Everything You Need To Know About PLM

Soft focus color areas - Product Lifecycle Management

Whichever business you’re in, it’s possible you’ve come across the term ‘PLM’ at least once. It stands for Product Lifecycle Management. Initially a strategy developed by automobile manufacturers in the ’90s, it’s now an established business model adopted by numerous companies of a range of disciplines and size, as a way to reduce costs and increase productivity.

Today the term can refer to both a business approach and a specific type of software technology. That’s why it’s not always clear which PLM is being referenced, with the intended meaning largely dependent on context. To make matters more confusing, the two versions are often intertwined. For example, a design company may implement a strategy of PLM and use a specific PLM software to carry it out. 

This article will cover what exactly PLM is and how CAD can play an important role in any PLM strategy. 

Table of Contents

What is Product Lifecycle Management?

Image of a question mark in a box

Imagine you’re running an architectural firm. Taking your designs from conception, to construction, to eventual demolition, will require supervision and input from a variety of sectors. Establishing a work process that focuses on streamlining development and facilitating communication will aid accessibility and thus maximize efficiency. In other words, organize the process to make it easier for everyone involved, and the business will benefit. 

Creating this kind of structure is where PLM comes in…

A brief history

In the 1980s, automotive company American Motors Corp needed a business strategy that would allow them to compete with larger rivals like Ford. Knowing they simply could not match these companies in terms of budget, AMC turned to the manufacturing process itself. Seeing how innovations like CAD technology and product design management (PDM) had increased productivity and reduced overall costs, they decided to apply those principles to the entire process—from conception to sale (and eventual discontinuation). 

In the early ’90s they released the first vehicle created entirely using the PLM model: the 1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The product lifecycle management approach meant that all data was stored in a single, central system; CAD software was used for design and engineering purposes; the latest communication technology ensured all collaborators could be informed and involved at each stage, and everyone worked to the same established framework.

Bringing these elements together cut costs while significantly increasing efficiency. It’s no surprise, then, that this strategy was subsequently adopted across the board at American Motors and beyond.

PLM today

CATIA's logo

PLM has evolved to incorporate the technological advances and software capabilities of today’s business world. In fact, PLM no longer refers solely to a business strategy, but also to software that aims to encapsulate that entire strategy. Consider CATIA, for example, which is a PLM suite created by Dassault Systèmes. Like the AMC strategy before it, CATIA allows businesses to manage all aspects of the production process under one system.

The alternative to what has come to be known as ‘software PLM‘ is manual PLM, which involves implementing a range of software and tools within the PLM structure (rather than relying on a single program). Companies with more complex projects, for instance, may require a specific CAD software and separate communication tools to achieve their goals. 

A downside of PLM is that when the process is first introduced to a company, it may force changes to the way people have become accustomed to working. Shaking up routines can initially be detrimental to productivity. Workers may show resistance to change or require further training. In the long run, however, both approaches to PLM speed up the development process and allow companies to easily manage projects within a single, streamlined structure.

Why adopt PLM as a strategy?

  • The fact that data is accessible to everyone involved maximizes the potential for collaboration on a project.
  • It suits the global and interactive nature of current (and likely future) business scenarios.
  • Both costs and the time it takes to complete a project are reduced.
  • An established framework is formed, from which everyone can work towards the same end result.
  • Synchronized data combined with a centralized product record encourages smooth workflow and makes life easier for everyone involved.
  • The use of CAD software and communication technologies enables maximum productivity and efficiency at each stage.


Architectural CAD drafter working on laptop

Computer aided design plays an integral role in both the emergence and continued development of PLM. Not only was it an inspiration for the creation of product lifecycle management in the first place, CAD often constitutes a vital part of PLM models.

The auto industry saw how CAD software allowed engineers and designers to draft, collaborate on and edit car models with greater efficiency—resulting in better overall productivity. Combined with communication technology and a centralized database, it creates an incredibly effective business model.

Depending on the CAD software you’re using, there’s a range of benefits that can aid the PLM process. If using cloud-based CAD, for example, you can have different teams working on the same design simultaneously—further streamlining the overall process.

What’s next for PLM?

A big challenge for businesses in today’s world is how their products can remain relevant and popular, given the explosion of new technologies. Indeed, the future of PLM itself depends on how well technological advances can be integrated into PLM business models. 

An example of such advancements is the rise of the so-called ‘internet of things‘. This refers to everyday items (fridges, hearing aids, security systems…etc.) that are embedded with software to connect them to the internet. As a result, the items can be monitored and controlled remotely. For example, some modern fridges allow you to keep check of their contents through an inventory on your smartphone.

So, how does this relate to PLM? Well, it creates a marketplace in which consumers require and even expect their products to utilize the latest technologies (allowing for a more interactive user experience), while remaining fairly affordable

These expectations can put a strain on the relationship between designers and engineers during the production process. The two need to work together to master new software and work out how to integrate it into their vision, while being realistic about what’s achievable from a manufacturing perspective. This can cause people from different sectors to step on each others’ toes. Subsequently, coordinating a PLM framework around job roles that are increasingly ambiguous is not an easy task.

Despite the challenges posed by the explosion of new technology, the latest innovations have the potential to update and improve PLM—which was never a static term in the first place. In the right hands, PLM strategies can absorb new software and evolve, as opposed to becoming obsolete. Only the future will tell if PLM can adapt in this rapidly changing environment.

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