Can the “L” in PLM stand for lean?

Some manufacturers are finding that product life-cycle management (PLM) software can serve as platform for applying lean principles to the product development process. Jim Brown, VP of product innovation and engineering research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, describes the application of lean principles to product development as “a leading-edge approach,” but one that is growing ...
By William Atkinson, contributing editor(wjaa@midamer.net) September 1, 2007

Some manufacturers are finding that product life-cycle management (PLM) software can serve as platform for applying lean principles to the product development process.

Jim Brown, VP of product innovation and engineering research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, describes the application of lean principles to product development as “a leading-edge approach,” but one that is growing in popularity—particularly among automotive and industrial equipment manufacturers.

It is not yet as common as lean manufacturing,” Brown says. “However, these companies are looking for the same kinds of opportunities for improvements in product development that they have been getting by applying lean in manufacturing.”

Southgate, Mich.-based ASC Inc . drastically reduced the time it takes to turn out its custom open-air vehicle roofing systems by applying lean principles in conjunction with PLM software from Dassault Systemes .

Streamlining the product development process was critical for ASC because each of its customers requires a roof system that accommodates the specific characteristics—such as speed of operation, materials, and style—of a particular vehicle. While ASC works from a basic product platform called the InfiniVu, each customer order requires unique changes to that base design.

Prior to adopting Dassault’s CATIA PLM package, it took at least a half-dozen of ASC’s people about a week to adapt the InfiniVu design to a new vehicle. Now they can do it about an hour.

The CATIA package allows ASC to capture knowledge gained during InfiniVu development, so that lessons can be integrated with future designs for other vehicles.

We are now able to ‘morph’ an InfiniVu to a customer’s roof surface and conduct analyses in a manner of minutes, instead of days,” reports Chris Theodore, vice chairman of ASC. “This provides benefits related to speed, accuracy, and minimization of waste associated with design errors.” In short, it creates a significantly leaner product development process.

The key to successful lean PLM is turning it into a formal process, or a set of formal processes. The same holds true when lean principles are applied to manufacturing and supply chain processes. “A lot of companies will report that they had a great lean project, but it ends up not being sustainable, scalable, or repeatable. A formal process provides these benefits,” notes Rory Granros, director of process industries product marketing for Infor, an ERP software vendor with a PLM suite.

Infor’s PLM package is aimed primarily at process-oriented manufacturers. But that hasn’t stopped Sypris Electronics , a Tampa-based electronics manufacturing services provider, from using the Infor solution to support its lean PLM initiative.

Sypris used the Infor PDM (product data management) module to create a library of electronic data files—e.g., drawings, bills of material, engineering change orders. “The lean portion of PDM allows us to electronically transfer data between our customers and our suppliers, versus having to create CDs and mail them,” reports Joan Fuhremann, senior business analyst for Sypris. “It provides accurate control of the documentation.”

Sypris is a prime example of the way in which Aberdeen’s Brown says most manufacturers are applying lean principles to PLM: as part of small-scale initiatives that yield incremental process improvements.

For PLM to become mainstream, vendors and manufacturers will have to overcome challenges inherent to the product development process. For instance, Aberdeen’s Brown notes that manufacturing processes are naturally more amenable to lean principles because they involve predictable tasks that are fairly easy to examine, such as gauging the cycle time for a press. “However, the cycle time for turning a concept into a workable design is more difficult to predict and manage,” Brown explains. “Some concepts—on both the lean and PLM sides of the equation—may need to be adapted to take the differences into account.p>