Product Lifecycle Management

PLM Strategies-Open Up and Connect

1 Feb, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Service-oriented architecture may become the new mantra.


On My Return flight from Autodesk University, I was seated next to Matt Worland, another attendee and an independent AutoCAD drafter. He used the term "coopetition" to describe how, during a particularly busy cycle, he once subcontracted some of his jobs to a competitor of his. You won't find the word listed in standard dictionaries (I checked a few), because it's a relatively new business principle, seemingly counterintuitive and still struggling for acceptance. It's about strategic cooperation between competitors. One might point to Apple and Microsoft as an example of this; they work together, for mutual benefit, to make some software applications operable on both Macintosh and PC platforms.

From a consumer's point of view, it makes a lot of sense. Worland's client was probably more concerned with the quality of the deliverables than with how the job was completed or who completed it. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that SOA (service-oriented architecture) is a technological framework that fosters coopetition among different software applications. In other words, it's an environment that allows a user, or a consumer, to submit a request for a service, with no concern about which of the many applications is going to provide the desired service. In return, any application capable of performing the requested service goes to work to fulfill the request. Yes, I realize this doesn't accurately depict the full complexity of SOA—no analogy can—but you get the idea.

What's the significance of SOA in the PLM (product lifecycle management) market? If this approach takes off, it can force not only different applications but also the vendors to engage in coopetition. Wouldn't you like to see that as a consumer?

SAP Says, "Open"

So far the excitement around SOA—a mixture of optimism and skepticism—has largely been confined to the ERP (enterprise resource planning) market. But last month, when I spoke to Gartner analyst Mark Halpern, he alerted me that SOA is creeping into the PLM market as well (www.cadalyst.com/0106plm). Walldorf, Germany-based SAP (www.sap.com), a revered name in the ERP sector, has been championing SOA for some time. In 2003, the company first introduced its own version of SOA, called enterprise services architecture. This year, in March, it unveiled its Enterprise Services Architecture Adoption Program, a roadmap, if you will, toward SOA.

"PLM involves a lot of authoring environments," says Uli Eisert, SAP's solutions manager for mySAP PLM. "You have mechanical CAD systems, electrical CAD systems; you create Office documents; you use specialized simulation applications. No matter which PLM solutions you are using, you have to deal with a lot of disparate applications, which cannot come from a single company—that's obvious. In 90% of the cases, you're dealing with a multi-CAD environment. It's an illusion to believe one company can provide everything you need."

The recommended approach to PLM, he says, is to bundle all these applications together under an open platform, such as SAP NetWeaver, then build a repository of services and let the user access these services as needed. NetWeaver is an integration platform, so other software developers can create third-party applications (that could be JAVA-based, for example) that interact with SAP products. So what's to stop SAP's competitors from plugging into NetWeaver? The answer is, nothing.

BMW at Your Service

SOA sounds good in abstract, but how will it work in practice? Eisert explains, "Take, for example, the engineering change request. Instead of directly creating a change request, you could use a form. You enter data step by step, and somebody is checking its progress. Is it complete? Does it make sense? Is it going to be rejected? That's a very simple example; nevertheless, that's the type of thing that can be done more easily with enterprise services architecture." This example, as it turns out, is based on a real SAP customer. BMW, James Bond's favorite automaker, recently went live with a custom-specific Web-based extension on top of its SAP PLM solution for managing engineering change requests (figure 1). It's planned for up to 12,000 internal and external userss.

 Figure 1. SAP, a firm believer in SOA, goes live with a custom-specific Web-based extension for BMW for managing engineering change requests.
Figure 1. SAP, a firm believer in SOA, goes live with a custom-specific Web-based extension for BMW for managing engineering change requests.

Eisert predicts SOA's template-based approach to data management will make analytics much easier to develop as well. "If you can run a report of, for example, all the engineering change requests that are still unfulfilled, the next step is to select certain change requests and approve them. That's called actionable analytics. Enterprise services architecture combines analytics with the action that needs to be taken, based on the insight derived from the analytics."

Along with SAP, Oracle and Microsoft are in race to SOA Promised Land. The much-quoted Forester Research paper "Demystifying the Confusion on Project Fusion" (www.forrester.com) acknowledges that SAP's SOA initiative is further along than Oracle's SOA initiative, called Project Fusion. By Oracle's own prediction, the full Project Fusion applications suite will not be available until 2008. In the article "Well on Our Way to SOA? Still Much To Do" in Intelligent Enterprise (July 1, 2005), the author estimates that it will take SAP at least until 2007 to fully realize its SOA vision. That's either a near future or a distant future, depending on your patience.

Centric Says, "Connect"

Ron Watson, vice-president of product development at Centric Software (www.centricsoftware.com), takes me back to the mid 18th century to discuss his company's PLM vision. "During the industrial revolution, there would usually be a single motivating power, like a steam engine or a waterwheel. It was the central power to which all the machines hooked into. If that machine went down, all the productivity came to a grinding halt. Over time, however, motors became smaller, so every machine now has the ability to drive itself." And that, in his view, is what a typical PLM system looks like today: a collection of applications, each driven by its own of input-output parameters, each governed by its own internal logic. Centric's forte is in establishing connectivity among all these disparate engines.

"The connectivity is an element of SOA," says Watson. "There are companies with proprietary data, authored in applications that aren't compatible with the SOA approach. The way in which our connectors communicate with these legacy systems is through SOA. We define the interface to communicate with these legacy systems, so it queries and extracts the information, periodically finds out if the source data has changed, and refreshes the data as needed." Centric's OpenPLM Solutions, launched in October this year, are meant to provide automatic extraction and aggregation of real-time product and operational data (figure 2).

Figure 2. Centric s OpenPLM, launched this October, extracts and aggregates information in a decision-making environment. Centric s emphasis is on establishing connectivity among disparate PLM components.
Figure 2. Centric s OpenPLM, launched this October, extracts and aggregates information in a decision-making environment. Centric s emphasis is on establishing connectivity among disparate PLM components.

Mining and Merging Data

Founded in 1998, Centric has left its mark in various fields, including collaboration, visualization, process management and behavior simulation. "The key thing Centric does," Watson says, "is to provide hooks into lots of legacy systems—not only within the company but with its suppliers as well—to extract information needed to make product decisions." In other words, Centric doesn't urge a user to migrate to a single consolidated environment; it helps a user communicate with various PLM components that are in place.

With Centric's OpenPLM, a decision maker, such as a project leader, can construct a custom dashboard populated with appropriate fields to help him or her manage a certain project. The connectors query the appropriate documents—CAD parts, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and so on—and present the information in the designated fields. The links between fields and documents are created using a drag-and-drop interface.

"So on a project," says Watson, "the BOM that represents a product can have different views, depending on who is looking at it or on where the product is manufactured." Because manually gathering and consolidating such data can be cumbersome and time-consuming, Centric's OpenPLM can potentially shave off significant operational hours. With relevant input fields conveniently gathered into a single interface, the dashboard can also function as a tool for examining what-if scenarios.

"Everyone says openness is good," says Watson, "but there are different interpretations of what openness means. One version is to get everything organized in XML, so it can be freely exchanged. Another is for a vendor to say, we'll provide you ways to get into our environment easier." So how does Centric define openness? Chris Groves, Centric's CEO, defines it as follows: "True openness results in a complete aggregation of all key metrics required to design, develop and introduce highly differentiated, innovative products" ("Accelerate Innovation," Design News, November 21, 2005). He is Ron Watson's boss, so he has the last word.

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. He explores innovative use of technology as a freelance writer. E-mail him at kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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