PLM trend: Product data for the masses

One of the major trends in the product life-cycle management (PLM) industry has been its expansion beyond engineering to users across the company and its extended enterprise. But an even broader expansion of PLM enables visibility of product data to others outside this corporate structure—even to consumers of the products.


One of the major trends in the product life-cycle management (PLM) industry has been its expansion beyond engineering to users across the company and its extended enterprise. But an even broader expansion of PLM enables visibility of product data to others outside this corporate structure—even to consumers of the products.
Much of this can be supported with today’s technologies. Individuals only need a computer and an Internet connection to access and interact with part of the vast amounts of 3D product-related data and models managed by PLM, and in turn to communicate back to the company in meaningful ways. The trend is potentially explosive, and the possibilities almost limitless.
Scenarios for such applications span the entire product life cycle. Near the end of development, companies can post fully dimensioned 3D models of products on the Web for people to manipulate and view. This enables potential customers to see how a new product is constructed or operates. Similarly, people can access online publishing systems that offer interactive, animated visual product detail in conveying installation or assembly instructions, for example, potentially making confusing and ambiguous written manuals obsolete for products ranging from aircraft to children’s bicycles.
At the front end of the life cycle, consumers can modify a manufacturer’s model to communicate desired changes, or post their own designs for new product ideas. Such direct feedback from consumers is immensely valuable in product planning and a powerful tool for manufacturers to keep abreast of the mind-set of consumers in rapidly changing markets. Likewise, online product configurators for everything from shelving to automobiles allow buyers to design and order their own products. The role of PLM is critical in managing data and communications throughout all these processes, yet the technology can be almost invisible.
The key to such a broad two-way communication environment is Web-based visual collaboration, enabling companies to expose engineering data—selected portions of it, of course—to the wide range of people who don’t utilize PLM, don’t even know about it, or want to be burdened with it. The product models being viewed in this context are not just pictures, but they have useful attribute data behind them—including, in many cases, geometry and material properties. In such an environment, PLM acts totally in the background, with its data management and communication technologies entirely transparent to those using it.
All this goes to the core philosophy of PLM. By putting engineering data into a clear, visual format that anyone upstream or downstream can understand and use, such tools give the enterprise a seamless conduit for information to flow freely through the life cycle—including to and from the world beyond the enterprise. PLM providers have been active in developing and providing the tools and technologies surrounding these types of capabilities.
The beauty of Web-based visual collaboration is that the technology to enable this broad communication of product data is becoming increasingly available; it’s not some abstract, far-fetched dream. These tools can give manufacturers a solid way to differentiate themselves with relatively little investment in resources. What it does take is the creativity to figure out the best ways to apply this new way of communicating, and the commitment to break out of the box in implementing these ideas.

About the author: Ed Miller is president of CIMdata Inc. ( ), an independent worldwide firm providing strategic consulting to maximize an enterprise’s ability to design and deliver innovative products and services through the application of PLM strategies. CIMdata works with both industrial organizations and suppliers of PLM-related technologies and services. The company conducts research, provides subscription services, produces commercial publications, and offers industry education.

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