NCMS Technology Briefs highlight NCMS’s cultivation and growth of innovative technologies. Through our management of government and industry collaborations, we’ve gained insights into novel approaches and best practices that can assist all companies navigate the sometimes complex journey towards advancement. Based on the results of NCMS technology projects, the briefs show the applicability and usefulness of proven technical advances—all in an effort to speed adoption and eliminate duplication of effort. NCMS is pleased to share these insights to support U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.
With the right approach, even smaller companies can make the leap
Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems have, for several decades, been revolutionizing the way some industries develop, manufacture, and maintain complex products. To enable PLM processes, a company collects for each product the key design, engineering, production, costs, and maintenance data and transforms it into a digital format that can be stored and accessed within one integrated system. Known as the digital thread, it gives manufacturers and end users a multi-functional view of the entire lifecycle of a product. This powerful system enables quality improvements, cost reductions, supply-chain flexibility, and more informed decision-making throughout a product’s lifespan.
Implementing a PLM system, however, can present multiple challenges. For manufacturers and end-users alike, reams of product-related data may exist, but often much of it remains disorganized, dispersed throughout different workgroups, and hard to access. Some end users rely on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to store all the important data for their assets, thereby becoming forever reliant on outside sources for such information. Consequently, extracting the right data and translating it into actionable intelligence is often difficult. For instance, an end user may rely on a particular OEM for a critical part that needs periodic replacement—but the OEM goes out of business. If the end user does not have the technical data package (TDP) for that part, it will be a challenge to line up a new supplier, causing production delays and cost overruns.
At multiple points in a product’s lifecycle, there can be missed opportunities for both the manufacturer and the end user to capture, categorize, manage, or disseminate valuable product data. Meanwhile, more technologically advanced manufacturers and customers are sharing PLM-stored data that improves technical support, decreases down time for maintenance and sustainment activities, and lengthens lifecycles for expensive products.
But PLM solutions are critically needed for companies of all sizes. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) has recognized that the digital manufacturing capability gap between large manufacturers with great resources and small businesses creates significant inefficiencies for the entire manufacturing value chain. Further, this capability gap has a negative impact on the manufacturing industrial base of the United States. Accordingly, NCMS has been seeking ways to enable digital collaboration among manufacturing communities, to reduce the barriers to sharing data and digital information, and to connect people and data with PLM and other digital tools.
NCMS has worked for several years with multiple government partners to determine the best way to launch PLM processes in a gradual, effective, and cost-efficient way. Various partners have recognized their logistics and engineering communities lacked a standardized, integrated method of accessing product lifecycle information (PLI) for their larger assets. They wanted to focus on developing a PLM solution that could manage configuration control and synchronize successive changes in PLI. They also wanted to have an easier way to share those updates with downstream consumers (e.g., maintenance, planning), which would also enable supply chain resiliency for replacement parts.
These partners worked with NCMS to begin implementing a product lifecycle management system capable of using information already being collected during the acquisition process for new assets.
A series of escalating test projects were executed over several years to develop a commercial off-the-shelf solution, “PLM-in-a-Box–Early Acquisition Edition,” focused on the specific needs of the government partners. The templated solution contains the virtual machine application copy and supporting documentation to enable deployment to a host environment for PLM on-boarding and ongoing program management.
The PLM initiative also includes an e-learning component that allows for easy and convenient training for users to gain skills and knowledge, along with a resource library for all reference material. These added elements will contribute to the PLM’s flexibility to expand capabilities as necessary.
This method of introducing a PLM system has been demonstrated to improve upstream acquisition activities and downstream sustainment engineering processes, which have resulted in improved supply chain and maintenance customer support. These improvements can be readily transitioned to other commercial PLM systems, thereby enabling more companies to launch PLM processes and have access to the benefits of digital collaboration with suppliers and customers.
As demonstrated through the NCMS test projects, an effective PLM solution does not need to contain every possible feature available in more comprehensive PLM systems. A more modest system would allow common access by logistics and engineering communities and enable accurate storage and quick retrieval of unclassified PLI. This could also include a digital engineering environment where collaboration between stakeholders can ensure product alignments and supply chain veracity. The test project participants wanted their introductory PLM to have the ability to:
- support efficient configuration management
- integrate engineering processes across and between program offices
- allow timely responses to customer requests for engineering and related technical assistance
- enable effective engineering analysis activities
Such capabilities might be a good place for other companies to start as they begin considering a PLM solution. Historically, product records have been kept either manually or on spreadsheets. These could be unreliable, untraceable, outdated, and not easily or securely shared. PLM technology allows changes to each part or system to be traced, which assists in supply change reliability and resilience. It also tracks maintenance and part/system failures with the outcome that issues can immediately be addressed and resolved.
Utilizing the benefits of an integrated system with a strong PLM backbone, the manufacturing facility of the future will excel at connecting the dots, providing insights into operations, while developing a big picture by which decision-makers can steer company policies. Workflows, people, and equipment will be interconnected with design, planning, production, and distribution to create a streamlined and efficient throughput while enhancing advanced manufacturing and creating actionable intelligence. As a result, human error and wasted time will diminish, and savings in materials and costs will increase. Further improvements could include more standardization, security, and data governance, and provenance.
Work teams that collaborate within this structured PLM will experience model designs that are synchronized with a single source of data, testing and certification results, review, and analysis. Monitoring equipment within a PLM environment is connected to provide data on usage and health, which can be used to optimize maintenance and sustainment activities.
Recommendations for Moving Forward
A PLM solution can, as demonstrated through NCMS’s recent projects, start small and expand over time. Understanding the full scope, tasks, and objectives of the PLM will ensure that when implemented it delivers the data and insights companies of all sizes expect. Of the many lessons learned from the NCMS initiatives, creating a collaborative environment where data can be shared with all stakeholders may be a top priority. The buy-in from all parties involved prior to PLM initiation is a critical component for successful integration. Within this digital ecosystem, the ability to adapt, scale, and validate all contribute to the system’s readiness. Including representatives from all organizational teams is essential to a successful PLM rollout.
Generative design considerations, product information, costs, supply chains, certifications, security, and scheduling are all issues that should be considered for integration into a PLM system. Whether product design and development, insights into the supply chain, or analyzing data is a company’s primary need, initiating a PLM will provide a foundation for a robust digital thread. For small and medium-sized companies, both direct and indirect savings can be realized and reinvested into other areas. Businesses can achieve a range of strategic benefits by understanding PLM applications and how they best align with corporate needs and goals.
PLM Capabilities: An Overview
Within a well-planned PLM, digital data and critical steps are outlined and recorded. Component 3D models and associative data required to manufacture parts are stored, along with computer-aided design (CAD), reverse engineering scan data, documents, reports, and other information from the OEM and suppliers. In lockstep is the bill of material—a complete list of the identity and amount of all materials needed to manufacture the product, including raw materials, sub-components, sub-assemblies, etc. If available, the PLM can integrate any sensor data from the product to enable the prediction of future behavior and health monitoring. This digital engineering, along with enhanced cybersecurity, and the integration of other systems, delivers the full spectrum of a component or an entire platform.