Every day, around the globe, there are countless companies funneling time and money into product development cycles that just aren’t working. Either they’re taking too long to market, rapidly increasing in complexity, causing rampant quality issues, or making team communication impossible. When managers have poor oversight of progress, and boots-on-the-ground employees can’t work efficiently because of constraints beyond their control, new products fail—and that can lead to whole companies failing, especially in today’s market.
A product lifecycle management (PLM) system, at its core, aims to put all the various assets and information about a product development cycle into a single system. PLM allows employees to track the bill of materials (BOM), quality reports, compliance data, information on components, revisions from engineering, and much more.
This means that any employee who might touch the process—from an administrative assistant double-checking that a document was uploaded properly, to a CEO who wants to check in on the progress from a hotel overseas—can do so without hassle. The centralized system also means less homegrown processes, such as Excel sheets or pushing around paper, both of which are famous for failing in spectacular ways.
In particularly complex engineering processes, one element of PLM is of particular importance: the bill of materials (BOM). This is the core document that lists the parts needed to create the finished product, their relationships to each other, from where the part is coming, and, in the case of parts coming from other vendors, the amounts owed to each. The moment the BOM transitions from engineering to manufacturing is absolutely critical: if the BOM is not fully up-to-date and synchronized across the entire development cycle, the entire process comes to a halt.
Let’s look at three companies, all making the same widget, to illustrate how important the BOM is:
Company A doesn’t use a PLM system, and uses an Excel-based BOM in addition to some paper processes to communicate between engineers who handle compliance and engineers who handle quality control. Early prototyping has revealed potential quality issues, and so a paper form is filed to introduce a different part to the BOM. However, that form, for whatever reason, doesn’t reach the right desk, and the changes are never implemented in the BOM—when that outdated document is sent to manufacturing, quality issues immediately crop up, costing the company money in time and scrap.
Company B uses an up-to-date PLM system with an integrated BOM, which means that when an engineer makes a change due to potential compliance issues, it is immediately recognized. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still one problem: oftentimes, a simple change in engineering can mean a massive retooling in manufacturing, or introduce other complexities into the workflow that are beyond the capabilities of the current team. It turns out that one change requires a new part, which isn’t yet available from the vendor—the lack of overall visibility means that the company must spend more time in product development, costing time and money.
Company C uses an up-to-date PLM system with an integrated BOM and change order management. What’s that? Change order management, at its core, tells the journey of the product through the entire lifecycle, and ensures that every person involved is on exactly the same page whenever there is an engineering change request (ECR) or engineering change order (ECO) from any engineer, anywhere in the company. For Company C, this means that the same compliance-related change is tracked by the system, approved by the managers of affected parts, and added to the overall journey. Once development work is finished, manufacturing takes over and gets the product out the door—faster and for less money than the competitors.
Change order management can be a game-changer for companies who are developing complex products, and there’s so much more than keeping the BOM up-to-date. Within the umbrella of change order management, the best PLM systems offer notification for affected parties, the ability to vote and discuss ECRs and ECOs, documentation of deviations when there is a part shortage from a vendor, and the ability to receive feedback from suppliers or even customers. It’s not just about what decisions are made—it’s also about why they were made.
Like all enterprise-level software solutions, there are complexities in purchasing and rolling out a PLM system. For many businesses, capital investments can be difficult to justify, and quantifying a potential return on investment (ROI) can feel like guesswork at best. On top of that, there is the “fear factor” of introducing technological complexity. What if the system breaks? What if employees can’t onboard quickly? Partnering with a proven PLM provider is critical—they can provide the resources necessary for a smooth roll-out and have proved the ROI potential.
Continuous improvement never ends, but the truth is that Company A and Company B will have to watch as their competitor, Company C, reaches the market faster, with a higher-quality product and better customer relations. What matters is that when the time comes, companies step up and make the necessary changes. There’s no better time than now to make that step forward into a lifecycle that is more transparent, more cost-effective, and more competitive in the demanding global market.
To learn about Autodesk's PLM solution, visit the Fusion Lifecycle site.
- Tyler Beck, Technical Marketing