Manufacturers who develop and introduce their own products and manage supply chains can benefit from modern, off-the-shelf product lifecycle management software and process.

Managers accountable for production, engineering, operations, IT, planning, quality and R&D can learn from the process innovation and productivity gains achieved in recent years by large OEM’s who have implemented PLM systems and delivered cost savings, increased volumes, mitigated supply chain risk and safeguarded reputations and priceless brand equity. For smaller firms, this is not about re-engineering your manufacturing processes, just tweaking and optimizing them.

Until recently, all PLM software tended to be very customised and / or proprietary. It was beyond the reach of smaller manufacturers because it was too expensive or just too plain difficult to implement: for example, integrated digital manufacturing systems that automate the link between design and realisation and were traditionally embedded in proprietary CAD solutions.

I flew to Brussels from Nottingham last month on an Embraer 190, one of the older versions with the engines on the tail. It’s a beautiful aircraft, elegant to behold and fun to be in. I’ve noticed that pilots seem more likely to cloud surf in an Embraer. Being a passenger on a quiet flight across the channel on a sunny evening, you can almost fantasise it’s a private jet! Maybe I like the Embraer because of association with certain routes: the early BA flight to London City that hangs a spectacular right around the Shard or the KLM City Hopper summer special from Schiphol to Linköping. The airfield at Linköping is very small—just a shed and a runway—and I love the way the Embraer looks parked up casually on the apron; you know the way a Ferrari looks so much cooler sitting on a dusty road than parked in a sterile showroom? You see not merely the machine, but its attitude, character and promise. Quality is about performance, not conformance.

So I’m crossing the Channel on an Embraer making notes for an article I want to write about how mid-tier and small manufacturers can benefit from product lifecycle management software. At the top of a list I’ve written, Use Embraer to illustrate what these methods are. Seemed like a good idea at the time so let’s have a stab at it. First of all, let’s think about why aerospace OEMs innovated their PLM processes and point at some of the techniques that are accessible to smaller firms.

Embraer has, according to information I found on their website and in their 2016 annual report, over 1200 direct suppliers and 3000 indirect suppliers. Committed to excellence, they seek to improve all direct suppliers and make continuous improvements in quality, service costs and waste management. To this end they have implemented a supply chain development program (Aeronautics Chain Development Programme) and in 2016 they note and quantify a substantial ROI from the program in terms of increased production, risk reduction, on-time delivery and reduction of direct employment costs.

Aerospace manufacturers like Embraer, Boeing and Airbus needed to innovate product lifecycle management because of the enormous scale, complexity and refinement of their manufacturing processes and supply chains. Product data must be shared across different departments and between collaborating partners for the life of the product.  All the more so when the engineering is so large and complex: from the creative phases of ideation and design through to creation, delivery, commissioning and aftercare.

Let’s talk about engines for a second because they illustrate the extent of the challenge. How do you buy a jet engine? How do you know that the 20,000 discretely fabricated components have been assembled and delivered correctly? A GE9X from GE – as used on the latest 777’s from Boeing - will set you back $40 million; or how about a Rolls Royce Trent XWB for $35 million, as seen on the Airbus A350? Embraer uses smaller engines from GE and Pratt & Whitney, the CF34-10E and PW1000G, respectively priced around $7 million and $12 million each. You take delivery of a complex, hugely valuable component like that based on its quality paperwork being in order; for example, First Article Inspection Reports (FAIR) and Production Part Approval Process (PPAP).

Over the past 30 years the aerospace, automotive, FMCG and pharmaceutical industries have made innovated quality management processes from product design to launch and aftercare: from APQP (Advanced Product Quality Planning), to supply chain quality automation and supplier portals, the management of collaborative product definition and now digital manufacturing. They have defined new standards for quality automation and supply chain partnership.

Until recently, such sophisticated quality automation processes and capabilities required big investments in manufacturing systems beyond the reach of smaller manufacturers. However, current trends have brought commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions into the SME market. The most important trends are:

• Industry 4.0 and digitalization in manufacturing

• Digital twin

• Cloud PLM

• Product innovation platforms

The following critical capabilities and their business benefits are now within reach for SME’s (and if you are investigating a COTS PLM solution, check that it includes the functions you should consider from this list):

• Product data management (CAD, 3D model, docs, drawings)

• Product requirement and definition

• Task and workflow management

• Bill of material (BOM) management

• Engineering change control and configuration management

• New product development and introduction workflow

• Quality planning and control

• Manufacturing process planning and analysis

• Collaboration tools

• Can be integrated with other systems – ERP, digital manufacturing tools, CAD – in a non-proprietary manner. That is, it is open protocol.

Why should you invest in a PLM solution? Well, the benefits enjoyed by the large aerospace OEM’s are now within your reach:

• Faster product development

• Efficient communications between departments

• Conflicts resolved faster

• Cost reduction

• Centralized visibility of product information

• Higher productivity, especially through better collaboration

• Reduced risk and increased visibility of emerging risk

• Better, faster change management

• A traceable digital thread from concept to customer

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