What do you need out of a PLM software tool when you're just getting started?

Developing a hardware product involves several different processes across a series of distinct stages. These stages ultimately become more complex and rigid the more mature the design becomes, due to the oversight needed and the number of contributors involved. This growing complexity often leads engineering teams to reassess their internal processes and seek out better tools to help manage these workflows.  

Among the more important workflow adjustments to be made is in how a team manages their product data. As discussed in “3 signs that you’re ready to move your BOM from a spreadsheet to a PLM tool”, some early-phase companies opt to manage product data through spreadsheets. However, this can become problematic really quickly, especially when you’re coordinating across a large team scattered in different locations or on different work schedules. At a certain point, a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software solution is crucial to ensure companies don’t face development crises or manufacturing errors and delays.

So let’s say you’ve made the decision to begin utilizing a PLM software solution. What now? What do you actually need out of a PLM software solution when you’re transitioning from a spreadsheet system or are simply just beginning to track revisions and changes being made across the product data files? Below we’ve enumerated the core features of a PLM software solution that you need when you’re just getting started.

1. Centralized BOM Management

Perhaps most critical is the ability to manage your Bill of Materials (BOM) in a centralized repository. Yes, you can manage your BOM within a spreadsheet during the early phases of your development process, but a centralized PLM software solution will become critical when you start managing input from a variety of disparate parties. These may include engineering team members, external suppliers, vendors, contract manufacturers and partners, all of whom could potentially be contributing to decisions made to your Bill of Materials. No one really wants to be the bottleneck managing a set of spreadsheets and no one wants to deal with the anxiety of accidentally overwriting correct information or entering data incorrectly. Let your PLM software take the burden off your shoulders and manage it for you and your team.

Additionally, a truly centralized BOM management system alleviates the concern over where to go to get information and how to be sure it’s the latest version. Teams, early on, often find themselves managing product data spread between one or more spreadsheets, a file hosting service like Dropbox or Google Drive, and the personal desktops of team members. This usually leads to team members wasting time hunting down the latest product files because it’s not clear where the most recent information is, who owns it, or if it’s even complete.

2. Centralized Change Management

Revision management of your design files and manufacturing specifications, is best done in a centralized, secure and controlled platform such as a PLM software tool. PLM software excels at tracking changes, identifying different revisions and leaving an audit trail of who changed what, when, and why - which is invaluable when something goes wrong and you’re frantically trying to figure out what happened. The centralized nature of a PLM platform allows teams to operate efficiently with the confidence that all efforts are tracked, managed and shared across teams in one place that can be quickly referenced at any point in the design process.

Change management that isn’t centralized often results in excessive overhead to chase down approvals, and necessitates distractive emails to find change details or double check with team members that you have the latest information. This understandably broken system quickly leads to wasted efforts, miscommunications and lost time. With centralized change management everyone can rest easy that the team is collectively referencing a single source of truth, with no critical conversations buried in private emails.

3. Centralized Component Library and Sourcing Information

Beyond managing product design files, PLM software provides great value for managing sourcing and supply chain data, during both prototyping and mass production. The highest variabilities in any hardware product are the price and lead times of your components. As you need to make sourcing changes to account for this, PLM software makes it easy to track these changes and empower your procurement team to make purchasing decisions most efficiently. The obvious benefits of such a system are cost and time savings, both of which can dramatically impact the success of your business. There are countless stories of teams being surprised by unchecked component lead times or price jumps that occur for a variety of reasons that are difficult to forecast. A centralized mechanism for tracking component cost and lead times is invaluable for teams trying to get their product(s) to market as fast and as cost effectively as possible.

As you can see, centralization is a critical component of the key features that you’ll want to look for in a PLM software tool. BOM management, change management and component sourcing can ultimately be done in a variety of ways across a number of different tools and platforms. However, as explained above, managing data in a less than centralized way will always become a problem that’s hard to fix. Naturally, fixing the problem requires a move to a more mature workflow. The logical conclusion is that since you are going to face this problem and will subsequently transition to a centralized system, why not begin utilizing a PLM software tool as early as possible?  

Furthermore, a lack of centralization or even a delay in implementing a centralized data management program can put your business at risk. Hardware development is an unforgiving pursuit. Slight miscommunications, erroneous data or undocumented testing can trip up even the best companies at any point along the path to production. The Samsung Galaxy Note7 fire fiasco comes to mind when thinking of the potential consequences of a broken data management system. In this high profile instance design errors were left unchecked as suppliers moved forward with an ill-fitting battery design. A tighter more centralized data or information management system surely would have helped avoid this situation. And if this can happen to Samsung it can certainly happen to any organization. So don’t let this or anything similar happen to your company.