Manufacturing

PLM Strategies-We Gather Today to Join ERP and PLM

1 Sep, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Marrying enterprise data to product data.


For a long time, enterprise data (inventory, shipping, purchasing, accounting and payroll) and product data (2D and 3D CAD files, bills of materials, design histories and engineering specs) lived in relative isolation from each other. The former were raised in the number-heavy corporate culture, and the latter in the geometry-heavy engineering world, so whenever they met, they butted heads. But the need to make cost-effective manufacturing decisions forced engineers and accountants to come together. Anticipating a prosperous union, PLM (product lifecycle management) vendors began building portals, bridges and alleyways into dominant ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems to allow the two disparate data species to commingle.

Dassault Systemes, a PLM titan, ushered its clients into ERP systems through SMARTEAM Gateway. PTC, another major PLM vendor, guided its customers through the Windchill Enterprise System Integration module. Then Oracle and SAP, two of the biggest names in the ERP market, began offering their own PLM products: Oracle PLM, part of Oracle E-Business Suite, and mySAP PLM, part of mySAP Business Suite.

In this Article
In this Article

The ideal approach to data harmony is to consolidate all your business and manufacturing processes under one roof—that is, under one vendor's technology infrastructure. "Given the choice for a fresh start," said Hardeep Gulati, senior director of product strategy for Oracle PLM applications, "it's good to have PLM and enterprise software in one environment, whether it's Oracle or another solutions provider. If you're developing your PLM strategy from scratch, you should standardize on a single vendor for PLM to avoid integration headaches." If you're starting from scratch, you might as well pair up Oracle ERP with Oracle PLM or mySAP ERP with mySAP PLM.

But that's a choice available only to a select few companies. Most enterprises tackle their operational challenges one or two at a time, as resources permit. Priorities change over time, and so does personnel. The new IT head may not feel the same way about his or her predecessor's list of preferred vendors. Consequently, technology hodgepodges may be more common than holistic infrastructures. What do you need to keep your enterprise and product data living peacefully with each other? Trust is one of the answers, according to Todd Cummings, technology evangelist and vice-president of research and development for Synergis Adept, a document- and data-management system provider.

Listen to Your Partner

"I can remember a large client who asked us to implement a system," explained Cummings. "We gave them a recommendation, specifically on how to reorganize the legacy data to best take advantage of the solution we were proposing." Cummings believed Adept's recommendation was ignored because of a miscommunication between the client's design engineers and IT department. The outcome was a disappointing postimplementation experience. "To the client's credit," Cummings added, "they said, 'We should've listened to you. Let's do it again. This time, we'll do what you recommend.' This misstep not only taught them a lesson but also helped us grow closer. Now that client is one of our largest and most successful accounts."

Premarital Counseling

To determine the volume of preparatory work required to successfully integrate disparate document management systems, Cummings recommends a number of considerations: "Who has ownership of what system? Sometimes [a client's] IT department is responsible for ERP, PDM (product data management), MRP (manufacturing resource planning) and other systems. Other times, IT may own one but not the rest. It's important to establish who owns what beforehand."

Another consideration is whether the existing system is current. In other words, is it on the latest release? "We've seen situations where a client is current in Adept but not in its ERP or MRP system," said Cummings. "If one system is out of date, we'd have to take what I consider to be a rudimentary approach—maybe a text-based, comma-delimited data exchange. It's nice when the systems are in sync with the latest technology and the APIs (application programmable interfaces) are relatively mature."

Gillig's Story

San Francisco Bay area–based Gillig (www.gillig.com) began building buggies and carriages in 1890. Today, it builds buses for regional and commercial transit systems, Disney World, Hertz, Avis and Budget Rent A Car. The company's production workflow uses AutoCAD Mechanical, AutoCAD Electrical and Inventor 10, all from Autodesk. Gillig also is one of Adept's ERP-integration success stories.

Jim McKittrick, CAD manager and Adept system administrator for Gillig, said "We already have an ERP system [UNIX-based Infor SyteLine] firmly embedded in the company, so we're loath to move away from it . . . The ERP system runs the company. We can't buy or receive anything on our docks unless it's in that system. It's our inventory system, so we know what's on the property and what needs to be ordered for production. It also controls our bills of materials. So whatever we put in for document management, it has to bolt on to our ERP system."

Figure 1. Synergis Adept s Auto Data Exporter facilitates data sharing between Adept and other enterprise systems. This configurable, event-based tool exports Adept Library Card field data to a network location on user approval.
Figure 1. Synergis Adept s Auto Data Exporter facilitates data sharing between Adept and other enterprise systems. This configurable, event-based tool exports Adept Library Card field data to a network location on user approval.

Looking beyond basic attributes. When Gillig was using WorkCenter [an out-of-production Auto-desk program], the company used third-party software for uploading data files into the repository on a UNIX server. "It was a basic comma-delimited file," explained McKittrick. "It exported selected fields of data from WorkCenter, and more recently, the Adept Library Card for that document—be it an AutoCAD drawing, Excel spreadsheet or PDF file. The UNIX system would come and collect the data every half hour. If there was a problem—in other words, if we used double quotes where we shouldn't have, or Library Card field data that was incorrect—those items would continue to sit there until they were brought to my attention. I would then correct the data file with Notepad, and off it would go."

During Adept implementation, Gillig and the Adept in-house application development team worked together to create a configuration system. "I like to call it the Sign-In Recorder," said McKittrick. "It takes the information from the Adept fields and, at the time of [a file's] sign-in, writes the data file to the UNIX [ERP data repository] folder. What this allows me to do is make changes, make corrections, create more fields if needed."

McKittrick pointed out that the ability to add more fields allowed him to include "the physical drop zone where a part needs to go and its cycle time [the recommended cycle time for taking stock of the physical part for inventory purposes]. We're able to do a lot more in inventory management."

Stannah's Story

Like Gillig, Stannah Lift (www.stannah.com), a 140-year-old family-run elevator manufacturer based in Andover, United Kingdom, has managed to integrate its CAD data into its ERP system. "We've had our ERP system for quite a few years. The whole company revolves around it. It's only recently that we came to realize we could integrate our CAD system [Autodesk Inventor] to it as well," said Martin Lee, Stannah's CAD development engineer.

Stannah is currently implementing Autodesk's solution for managing engineering releases—Productstream. Productstream comes with ERP-integration templates for connecting engineering data to ERP systems such as Microsoft Great Plains. Stannah's ERP system happens to be KBM, a product from SSA (www.ssaglobal.com). At present, Productstream offers no direct link to KBM. "So we developed a way for Inventor or Productstream to produce an external text file for integration into our ERP system," said Lee. "Ultimately, we may try to link the two together using a third-party solution."

Check property values. "With these integrations," Lee pointed out, "if you have anomalies in your part numbers or descriptions, it'll fall apart, so something like Vault [an Auto-desk data management product that comes with Inventor] does help, because it forces you to be methodical in how you produce your model and your data. In our experience, when we looked at the data coming from our design engineers, the drawings looked fine. But when we looked under the hood and got down to the level of the bill of materials, we realized some of the words were fudged, because someone decided to make it look good on paper. We had to go through and clean up our models to make sure they followed company standards, had all the part numbers, quantities and the rest."

Among Stannah's product line was an indoor platform lift designed to transport wheelchair users on stairs. "It took about 2–3 days to draw each one, because they're tailored to [each client's] building," Lee recalled. Now Stannah uses Inventor to automatically draw parts for the lift based on customer information derived from its ERP system. "We were producing two of them a week. We now do ten a week," said Lee.

Who's the Boss?

"In many instances, PLM decisions were made primarily by engineering [staff] to control the CAD environment," observed Oracle's Gulati, "but they may not be the best people to look at the enterprise PLM aspect." He pointed out that it's important to see enterprise data in relation to the big picture. In that sense, ERP and PLM integration is a high-level process improvement—"not an engineering decision, not a procurement decision, not an operation decision."

The ERP–PLM union can thrive only if it's supported by both vendor communities: the enterprise software providers (SAP, Oracle and such) and the lifecycle solutions providers (Dassault, UGS, PTC and the rest). If business competition between the two communities leads to a tug of war, the fledgling alliance will suffer. If you technology consumers wish to see your enterprise data and product data living happily ever after, you should look into your favorite vendors' matchmaking efforts.

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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