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Quo Vadis PLM or what platform should it be?

By Bernd Pätzold

The PLM world is in the midst of upheaval. The signs that were emerging last year have now become an undisputed reality. But what is unclear is where this process of change will take us. Just how disruptive the force of creative destruction (Schumpeter) proves to be can only ever be said with hindsight, when the New has become a part of the world. Otherwise Sony and Nokia would not have been so easily overtaken by Apple. In the future, will we even speak about PLM at all? Will we still be able to study it at university?

A generational change is about to take place in Germany's universities, which have concerned themselves with the issue of PLM in their courses on engineering science: The “pillars” of PLM studies such as Professors Michael Abramovici, Reiner Anderl, Martin Eigner, Jürgen Gausemeier and Sandor Vajna have been retired or will reach retirement soon, however active they may continue to be. Their successors will want to shift the emphasis in their research and teaching, and that is only right and proper. However, it naturally also means that PLM technology will lose some of its most prominent advocates, who have not only been involved scientifically with its progress in the last few decades but who have also championed it in industry. For this, they deserve our heartfelt thanks.

Digital transformation, Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0, digital twins and digital threads – a myriad of new topics raise the question of whether PLM as we know it still offers the right solutions to these challenges, or of the form that future PLM solutions should take in order to make an answer possible. Those responsible for IT in industry are picking up extremely contradictory signals from the market. For some (PTC), PLM is now IoT; for others (Aras), IoT has very little to do with PLM, as Aras CEO Peter Schroer said in a recent interview. So what next?

There can be no doubt that PLM is showing its age and needs some rejuvenation if it is to survive. Many people say that it is already dead, but fortunately there is life in the old dog, as the saying goes. The requiem that is currently being sung for PLM also has something to do with the fact that it has never truly lived up to its claim to accompany the entire product – and not just its mechanical components – from cradle to grave. This is either because most enterprises have never consistently and coherently implemented and used the technology or because the implementation in many cases was so time and cost-intensive that the investment could not pay for itself. And that is without mentioning the maintenance and update costs for PLM installations. The PLM vendors are partly to blame here.

Instead of devoting their attention to issues near at hand, many of them are seeking new growth opportunities in the uncharted expanses of IoT because they consider the PLM market to be saturated. Mistakenly so, in my opinion and as our experience shows, because many small and medium-sized companies have not even taken the step from product data to product lifecycle management. They tend to be confused by the many new buzzwords. Paradoxically, it is precisely the vendors, who formerly helped coin the term PLM in order to have an umbrella for their growing product portfolio, who now find it too restrictive. Too tightly intermeshed with the engineering niche from which they want to break free.

With considerable help from the PLM analysts from CIMdata, the term PLM is currently being given a new significance: “Product Innovation Platform” are the new magic words that, through connectivity, are to solve all the challenges involved in the digitalization of product development, manufacturing and operation that PLM has been unable to solve in the last 15 to 20 years. As if this re-branding could overcome all the technical hurdles and the lack of openness of many PLM solutions at a stroke.

“Platform” is without a doubt the most hard-worked buzzword of the last twelve months. Everyone is using it, even if everyone also understands it to mean something different. At Siemens PLM, it is called Digital Innovation Platform; at PTC, Industrial Innovation Platform, which actually refers to the IoT platform ThingWorx; Dassault launched its 3DEXPERIENCE platform several years ago; and CIMdata is tailoring the term Product Innovation Platform to provide a perfect fit for Aras. For outsiders, it is not always easy to know which vendors have already coherently re(plat)formed their PLM solutions and which have simply bolted some new add-ons onto their existing architectures.

The platform concept is in itself not bad. A reliable foundation that provides certain basic functions and can be rapidly extended by modules to cope with certain tasks within a bimodal IT approach. What is more, these modules can even be a little rough and ready without jeopardizing the stability of the overall system. An architecture that is open enough to permit the use of modules from third-parties and allows the intelligent linking of information via semantic networks. This is, more or less, the idea behind a forward-looking PLM structure as it is conceived of in visions of “future PLM”. Moreover, it is an idea that an increasing number of companies are taking to heart, which is why the investments they make in converting their PLM system landscapes will increase significantly in the coming years.

An open, flexibly extensible PLM architecture is a prerequisite for the digitalization of business processes and is required to provide support for the new, service-oriented business models that will emerge from Industry 4.0. These business processes will also have to be adapted in the light of the challenges of a digital world and this is primarily a task for the companies themselves. Thanks to our many years of experience in PLM strategy and process consulting, we at PROSTEP are in a very good position to support them. And we can help you develop a suitable plan for the structuring of a forward-looking PLM architecture. We feel confident that we are the genuine experts when it comes to PLM, even if tomorrow's PLM goes by a different name. Because as it is so elegantly expressed in Faust: “Feeling is all; name is but sound and smoke.”