No-Money-Down PLM (Beyond Engineering Column)2 Feb, 2009 By: Kenneth Wong
Companies on tight budgets can turn to open-source and on-demand solutions for product lifecycle management.
Some might consider Marc Lind's mission to be impossible. As vice-president of marketing for Aras, he's supposed to come up with "revenue-driven marketing strategies" for the company's open-source product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions, which are downloadable for free. In other words, you can grab the entire Aras suite from the company's site, install it in your shop, and use it for as long as you want — without ever receiving an invoice. Lind often speaks with pride of the Aras customers who have never paid the company a single dime. So how does he plan to generate revenue? That's his problem, not yours.
Your problem more likely is your budget, a casualty of the unkindest cut, the latest economic woes. You're not about to entertain a big-ticket item, such as a company-wide software implementation that requires multiple years and a small army of consultants. Yet, you can't help but wonder if someone might accidentally order the wrong part or go into production with the wrong CAD file. If you're in this position, the software modules from Aras and others might be the antidotes for your headaches. Priced at $0–$200 a month, these products shouldn't give bean counters a fit. For lack of a better description, let's call them PLM on a shoestring.
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With Dassault Systemes, Oracle, PTC, SAP, and Siemens PLM Software dominating the headlines, news about other players sometimes gets drowned out and you might not have heard about Aras. "The premise of the company," said Lind, "is to create the next-generation enterprise PLM solution that's both affordable and scalable. So it could scale down for small businesses but also scale up for large enterprises. It can be installed on a single machine or distributed throughout a data center."
Though distributed for free, Aras' open-source software is by no means skimpy. The latest version, Aras Innovator v9, is a 108-MB download that installs a suite that you can use to manage bills of materials (BOMs), change orders, assemblies and parts, activities, schedules, tasks, budget, risk, collaboration, read/write/edit permissions, and much more.
The online documentation provides step-by-step instruction about how to set up the web-based system on the Microsoft platform using Windows Server, .NET, and SQL Server. The software is certified by Microsoft. The latest release is marked by the introduction of multilingual support. "That means, if you're in California, you can be viewing a part in English, but your suppliers in Germany and China who are logged in at the same time can be looking at the same part annotated in German and Chinese," Lind explained.
Open-Source Business Model
Aras doesn't have to charge for its PLM software because the company has a profitable business selling related support, services, and training. For example, the one-day QuickStart package costs $2,000, and a four-day QuickPilot costs $10,000. These packages, Aras explains, will help you get a feel for the PLM system and plan your rollout. You can also purchase support and services as needed. The Aras Unlimited packages (subdivided into Essentials and Premiere editions) start at $750 per month. In addition, Aras University offers classes. Most are one to two days and priced at $500 a day per student with regular sessions in Boston and Munich.
Pigeonholing Small Business?
Lind points out that the support and services are optional, so if you have the IT skill necessary to configure the software on your own and learn it by consulting the online documentation, you don't have to purchase anything from Aras. "We know of many companies that have downloaded our solutions and are using them, but never talk to us," Lind said.
"Our customers are primarily discrete manufacturers," explained Lind. "We used to sell the software for a lot of money. When we released it as open source, we thought we'd get mostly small businesses because of the free price tag. We have many of them, but it's surprising that we also have a lot of mid-size and large companies such as Motorola and Lockheed Martin downloading and using Aras."
A full suite of CAD- and EDA-integration tools are available as add-ons developed by independent companies in partnership with Aras. According to Lind, the providers are the same ones that supply CAD integration tools to Oracle and SAP.
Lind believes Aras is the first company to offer open-source enterprise PLM. "However, I'd be surprised if we are the last to do that," he mused.
Then he won't be surprised to learn that ImpactPLM, based in San Jose, California, also offers what it describes as "the only PLM product to be written from the ground up to be an open-source solution." But Aras, which was founded in 2000, can still claim to be the earlier pioneer, because ImpactPLM launched in 2005.
Surrounded by SaaS
A common belief is that PLM is both expensive and expansive. In some cases, the drawn-out, costly PLM adoption horror stories reinforce this notion. So could there be such a thing as lightweight PLM? According to Benjamin Friedman, market analyst and Manufacturing Insights' research manager for PLM strategies, "a collection of complementary web-based, low-admin applications" could provide a PLM light environment.
What Is Open Source?
One solution he's identified as a candidate for PLM light infrastructure is Aligni, an on-demand parts-management system priced at $15–$199 per month. Your setup can be for a single user or unlimited users, for 100 parts or 10,000 parts. The company officially launched last July as an addition to the software-as-a-service (SaaS) family, populated with the likes of Arena Solutions and Salesforce.com. As with any SaaS, you don't install Aligni on your own machines or servers. You use it through a standard web browser.
JOVA Solutions, which supplies process-control devices and related software packages to biotech, electronic manufacturing, and imaging device companies, has already incorporated several SaaS solutions into its workflow. According to CEO Martin Vasey, JOVA keeps some of its files on the online storage system Box.net, contracts Salesforce.com's customer relationship management resources as needed, and crunches numbers on QuickBooks Online (http://oe.quickbooks.com) for some side projects.
"The SaaS model works very well for our business," Vasey noted. "We're small; we don't have a lot of resources. I'd rather have my people developing software [to sell] than generating spreadsheets, so we outsource as many of our IT functions as we can to [SaaS] suppliers."
The Sum of All Parts
For some time, Vasey had known that its homegrown parts-management system — a combination of Microsoft Outlook, Excel, and a single-user license of Trilogy Design's Parts & Vendors — was no longer sufficient for JOVA.
"Every time I turned around, I found people taking inventory," he recalled. That was a clue that they needed a better way to keep track of stock. So, when he heard about what Aligni was planning to do, he signed up to be a beta tester.
Previously, JOVA's database wasn't accessible to everyone. Therefore, to preserve consistency, JOVA designated a single employee as the lone inventory keeper, responsible for manually entering the data sent from different offices.
"Now, pretty much everyone updates the inventory," Vasey said, "because people can easily access it." JOVA pays Aligni $79 per month, a plan that houses as many as 1,500 parts. The company got help from Aligni to migrate its existing Parts & Vendors database that comprised approximately 900 parts into the Aligni environment.
Aligni's literature makes it clear that the company plans to go after Trilogy's customers. "We understand that your existing data is very important," it writes, in describing its Parts & Vendors conversion program. "To ease your migration to Aligni, we have created a database conversion tool and will perform your conversion free of charge."
According to Aligni, the system performs nightly backups. It also performs weekly backups of each customer's data and deposits it in a secure Amazon S3 location, a virtual storage system offered by online retailer Amazon.com. The XML export feature lets users save the database in XML format, so they have the assurance that if they ever decide to end their relationship with Aligni, their data won't be held hostage. Aligni verifies that during the past 18 months, it has managed to keep the system up 99.93% of the time. If it can maintain the same degree of reliability, it stands to gain the trust of those currently sitting on the fence about SaaS. For more information, read "Pay-as-You-Go Parts Management," Cadalyst.com, July 21, 2008, www.cadalyst.com/0721news.
If you're one of those people who don't mind tolerating a few promotional nuisances to get more bang for your buck, you might be interested to know that Aligni offers "an ad-supported version of Aligni, provided at no charge, for open-source hardware projects." To qualify for it, you would have to submit your project to the Open Aligni community for review (www.open-aligni.com/open).
Cadalyst executive editor Kenneth Wong explores the innovative use of technology and its implications. Read his blog at www.cadalyst.com/kw.