By Lynn Manning, Parker Group
We spoke separately with Razorleaf’s chief architect, Jonathan Scott, and Adaptive Corp.’s director of sales, Jon Gable, on the subject of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) for Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). The following Q&A distills their comments.
As software and technology resellers and service providers, why do you recommend PLM to SMBs?
GABLE: SMBs today have many of the same challenges as large companies trying to manage the needs of global customers, remote workforces and ever-increasing product complexity. It’s much more difficult for an SMB to address these because they don’t have the established processes and support functions of a larger company. As such, we can recommend solutions to them, often in the form of PLM software, that require minimal IT support and allow them to define their processes over time.
SCOTT: An SMB’s project can be just as complex as those of larger enterprises—we see startups competing with established companies all the time. For example, a company planning to launch a new aircraft has just as many regulatory hurdles as Boeing or Airbus and therefore has just as much design and testing to do.
GABLE: We tell potential SMB customers that PLM platforms are much more accessible to everyone these days. There are now very advanced capabilities for specialized job functions, such as design engineering/simulation, or customer needs management and product development. And these solutions are now web-based with robust 3D viewing capabilities that make them much easier to use and understand, even for non-experts.
SCOTT: Clearly you don’t have to have a PLMsystem, because many people are still managing everything they are doing without it, albeit in more cumbersome ways. But is a PLM system something useful that an SMB can get a practical advantage out of having? I think the answer is yes, which is why we recommend it so frequently. It is difficult to maintain the digital thread without a PLM system.
Adaptive Corp.’s director of sales, Jon Gable
How should an SMB decide whether or not to adopt a PLM system? Who’s not ready for PLM yet?
GABLE: Most companies start looking into PLM once they have a few engineers creating product information and several downstream functions consuming that product information to do their jobs. We typically see customers start realizing a need for PLM technologies with as few as five engineers. As digital tools for product development become increasingly essential, advanced capabilities, such as product simulation and production process planning and optimization, are becoming more accessible to both experts and non-experts alike—and the need for PLM to manage the explosion in product-related data has become very clear.
However, an SMB may still be so immature in their business processes that they don’t even know how to start quantifying the return on a PLM investment. They may think they’re not ready for PLM because they’ve been doing product development very organically and don’t really understand their process or where the bottlenecks or poor communication are. But implementing PLM will help them locate those bottlenecksand allow them to establish repeatable processes. They need to have a flexible solution that allows them to identify what their problems are and slowly start institutionalizing best practices.
SCOTT: When considering a PLM system, you have to be careful to focus on the things that are of the greatest value to your company, starting with identifying your own unique challenges and strategies. As an example, say you are anexisting company trying to do something new with your offering: you’re trying to add electrical and software components to your mostly mechanical product. A PLM system can definitely help you on that journey because adding the complexity of two additional disciplines could really make a mess of your product development process if you don’t have something to organize and coordinate it.
There are many reasons why people may not be ready for the PLM system they think they need. They don’t have the infrastructure to support it, their IT environment isn’t right, they’re just going to drown themselves in it. Maybe there’re too many “bells and whistles” in the tool they’re considering or they’re trying to deploy it too quickly. We have potential customers come to us with what seems like a logical idea, but our years of practical experience can show them that maybe it’s not the best idea for them, or the best method for reaching their objective. So we let them know about the risks in their thinking, propose different ways to look at it, then try to steer them towards an approach or a PLM system that will serve them better.
Razorleaf’s chief architect, Jonathan Scott
Is PLM today really practical for the smaller user? How much does it cost?
SCOTT: A lot of SMBs have a perception about PLM as being this big, expensive thing that they can’t afford and doesn’t help for them.But we work with several different PLM systems, ranging from cloud-based to on-premises and from fairly simple subsets of PLM, such as PDM [product data management]—up to full PLM systems. So it’s actually quite a range of costs, and you can find offerings from our partners that can be less than $100 per user per month.
GABLE: Right now, the cost of services to get up and running with PLM, i.e. the delivery model of the software itself in a true public-cloud infrastructure, has definitely become less expensive. Software licensing costs have remained at around the same level, some higher, some lower, depending on the competitiveness of the particular solution.
You can lease software licenses these days, with a subscription as short as three months, which can be very useful for SMBs who have, for example, short-term simulation projects to fulfill. But for something like PLM, it’s a big business decision—you are choosing to run your company on a particular software solution for years, even decades. So in that case you probably don’t want to subscribe, you want to purchase. It’s a decent-size investment, maybe a software purchase of $50,000 for a small team. If you’re a $20 million company with a five percent operating margin of just one million, that’s a big decision to make. So the question becomes, when does the pain you’re experiencing equate to the cost of the software? And here’s where the benefits start becoming apparent.
So what kinds of benefits will an SMB see from implementing PLM?
SCOTT: For SMBs these days, timeframes can be critical to how they bring in revenue. I think most companies, in particular many discrete manufacturers, can really benefit from using a PLM system to connect their CAD, their documents, and their bills of materials (BoM) with their ERP system and, if applicable to what they do, with their CRM [customer resource management] system. When product development is a significant part of delivery schedules, doing project management inside the PLM system can also provide big benefits. PLM can definitely contribute to innovation by freeing up time you may be wasting on non-value-added tasks, like tracking status, entering data twice, etc.
GABLE: The conversations we have with people center around process improvements, the ability to more quickly decide and execute. PLM can help you address such questions as how quickly can you turn around a change order? How quickly can you address a problem that someone has identified in production or out in the field? How accurately is design intent being conveyed to production?
Another big area of improvement is the overall product development process. The better sharing of accurate information might allow you to compress your development times from 12 months to nine. Now, not only can you get productivity savings, you can—with the same number of resources—go after new business and increase revenue. Better upfront evaluation of your internal processes can also help you decide when not to spend money going in a different direction.
PLM can provide a dashboard for upper management to look at granular processes that would take a lot of time to unpack otherwise. Embedded business intelligence capabilities can help you mine the process data inside your PLM system and interpret it to guide decision making.
What’s a typical timeframe for implementation of a PLM system?
GABLE: With true cloud-based PLM deployments, a customer can be up and running within a few hours with no IT support. However, practically speaking, some consulting to get them to best-use workflow processes is probably needed. So to be truly productive, a cloud-based implementation for CAD and document vaulting with simple change management can be very productive for an SMB within one to two weeks.
SCOTT: At a minimum, you can log on to a PLM system and quickly start using it to share documents, collaborate and have a lifecycle around your documents or basic files. Typically, though, people are going to want more than that out of PLM—and in that case file deployments are going to take several weeks to get it configured the way you want it. People are typically configuring part number sequences, revisioning systems, release and change processes, and that sort of thing. A cloud-based PLM system will take a couple weeks and, if it’s on-premises, you’re likely looking at a couple months because there’s infrastructure work to add to the configuration of the software.
Now if you are truly trying to transform your whole organization by putting a PLM system in place, no one should be surprised at it taking quite some time. If you really want to revolutionize how your business processes are done, particularly if you are moving to being a model-based enterprise (MBE), that can be a multi-year project.
Where’s the “hot money” going right now for new PLM features? What’s coming next?
SCOTT: I think the hottest thing right now is related to additive manufacturing. The focus is on CAD and simulation for AM—and what’s behind the scenes for these tools is how all that newly generated content gets managed. PLM systems are right there in the background, asking what new information are you creating, how does that new data get managed alongside your existing data, does it need to be loosely coupled and managed independently, does it have different consumers? So PLM features are being developed to deal with this hot new area of content creation.
Other areas under development in the PLM world are how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will apply to PLM processes and large data sets, and how to determine the degree to which semantic and search-based integration should be incorporated with PLM. Another big area for PLM today is how Systems Engineering will extend the digital thread, and how PLM systems will support that.
GABLE: The democratization of simulation capabilities has caught the interest of more mature companies because they would like to make the feedback loop of product simulation more ingrained in their development process. We’re also seeing a lot of interest in material optimization during design—particularly for AM. We’re starting to get more interest in systems engineering as well because almost every new product has some sort of electrical or software capability as part of the emergence of the IoT. These are all disciplines for which PLM can provide major efficiencies.
Still, for less mature enterprises a lot of “hot money” continues to go to basics, such as “I need a CAD vault.” That’s where we see a great deal of PLM business right now because many SMBs don’t even have that yet and are starting to realize they’ll be left behind by the competition without it.
Razorleaf is an agnostic services provider that goes beyond supporting PLM software from Autodesk, Aras,Dassault Systèmes, and several others to provide holistic services around the domain and the digitalization of their clients. Says chief architect Jonathan Scott, “The choice of a PLM system should be very pragmatic. You can’t afford a misstep when you’re an SMB. Our experience delivering PLM to companies, literally hundreds of times, helps steer them away from pitfalls, focus on what they need today, and make sure everything is integrated in a stepwise way to ensure successful implementation.”
Adaptive Corporation is a Dassault Systèmes Platinum Partner that augments its 3DEXPERIENCE virtual platform offerings (including ENOVIA PLM software) with hardware capability support including 3D scanning and 3D printing (additive manufacturing). Says director of sales Jon Gable, “Much of our outreach to SMBs is showing them a better way of doing things. We work with them to figure out what they need to best solve their problems and then support them with the appropriate level of consulting services.”