Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Efficiency Expert

30 Jun, 2004 By: Arnie Williams


Saturn Electronics & Engineering ( has grown from six employees at its founding in 1985 to more than 4,000 in offices in Auburn Hills and Oxford, Michigan; Juarez and Monterey, Mexico; Cebu, Philippines; and Singapore.

A global supplier of contract manufacturing services to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and their suppliers, primarily in the automotive industry, the company handles native CAD data from a variety of platforms, including Pro/ENGINEER, CATIA, SolidWorks, AutoCAD, and others. Saturn's four divisions concentrate on contract manufacturing of electronics, wire harnesses, fuel systems, and the solenoids for transmissions (figures 1-3).

 Figure 1. Saturn Electronics & Engineering designs and manufactures a variety of products, including this multidisplacement system solenoid.
Figure 1. Saturn Electronics & Engineering designs and manufactures a variety of products, including this multidisplacement system solenoid.

In some cases, Saturn designs products for its clients, and in other cases, the company receives the design data from clients and carries out the manufacturing. Increasingly, client design data and schematic data are provided as PDFs.

Recently, the company has experienced an incredible growth spurt. It has more than 400 clients that are sending in BOM (bill of materials) data and wanting timely quotes. Saturn found itself in dire need of a better way to manage its data. Moreover, it was receiving BOM data in a variety of formats, with some data that was usable and some that wasn't. Sorting it out and responding efficiently was a nightmare.


Saturn Electronics & Engineering found the answer to its problems in Agile Software's PLM solution ( By incorporating two of Agile's PLM modules - Product Collaboration and Cost Management - into its business practices, Saturn moved away from paper bidding and supplier communications to a digital model.
Figure 2. Fuel system components designed by Saturn.
Figure 2. Fuel system components designed by Saturn.

"In the past, we had a paper-driven release system," says Paul Fleck, director of electronics engineering. "It wasn't database driven and it wasn't central in nature. Now in the Agile system, everyone can see the data no matter where they are in the world. One of our biggest benefits, besides executing changes more efficiently, is that there is only one instance of the product record out there. There's no 'Here's my drawing that is different from yours even though yours has the same part number as mine'."

Some of the more obvious benefits for Saturn are what you'd expect with a PLM system. Now it's easy for employees to understand the elements in a BOM, when the prototype was produced, and when changes need to be made. They are better able to respond to change, and all changes are traceable-the system keeps a trail of what happened to the product from quote through production release. Many of the OEMs now use Agile or other PLM systems and can trace a product throughout its lifecycle. This is becoming crucial because of stringent governmental regulations on the horizon.

Figure 3. An automotive chassis control module from Saturn.
Figure 3. An automotive chassis control module from Saturn.

Another equally important benefit, notes Fleck, is the amount of time he and colleagues spent studying their business processes as they prepared to move data to Agile. "We started looking at our metrics and realized that we didn't have a good handle on what it took to execute different things in our quoting process and other areas," he says. This is the kind of self-examination companies typically let slip if they're not forced to step back and take a hard look at their processes.

In the case of Saturn, the result has been quality improvement, with a 30-50% more efficient operation that ultimately leads to customer satisfaction. "We were able to get 80% of the benefit out of the gate with 20% effort to deploy it," says Fleck of the Agile PLM modules. "Now it's easy to plug data into the system, to associate parts with the BOM, and have one view of the product (figure 4)."

Figure 4. Agile manages the complete BOM structure.
Figure 4. Agile manages the complete BOM structure.


Founded in 1995 by its current CEO Bryan Stolle, Agile Software Corp. provides a range of PLM solutions to a global customer base that includes companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, Hitachi, Dell Computer, and more than 1,200 customers in the automotive, aerospace and defense, consumer products, high tech, and life sciences industries. With headquarters in San Jose, California, the company also has offices in Austria, Germany, Taiwan, China, Japan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

According to John DaDamio, director of automotive business consulting for Agile, the company's PLM solutions help companies such as Saturn in the automotive industry improve business-process efficiency. "This can be a market with razor-thin margins," he says. "What PLM really does is unify the CAD environment. It provides a framework for tracking data beyond product design, tooling, packaging, and processing. It also provides a framework to track costs, product quality, and, increasingly important, compliance of various materials with green regulations. This and all manner of things that influence a product throughout its lifecycle."

DaDamio also points out that the PLM system becomes a safe environment for collaboration. Companies such as Saturn, with its 400+ suppliers that access the system for product quote data, typically don't want to expose all of their raw CAD data. The PLM system provides a safe space to regulate how and how much data is made available, notes DaDamio (figure 5).

Figure 5. Using Agile PLM software, sourcing teams can initiate redline changes to the design team.
Figure 5. Using Agile PLM software, sourcing teams can initiate redline changes to the design team.

Agile can supply PLM for any size company. Most companies start with a small PLM footprint foundation module for product data management. This includes features such as data vaulting, engineering change management, and supplier tracking.

A second engineering collaboration module provides viewing and redlining capabilities and online design review. A third module focuses on cost management with a structure for assembling a cost model. This highly complex capability is particularly important in the automotive industry because of the high proportion of custom parts.

Agile Software rounds out its PLM solutions with modules for product service and improvement-a root-cause analysis module that supports problem reporting from the field, data mining analysis, corrective action, and close-loop action-and program and portfolio management.

DaDamio notes that Saturn chose the product collaboration and product cost management modules and deployed both in 12 weeks. The cost of business consulting was very small, he says, with only about two Agile employees devoted to getting the system live and working.

Figure 6. Agile offers a variety of out-of-box reports. For example, this one provides forward cost visibility.
Figure 6. Agile offers a variety of out-of-box reports. For example, this one provides forward cost visibility.

Agile Software has also spun out a new stand-alone product from its product collaboration tool that companies such as Saturn and other automotive companies in particular should consider in the coming years. Called Product Government and Compliance, the product tracks a bill of substance-what a product is made from. This will be important because of governmental regulations now under development that will require companies to recycle certain materials used in their products at the end of product life. The regulations will also stipulate that materials that can't be recycled must be designed out of certain materials. The material thresholds permitted will be complex, and companies will be responsible for tracking and reporting these materials.

"In the past," says DaDamio, "this kind of data hasn't been tracked. It hasn't been easily accessible. To do so, the bill of substances has to be related to the data structure so companies can have confidence in the correct rollup of materials, from the materials used in product design and manufacture to the packaging to certain washes used in machining for surface board assembly. This is not the kind of data that would be in a typical BOM system."


As we move further into this new century, the kind of control and the ability to trace product design and manufacturing that PLM solutions provide won't be an option as companies prepare to comply with new government regulations. Therefore, manufacturing companies, no matter what their size, and the hundreds upon thousands of suppliers to these companies will have little choice but to use a system of compliance tracking and reporting. Manual product lifecycle management systems fall far short in this area.

As is the case with Saturn Electronics & Engineering, business demands and the nature of low-margin, highly competitive environments provide a strong incentive for businesses to develop metrics for all of their product development processes and to automate their approaches to product design and manufacture.

In the not-so-distant future, PLM will be much more than a favored industry acronym of the day-it will be standard operating procedure. Companies such as Saturn recognize the direction in which the industry is moving and are taking crucial steps to be ready.

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