Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Mitigate the Engineering Brain-Drain Threat

13 Jan, 2012 By: Chad Jackson

When product change orders arise but key project personnel have moved on, PDM and PLM systems help managers reconstruct the design process.

Question: When is an engineering manager like a crime scene investigator?

Answer:Unfortunately, almost every day.


Engineering is an iterative process. Some things you get right immediately. Other things you don't. You hope all the mistakes are caught before a product is delivered or launched, realistically, that just doesn't happen. Some problems slip through the cracks and eventually come back to you as change orders.

It is at that point that an engineering manager must step into the role of crime scene investigator, attempting to reconstruct the product-development process to determine how a problem occurred and how to resolve it when, all to often, the original designer or engineer is no longer with the organization. They might have retired, taken a promotion, or moved on to another company. In an age when the massive Baby Boomer generation is ready to retire and disgruntled Gen-Xers are left in their wake, it's an all too familiar reality. So, now what happens? In short, you have to figure out what went wrong.

  • What alternatives were explored before design release?
  • Were the requirements validated?
  • Who contributed to the design review?
  • What were the results from the test lab?

Piece by piece, you pull together hints, clues, and evidence to understand the bigger picture. You reconstruct the crime scene. Only it's not nearly as glamorous as the TV shows. In fact, it's painful, distracting, and time-consuming. On days like this, you sometimes regret accepting that promotion to manage the engineering team.

The good news is that this doesn't have to be so painful. Technologies are available that can help you reconstruct the scene. Think of it as your own crime scene lab with all the cool, high-tech tools.

Revisit the Progression of the Design

Understanding how the design matured is one of the keys to resolving product problems. Basically, you need to understand who modified the design on any given day during the design cycle. If you use a product data management (PDM) system, then you already have this capability. A modern PDM system that manages CAD design data understands that different parts within an assembly iterate at different rates. Essentially, it tracks the configuration of the product as it progresses. You can rewind it to view details on a given day. Furthermore, you can understand who made exactly which changes in the design.

  ✔ Understanding the progression of your design.

Review the Advancement of Product Characteristics

Understanding how other characteristics of the product matured during the development cycle is another key to resolving product problems. You might need to check when requirements were validated or the state of a product's compliance in the middle of design. This is where a product lifecycle management (PLM) system comes into play. Some PLM systems have specific capabilities to define, track, and then validate requirements. Other PLM systems generate compliance reports based on how the product is designed. Many other such traits and characteristics can be logged and recorded during the development cycle. Just like a PDM system, a PLM system tracks it all over time so you have an auditable record you can review as necessary.

  ✔ Understand the advancement of product characteristics.

Replay the Process Timeline

Understanding how the design and product matured is critical, but looking back at the process record is crucial. This information tells you when a design was reviewed, approved, and released. And it tells you who took all those actions. This is another critical place where PLM systems make an impact. With workflows, PLM systems not only dole out process tasks and notifications but also track exactly who completed them and when they were completed.

  ✔ Understand the process timeline.

The Big Picture

Engineering managers have to deal with shifting and changing engineering teams every day. Change orders often force them to reconstruct the who, when, and how of a product problem. When done manually, this effort is painful, distracting, and time-consuming. But, with the aid of PDM and PLM systems, it is far more automated.

  • PDM systems provide insight into how a design progressed, tracking its configuration as it matured during the design cycle and the overall development process.
  • PLM systems track other traits and characteristics such as requirements and compliance reports in a similar manner, providing a bigger and broader picture of the product's state during the design cycle and the overall development process.
  • PLM systems also record individual steps in formal and informal processes. This helps engineering managers understand who reviewed, approved, and released products in the development process.

Using PDM or PLM systems, engineering managers don't need to wince at change orders or product problems. Today's tool and systems can help you reconstruct an accurate picture of design and development activities in an automated fashion and put an end to feeling like a crime-scene investigator.

About the Author: Chad Jackson

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