Where did PLM come from?

I often get questions about what exactly is Product Lifecycle Management (PLM). The best thing to do is to look at some of the concrete things (products) you interact with on a daily basis. For example, I am currently sitting on a MD-80 airplane, using a laptop, listening to a MP3 player on noise cancelling headphones drinking a soft drink, eager to land and turn on my cell phone so I can pick up golf clubs and run to a rental car. Every product (airplane, laptop, MP3 player, soft drink, cell phone, golf clubs, car) I am interacting with is comprised of lots of different parts or processes which are designed by people. From a very high level perspective, PLM is about getting the parts and processes from those designers into the hands of the people who will actually build the products with the least amount of overhead (wasted time) for these people.

PLM layers additional capability on top of Product Data Management (PDM). This blog post explores some of the drivers in managing data through PDM features. PDM is really the first step on the journey into PLM. Lets spend some more time talking about one of those products I am currently using - the MP3 player. Any MP3 player takes an audio file (in some specific format) into a signal sent through speakers or headphones using an audio jack. I will take you through a typical, high level view of how it happens and who is involved in designing the system. This post paints just a general picture using a lot of assumptions and gross generalizations. In the real world, development of a product gets more complicated with less clear boundaries between jobs.

From the outside in, there is a physical form of the MP3 player. There is a designer who produces pictures (drawings, sketches, etc.) and overall physical dimensions for the way the MP3 player will look. Inside, there is a Printed Circuit Board Assembly running some software which actually converts the files to the audio signal. Finally, there is an overall software program running which allows the user to pick which songs to play through a LCD panel. Again - gross simplification, but easier to talk about.

A Mechanical Engineer will take that physical picture and make detailed drawings or models of it in some sort of mechanical Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. These detailed drawings are needed to be able to make the different parts. Take the battery cover off your MP3 player (or cell phone or remote control or cordless mouse) and look closely at it. Most likely, a Mechanical Engineer modeled that cover in CAD so that it could be injection molded. When modeling the cover, they had to consider clearances for the battery and anything else inside that cover. To support the injection molding process, they also had to consider many different requirements for plastic molding.

The Electrical Engineer has to figure out how to convert that file into the electrical signal for your headphones. They will use some software which allows them to model electrical circuits which results in a Schematic. The Schematic will indicate which capacitors, resistors, integrated circuits, memory chips, and other electrical components, will be needed to do the job and how to connect those components electrically. The Electrical Engineer will take that schematic to a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layout specialist who will use different software to figure out how to place the components on a PCB and how to run the electrical connections (traces). This process will also figure out how to connect the LCD panel into the system.

When the Electrical Engineer uses an integrated circuit or CPU, they need to also have software (often called Firmware) which runs directly on that component to have it accomplish its job. The Electrical Engineer might write their own firmware.

The overall Software which runs on the MP3 player is built by another team working with different tools. Often this will be some sort of Integrated Development Environment (IDE) like Oracle jDeveloper. The Software Engineer will work with Product Managers who specify the exact features needed by the user. For example, to display the file name or artist of the song currently being played or being able to organize songs into folders.

If you want to change the volume on the MP3 player, it is likely that the Product Manager asked for that feature and the Software Engineer worked together with the Mechanical and Electrical Engineers to provide some physical button(s) which electrically connect to the PCB.

So - why the long story? The results of all of this real work are documents - overall design drawings, detailed mechanical drawings, electrical schematics, PCB specifications (also called GERBER data), software design documents, the actual firmware, the actual MP3 software, and a Bill of Material. A Bill of Material, or BOM, is like a well organized shopping list. Basically, all of the different physical things needed by the Mechanical Engineer, Electrical Engineer, and Software Engineer are placed in a big list. The list can have several levels - like putting all the electrical components as one list and then having the main list simply refer to the electrical list. In order to get the MP3 player manufactured, all of this documentation, including the BOM, must be available when needed.

Agile PLM keeps track of all of these Parts (physical items), Bills of Material, and Documents. Agile allows the different users to very accurately describe all of the different pieces of the Bill of Material and to manage the lists of parts in a very convenient way. Agile PLM is focused on helping these different people working on the same product work better together so that they can do their core job - design better products which make more money for their company and make their users happier. Since there are many other software systems involved, Agile PLM also focuses on getting data in and out, especially into the systems actually used to manufacturer these products.

Future articles will focus on other steps in this design process - like what happens when one of these people needs to change their design?

If you want to know more, there are several interesting books on PDM and PLM available. Like this article, they all come at the issue with different perspectives.


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