easily over these waters, releasing a new product every six weeks. “We’ve been able to maintain this pace through the recession with two-thirds of the workforce that we had before the downturn,” reports John Bayless, director of strategy and program management at Mercury Marine headquarters in Fond du Lac, Wis.

Bayless and his colleagues are part of a growing number of managers and engineers who have been exploiting new capabilities in PLM software to build their products as designed. “PLM systems are growing up,” he observes. “They have tremendous capability to connect people.”

This ability has flowed from a change in course that occurred a little more than a decade ago. “The industry got started with design software and then product data management,” explains Bill Boswell, senior director of Teamcenter product marketing at Siemens PLM Software Inc. (, headquartered in Plano, Texas. When manufacturing companies realized that they should also be managing the entire lifecycles of their products, not just design data, they began collecting and managing process information as well. Software vendors responded by developing PLM software for collaborating around just one source of both product and process knowledge.

Of the plethora of choices available today, Mercury Marine looked at three and decided to install Teamcenter PLM software offered by Siemens. “It had the best cross-functional capabilities for our processes and provided a means to connect design all the way to the shop floor,” explains Bayless. As he and his colleagues discovered, some PLM vendors specialize in a portion of the product lifecycle or in a particular industry. Mercury wanted a solution that would tie design not only to its manufacturing operations and supply chain worldwide, but also eventually to its aftermarket service organization.

Organize around people
Because Mercury was building PLM around its product-development process, the first step in the implementation was to integrate Teamcenter with the Pro/Engineer computer-aided design (CAD) software used by design. (Now known as Creo Elements/Pro, Pro/Engineer was created by Needham, Mass.-based PTC (, who changed its name in October 2010.) “In our implementation, part numbers are controlled by the PLM system, not by the ERP [enterprise resource planning] system,” says Bayless. “When a designer pulls a part number to begin working on a new component, the number goes into a bill of material organized in the way that our people are organized.”

Because the PLM software stores all product data in a useful way in a central place, everyone collaborating with the designer can find the most recent information that they need, as well as provide information needed by others. Cost control, procurement, quality control, and manufacturing have access to the data even though they do not use the CAD software. In this way, the PLM system supports not only generating manufacturable designs, but also managing the timeline, controlling costs, and organizing internal and external resources.

Besides serving as the central repository for CAD data and the bill of materials, the PLM software also automates the product-development process and enforces a companywide discipline on it. One result is that everyone concerned knows where everything is in the process and what the next step is. “I don’t have to call a meeting or make a phone call to find out what the latest developments are or when to expect prototypes at the plant,” says Bayless. “As program manager, I get a report on estimated costs every week.”

Faster change orders
Another result of having a common process across the enterprise is a shorter time for processing and disseminating engineering change orders. “It reduced the change process from an average of 56 days down to 22,” reports Bayless. These change requests could come from manufacturing during the design phase or from engineers analyzing warranty data. In both cases, Mercury Marine can implement a quality improvement a month faster, on average, than it would have in the days before PLM.

Management at Mercury Marine expects even more benefits to accrue as it continues to push the PLM system further along the lifecycle. For example, it eventually wants to link quality control to the PLM system, and to make product data available to the service organization. “We’re looking at using the engineering data to generate animated maintenance manuals,” explains Bayless. “As engineering makes changes, the PLM software would alert the service-manual writer with the rest of the PLM workflow so that service manuals can be updated much faster than in the past.”

Results like these require a uniform, cross-functional process that can be automated across the business. “So, before specifying a PLM system, we made sure that we could provide definitions of our business processes and a roadmap of how we see the PLM system evolving to support them,” says Bayless.

Waste not, want not
Like Bayless, Vic Drecchio also turned to PLM to bridge the communications gap between design and manufacturing at TIMCO Aerosystems (, a Greensboro, N.C.-based supplier of interiors for commercial aircraft. In his case, however, this ERP manager installed PLM software from Epicor Software Corp. ( of Irvine, Calif. simultaneously with Epicor’s ERP system because, he says, the solutions were already tightly integrated.

Integration was a priority for the project because one of TIMCO’s goals was to improve visibility into its document archives. To control costs in design, the hope was to give engineers the means to search the archives quickly and reuse as many designs as possible, even though building interiors for jetliners is a custom business. Two airlines may buy the same jets, but they will order different floor heights to increase space for either the overhead bins or cargo hold below. Even so, TIMCO wanted to avoid redesigning those components of storage bins and other subassemblies that remain the same from jet to jet, or merely need a slight modification.

The biggest difficulty in preparing the PLM system for this purpose was the extra work required to catalog parts and assign searchable attributes to them. Many of the designers were skeptical at first because the task of adding each part to the database slowed them down until a critical mass was achieved about six to eight months after implementation. At that time, design time fell dramatically, causing even the skeptics to embrace the technology. “It has saved us countless man-hours,” says Drecchio.

Interior designers were not the only ones who needed quicker access to document archives. Manufacturing needed it, too. “Assembly may be manufacturing portions of a lavatory, for example, while engineering is still designing other portions,” explains Drecchio. The old method of requesting copies from document control was simply too slow and too prone to releasing the wrong version to the shop. Such errors can go undetected for while, leading to scrap and rework.

Before the Epicor PLM and ERP systems were installed, another way that error crept into the process was through redundant data entry. Designers would use an open-source, homegrown database to generate parts lists, revision histories, and paper approval forms required by the Federal Aviation Administration. “Then, somebody would enter all of this by hand into a rudimentary, open-source ERP system,” recalls Drecchio. “Our bills of materials can be 1,000 to 3,000 line items deep.”

The new PLM system automatically generates the bill of materials from the three-dimensional CAD model produced by the designers. Because the new PLM and ERP systems are integrated, a bill of materials appears in the ERP system a few minutes after the designer finishes. “That saves 40 to 80 man-hours a week just right there,” notes Drecchio.

More importantly, everybody sees the current version of the data. “When a bill of material is generated, it’s visible throughout the enterprise,” adds Drecchio. “If people on the shop floor have questions, they can click on a part number from a terminal in the shop and open any of the attached CAD drawings or engineering notes.”

The result is fewer errors and less scrap and rework. “Inventory levels have been a little more constant, and things have been a little more predictable,” reports Drecchio. “We can forecast our projects more accurately now.”

Not just for the big boys
Results like these are not reserved for large companies alone. Smaller ones can also benefit from PLM, as a successful implementation at Crystal Technology Inc. ( proves. From its facility in Palo Alto, Calif., the 100-employee contract manufacturer produces lithium niobate wafers and acousto-optic components. The 40-year-old company and its suppliers package them into custom subassemblies for surface-acoustic-wave devices, fiber optics and laser applications.

The business sells a mix of about 300 of these components in a range of volumes. “We can sell two pieces of one item in a year, and 20,000 pieces of another,” says Frederic Garderes, director of supply chain.

Sales had been growing at about 20 percent a year, except for a couple of years during the recession. Meanwhile, time to market was shrinking. Consequently, filing cabinets were no longer suitable for managing product data. “Pulling out a drawing was not necessarily easy,” says Garderes.

>> Read about the latest developments with Teamcenter Mobility, a new mobile app for digital product lifecycle management.

Like TIMCO, Crystal Technology needed an easier way to search its parts archive so that its designers could cut costs by reusing parts that were already available. Because the company outsources some of its design and manufacturing, it too needed to establish a single source of truth for everyone concerned. It needed a PLM system that would let everyone see the same bills of materials, part data, assembly instructions, engineering change orders, and test specifications.

To do this, Garderes installed PLM software from Omnify Software ( of Tewksbury, Mass., inserting the solution between the Infor  ( (Alpharetta, Ga.) ERP Baan and Cadence Design Systems ( (San Jose, Calif.) OrCAD systems that Crystal Technology was already using. Although Garderes had to invest some money and three months in developing an interface between Omnify and the ERP system, he is glad that he did. “It’s so much easier to work with electronic versions of our documentation,” he says.

Using attributes, designers can now search the parts database for a housing, for example, that has the features necessary for holding a particular crystal. “We may find that we have three parts already available that fit the search parameters,” says Garderes. “We’ll pick the best one, even if we have to customize it to add a feature like another hole to accommodate a sensor.”

Although manufacturing engineers are using Omnify PLM to review designs for manufacturability, Garderes wants to extend this visibility further into the shop by providing it with electronic documentation. Right now, the scheduling department prints a traveler, drawings, and other documentation and puts them all in a folder with the work order as it goes to the shop floor.

These extensions of the technology should boost the benefits that Crystal Technology has already been reaping. For example, it has not had to add any new people to its design and document-control teams over the last five years, despite increases in business. The company has also been able to squeeze out a week from processing engineering change orders. “We’d like it to be about five days,” says Garderes, “but that’s a goal that will require some changes in our business processes.”

These changes will be in addition to those already made, such as instilling a discipline of redlining designs electronically. “Getting employees to go from traditional, manual processes to a fully automated system is always the biggest challenge for our customers,” notes Chuck Cimalore, president and chief technology officer at Omnify.

But adopting these new practices is part of the mix for success today. “Business landscapes have changed significantly over the past decade, and product development and manufacturing have extended well beyond the traditional four walls of the company,” explains Cimalore. “The increase of partnering and outsourcing requires systems that provide secure access to all necessary product data throughout extended supply chains.” In this environment, propelling productivity and profits requires centralizing product data in a PLM system.Subscribe to Automation World's RSS Feeds for Feature Articles

Crystal Technology Inc. (

Mercury Marine (

TIMCO Aerosystems (

Cadence Design Systems (

Epicor Software Corp. (

Infor (

Omnify Software (


Siemens PLM (

About the Author

James R. Koelsch, contributing writer | Contributing Editor

Since Jim Koelsch graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he has spent more than 35 years reporting on various kinds of manufacturing technology. His publishing experience includes stints as a staff editor on Production Engineering (later called Automation) at Penton Publishing and as editor of Manufacturing Engineering at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. After moving to freelance writing in 1997, Jim has contributed to many other media sites, foremost among them has been Automation World, which has been benefiting from his insights since 2004.

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