Combining systems engineering and product lifecycle management

Using an approach that combines systems engineering (SE) and product lifecycle management (PLM) will result in innovative products and systems for the future.
By Pawel Chadzynski, Aras Corp. July 14, 2018

Courtesy: CFE MediaTo produce intelligent, connected products, engineering teams must take a holistic approach to managing information and processes throughout the entire product lifecycle. The trouble is, most engineers are locked into one of two disciplines-systems engineering (SE) or product lifecycle management (PLM).

While SE and PLM manage complex products, there are marked differences. If combined, these two time-honored disciplines create the approach needed to manufacture the next generation of complex products. Reworking how an engineering organization manages product development, however, is no easy feat. 

Achieving a systems-level approach

Products today are complex systems of systems, with multiple layers of electrical, mechanical, and software components in one design. To manage the cross-discipline interdependencies, engineering teams must use a systems-level approach. SE and PLM have their relative strengths as systems-level disciplines—like two sides of the same coin, where the goal is a superior product delivered on time and at (or below) budget. How each discipline goes about accomplishing that goal is a different, but it’s critical to understand.

Systems engineering traces its roots back to a time when products were designed on paper with drafting pens and typewriters. It started in the aerospace and defense industry, where firms would spend months, if not years, developing one product to meet a customer’s requirements. These were and still often are government agencies, like the U.S. military, looking for precise requirement fulfillments. Systems engineers are tasked with taking those requirements, plus those of other stakeholders in the lifecycle, and translating them into systems models that guide the eventual software development and hardware that constitute a product or system.

PLM, on the other hand, comes later in the lifecycle with a focus on physical designs, computer-aided design (CAD) models, and bills-of-material (BoMs). PLM’s foundational element is the part, subassembly, or assembly structure that would have been defined by systems engineering.

The origins and emphasis of these two methodologies vary, although they complement each other by working with the same information. An old guard engineering leader locked into a SE approach might not care to bother with PLM, and likewise, a mechanical engineering team leader working in PLM might not want to spend the day focused on managing requirements. What will convince them both to opt for an integrated approach is the industry is changing. To keep up with the competition, both groups will need to do the same. 

Engineering groups working together

In 1968, computer programmer Melvin Conway wrote that any organization in the business of designing systems will produce designs that are copies of the organization’s communication structure. This theory, which came to be known as "Conway’s Law," implies that products will mirror the structure of the engineering teams building them. If SE and PLM groups are working separately, that can create some issues.

Challenges that arise when SE and PLM are working independently stem from cultural and technological inconsistencies. They’ll have standardized their ways of doing things and expect the other side to adapt and follow suit. Beyond being siloed from one another, other departments and even engineering functions in the same firm (e.g., software teams) can find themselves at odds by struggling to transfer information because they’re not speaking the same language. Separate information systems make the process harder, too.

Systems engineers and PLM groups are working on the same product, but sharing information won’t be easy due to the tools and databases the data is housed in. Handling and handing-off that data between teams and downstream in the lifecycle becomes an error-prone process as a result. Those errors, according to Conway, will show up in the final product. The concept of a completely integrated system—where each piece of product information is connected and consistent across the product lifecycle—has been a myth. However, this doesn’t make holistic product development impossible.

Realizing the vision of a systems-level approach

Future-proofing an engineering organization may sound like a daunting task-especially today when teams are working against rapidly increasing product complexity, regulations and fierce global competition. The first steps for realizing that vision will be to create an environment where SE and PLM can work together. To do that, engineering leaders should look to:

  • Unite SE and PLM teams – after outlining their shared goals and benefits of an integrated approach to product development, uniting SE and PLM teams will depend on cross-discipline communication. If a forum for this doesn’t already exist in the organization, create one. If it does, encourage people to use it.
  • Create inclusive processes for both disciplines – move away from the "center of the universe" belief system and design new processes that incorporate pieces from each discipline. Accommodate the needs of each group by retaining some of their best practices that will benefit the other team.
  • Connect and integrate information in a single source of truth for engineering – systems-level design requires systems-level platform. Multi-vendor solutions will have the breadth needed to manage each stage in development process. It’s important to move beyond the boundaries of documents, PDFs, and worst of all, spreadsheets.
  • Plan for change – to remain flexible, choose complementary tools with open APIs and flexible architectures that allow the organization to adapt easily. In today’s digital age, today’s best practices won’t be those needed for tomorrow.
  • Consult external stakeholder – an integrated approach will also account for the needs of customers, suppliers and other players in the engineering process. Hold milestone meetings and use feedback from the field to improve the new processes.

Combining the best of SE and PLM will lay the foundation for continuous improvement and digital transformation. Developing disruptive products and systems requires a disruptive approach, which is aided by the right change management processes and technology.

Pawel Chadzynski, senior director, product management at Aras Corp. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: Systems engineering (SE), product lifecycle management (PLM)

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