Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

The Innovation Question (PLM Strategies Column)

31 May, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Examining the link between PLM and creativity.

It seems, in the broad strokes of the marketing geniuses' pens, PLM (product lifecycle management) and innovation have become almost synonymous. "Slow to Market? Innovate Now with IBM's PLM Solutions," beckons the IBM PLM home page.

In this article
In this article

January 22, 2007 was PLM Innovation Day, sponsored by several vendors and analysts. The press has joined the chorus, too. "SMB [small to mid-size businesses] PLM: Innovation Driver?" asks the editors at Intelligent Enterprise. Manufacturing Business Technology's cover story for March 2006 was "Innovation Accelerated: PLM Tools Prove Out Concepts, Speed Collaboration . . ." Caught up like the rest, I fear that I, too, may have expressed similar sentiments in my own writings in the past, so I won't profess to be blameless.

But I think it's time to revert to a more cautious stance and take a closer look at PLM's role in innovation. So this month, I politely declined several vendors offers to provide input; instead, I asked for their users' contact information. I asked my interviewees: "Do lifecycle management technologies truly foster creativity?" What they revealed was this: PLM can help manage the risk, the chaos and the regulatory concerns associated with inventing something new; however, it's up to the engineers to invent. PLM may drive innovation, but the ignition key is in someone else's hand.

The Heart of the Matter

Sometime during the development of the Left Ventricular Assist Device, Jeffrey LaRose, HeartWare's chief scientific officer, began suffering from an affliction quite common among those in new product development. LaRose's colleague Steve White, HeartWare's PLM project manager, described the condition as follows: "All of our ideas and work—Excel sheets, AutoCAD files, CDF [computer fluid dynamics] studies, animal studies, SolidWorks files, word documents, PDFs, source files, existing patents, pictures and so on—were dispersed among the creators. The documents were housed in a consortium of hard drives scattered on various computers throughout the organization. [Our chief scientific officer] had little or no capability to vault, organize and retrieve these golden nuggets for IP (intellectual property) development."

The antidote to this information overload was an electronic data-management system, something that creative souls often think of as bitter medicine. "Engineers are suspicious of anything that threatens to restrict their creativity, and they have an aversion to systems that might hamper their ability to design and test their designs. They see paperwork as an enemy," observed White. But in the heavily regulated medical device market, paperwork is a necessity. It solidifies innovative ideas as copyright protected IP; it offers patients assurance that the devices that are about to be surgically implanted in their bodies have been proven safe and effective in hundreds of clinical studies and laboratory tests. Recognizing this, HeartWare's engineers swallowed the prescribed pill, known as Agile Advantage. The system was available for on-demand licensing, allowing HeartWare to take the necessary modules in manageable doses (for more information, see "Pick What You Want, Pay As You Go," Cadalyst, "PLM Strategies," September 2005).

Booking the Littlest Pump

The Left Ventricular Assist Device is a circulatory pump and the smallest on the market, according to HeartWare. The company's own description reads, "The impeller [the only moving part in the design] is held in place by a proprietary hybrid magnetic and hydrodynamic bearing system. There are no mechanical bearings and no points of physical contact within the pump housing."

In accordance with FDA guidelines, HeartWare must document the development and creation of the device from the originating user need to the manufacturing of the product. To compile this voluminous product history, the project manager used to dig deep into the network folders where the digital files resided. "All of these are cataloged in our company hard drives," said White, "but it's not easy to find things." With the Agile PLM system in place, White expects the process to become smoother. "Instead of a BOM (bill of materials), we created a BOD (bill of documents)." When revisions and changes are made to the associated files, the BOD gets automatically updated, much to the relief of the project manager.

"I really don't think any PLM system will necessarily change or enhance creativity," White remarked. "But with such a system, if you incorporate proper discipline, you can capture your ideas and the innovations, codify them and tag them with metadata." And that decreases the chances of accidentally reinventing the wheel, so to speak. "You might not realize that something has already been done," he added. "Finally you think you've got an innovation, you talk to somebody, only to find out it's been done two years ago," quite possibly by someone sitting several offices away.

Blind Creativity

In the experience of Joseph Cannaverde, project manager at RollEase, innovation is less dramatic than the classic "Eureka!" moment attributed to Archimedes. He and his colleagues don't count on the kind of epiphanies that supposedly drove the legendary mathematician to rise from his bath-tub with a shriek. At their workplace, where they experiment with window blinds to develop better control mechanisms, breakthroughs are the outcome of hard work. They rely on design iterations to produce solid inventions.

"When we develop products, we make something [in stereolithog-raphy], we put it together. When we realize it doesn't work the way we thought it would, we make a change, then we send it off again to our vendors and customers for feedback," Cannaverde explained. "What I do is, I take an existing design [in PTC's Pro/ENGINEER], then create a new version. Then I take the whole piece, the whole assembly, rename each part whatever I want, and I go play with it in my [digital] workspace."

Tie a Ribbon Round the Idea

RollEase uses a manual clutch, which, unlike old-fashioned spring rollers, lets users easily raise or drop shades to the desired height and keep them suspended there. Cannaverde is working on a new product, a patented single-ribbon system for roller shades (figure 1). RollEase's description reads, "The single-ribbon control eliminates the requirement for a tension device and is an excellent alternative for safety-conscious consumers. Modular in design, it is adaptable to work with RollEase R-Series brackets or with Roll-Ease Skyline brackets. Tube adapters allow one control mechanism to work in several of most popular tube sizes."

Figure 1. An iterative engineering workflow lets RollEase explore various ways to improve on its window-blind control mechanism. The spool, shown here, is part of the upcoming single-ribbon system, designed in Pro/ENGINEER and managed in Windchill PDMLink.
Figure 1. An iterative engineering workflow lets RollEase explore various ways to improve on its window-blind control mechanism. The spool, shown here, is part of the upcoming single-ribbon system, designed in Pro/ENGINEER and managed in Windchill PDMLink.

Cannaverde has just produced a prototype of the spool to be used with the system. "It's about two inches in diameter. It has a six-millimeter–wide ribbon coming out of it. It goes on to another part. It releases the spring, so when you pull the ribbon, the shade comes down. When you click the ribbon and pull it, the shade goes back up." After he sent it off to the customers, he received feedback: "Originally, the spool fits into the part with a light press, but they want it to snap on," he said. Depending on their inputs and further field tests, he may revise the design again. Eventually, he'll hit on a variation that satisfies the customers.

"Keeping a record of a product's lifecycle would never hurt creativity," he observed. "Just the ability to go back and look at something, and figure out why it was changed, or why it failed, you'll realize you did something wrong, so you won't do it again."

A Costly Quarter Inch

Previously, idea iterations were archived without a formal document-management or revision-control system at RollEase. "We had no component control, no configuration management. Frequently, we would get the wrong stuff back that didn't match the print . . . it became increasingly difficult to ensure our customers were getting the right parts at the right time," Cannaverde recalled in a Webcast hosted by PTC ("Practical Data Management Strategies: RollEase Success Story," November 15, 2006,

In one instance, the incorrect version of a part was dispatched to a vendor, resulting in the mass production of a part that was one-quarter inch longer than it should have been. Cannaverde had the unenviable task of informing the RollEase CEO that there had been a mistake—one that would cost $15,000 and take six weeks to correct.

To prevent similar mistakes, RollEase has adopted PTC Windchill PDMLink, available as an on-demand solution for small and mid-size manufacturers. This lets RollEase implement the software gradually pace, pay only for the number of seats it uses and leave the maintenance to PTC. "It keeps my IT guys extremely happy," Cannaverde said. Because PDMLink features are available over the Internet, "I can be in Colorado, Germany or China and still pull up my data."

The Elusive Component

Each in his own way, HeartWare's White and RollEase's Cannaverde warned me that new inventions and conceptual breakthroughs won't appear magically in a PLM system. After all, the wide-blade impeller that distinguishes HeartWare's pump and the mechanism that defines Roll-Ease's upcoming single-ribbon system weren't conceived by the software. Both inventions are effectively tracked, documented, regulated and archived in their respective PLM environments and housed in a series of hard drives, but make no mistake—they're the offspring of the creative minds that live on the other side of the monitor. A string of computer code on a server can never be a substitute for someone who can think outside the box.

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 at

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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