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A Dead End for PLM?

For almost two decades now, product lifecycle management (PLM) has been heralded as “the one version of the truth” for all product-related data and as the platform for managing the entire spectrum of processes from conception to when the product is finally put to rest. Yet the reality of PLM’s reach remains much narrower. Despite significant traction in the design and manufacturing stages and a recent uptick in service workflows, PLM has yet to gain headway at the end of the product lifecycle, as a tool for optimizing retirement and recovery.

PLM, and with it, the more nascent digital thread, have yet to connect to end-of-life processes for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there is far less focus on standardizing processes to retire products and recover parts and materials compared with other stages like facilitating engineering change orders or delivering proactive maintenance. At the same time, end-of-life practices vary greatly, depending on the industry, the length of product service and the individual company, which makes formalizing specific PLM processes difficult.

Teamcenter can be used in tandem with thinkstep GaBI solution to serve up sustainability data as in this example of a chassis assembly’s carbon and water footprint. Image courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

Teamcenter can be used in tandem with thinkstep GaBI solution to serve up sustainability data as in this example of a chassis assembly’s carbon and water footprint. Image courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

“PLM products do a really good job of managing the raw data, but a less good job of understanding all of the processes and we’re finding out that end-of-life processes are not as well understood as we would like,” says John MacKrell, a vice president at CIMdata, a market consultancy specializing in engineering issues and PLM.

Flying Blind

Asheen Phansy, Sustainability Solution Experience senior manager for the high tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, agrees this leg of the PLM journey has been slow to gain traction, in part because there is no proven roadmap for navigation. It has historically been difficult to get usage information back from the customer, let alone figure out how and where to collect the product at the end of its lifecycle.

“We’ve developed this mentality in the production space that as soon as product is out the door, it becomes someone else’s problem,” Phansy explains. Beyond formalizing internal product recovery processes as part of PLM, companies have also been stymied by how to incent both customers and supply chain partners to participate in end-of-life practices. “If you can manage to get the product back, you still have to figure out how to incentivize customers to bring the product back, and you don’t always recover enough value to make that happen,” he says.

Arena’s partnership with 1Factory enables quality control processes that could be tapped to enhance sustainability and end-of-life processes. Image courtesy of Arena Solutions.

Arena’s partnership with 1Factory enables quality control processes that could be tapped to enhance sustainability and end-of-life processes. Image courtesy of Arena Solutions.

At the same time, current retention and information storage processes related to product-specific data and PLM are lacking, especially when you consider products like airplanes and industrial equipment, which have decades-long lifecycles. “How does anyone know 50 years from now how a product should be taken apart and disposed of properly—where does that information come from,” questioned Dr. Michael Grieves, Ph.D., executive director at the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). To get it, Grieves says PLM providers will need to make novel data structures and programmatic retention strategies part of their future platform offerings.

Given that end-of-life and product recovery processes fall outside of engineering, PLM platforms also have to continue to become more accessible to non-engineers. Compliance officers, supply chain specialists and other professionals involved in product recovery and retirement processes need to be able to interact with the PLM platform. Role-based user experiences, support for expanded data types beyond 3D CAD files and integration with other core enterprise platforms like enterprise resource planning and supply chain management have broadened PLM’s reach to such players, but there is more work to be done.

Design for Sustainability

As the regulatory climate heats up, PLM platforms are being tapped more readily to ensure compliance with directives like European Union’s End of Life Vehicle, Restriction of Hazardous Substances, Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment and Conflict Minerals. However, these initiatives still fall short of using PLM to orchestrate product recovery and reuse.

One important step to formalizing and eventually orchestrating end-of-life processes is to make design for disassembly and design for sustainability core tenets of the upfront development process.

“Today, what happens is you get to the recycling point and find out the way that a car has been built doesn’t allow for recyclability,” says CIMdata’s MacKrell. “We’re not taking data on recycling needs and feeding it back to the design side. They need to know if there is a plan to recycle something so they can make sure a screw can be removed easily, for example—all of that hinges on upfront design.”

Although specific end-of-life processes have not yet made it into leading PLM platforms, features to aid in compliance and design for sustainability have. Dassault’s ENOVIA PLM offering, as part of its 3DEXPERIENCE platform, includes materials compliance analysis capabilities to allow managers to assess product compliance, direct sourcing decisions based on environmental compliance ratings of key suppliers, and track conflict mineral reporting status.

Siemens PLM Software’s Teamcenter platform is also evolving to include materials management enhancements to aid in sustainability and compliance efforts, according to Bill Boswell, senior director of Cloud Services Marketing and Business Strategy. Teamcenter’s integrated materials management capabilities deliver visibility into environmental requirements, help manage materials data as part of the central product data repository and can be integrated with with lifecycle assessment tools to do deep dives on the environmental footprint of products.

“Many companies today manage materials outside of the PLM system, which creates too many data silos,” Boswell says, explaining that integrating materials management into the PLM platform lets teams consider a material’s attributes and properties before it’s selected. “This is a far more proactive approach … allowing engineering teams to understand the environmental impact a product will have at the end of its lifecycle as well as the ability to see what it looks like before it gets out the door,” Boswell says.

The IoT Impact

One potential game changer for expanding PLM’s reach into product recovery processes is the acceleration of the Internet of Things (IoT). As the number of smart, connected products multiply, they provide a feedback channel for collecting intelligence on product use, helping to optimize, for example, which materials hold up in specific environmental conditions and laying the groundwork for creating quality improvement and end-of-life processes, according to Steve Chalgren, executive vice president, Product Management and chief strategy officer at Arena.

“If the engineering team has visibility into the quality of products in the field relative to QA on the manufacturing floor, they can minimize infant mortality and a shorter-than-expected lifecycle by ensuring the proper design,” he says. “More robust products that last longer mean less scrap in manufacturing and fewer products ending up in the dump.” To that end, Arena has taken steps to bolster its capabilities in the quality control area via a partnership with 1Factory, which delivers a cloud-based quality inspection platform. Integration with IoT platforms is a natural next step to provide a way to track assets through their lifecycle, making them easier to recover at end of life.

PTC, which has staked its future as an IoT platform leader, also contends that connected products and their corresponding digital twins will open a range of possibilities to improve end-of-life and product recovery. “Having that information be accessible through PLM could help inform recovery processes about what material and parts inside of a product are recyclable or recoverable,” explains Mark Taber, PTC’s vice president of marketing and go-to-market strategy.

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Dassault Systemes

Florida Institute of Technology



About Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.