Even though companies in almost every industry have begun to invest some time into digital transformation, there is still much more time that needs to be put in to perfect it. The truth of it is that regardless of various press reports and notable users stories, a completely holistic product development process has yet to become the norm and still remains an outlier in today’s market. Even without looking at newer technologies, Product Lifecycle Management and different approaches towards syncing stakeholders with the engineering process have all failed to live up to their transformational potential.
“If you’re a product company and you want to do digitalization, then your Product Lifecycle Management game needs to be pretty on point” says vice president of CIMdata, Stan Przybylinski. “It’s amazing how many companies adopt these core data and process management platforms with lofty goals and most remain stuck in Product Data Management. Even while vendors add all these new capabilities, the majority of companies are just doing basic blocking and tackling.”
The Problem with Silo Mentality
Due to complicated technologies, engineering tends to trail behind in the digitalization process compared to other sectors like marketing or sales. The biggest hurdle facing engineering isn’t setting up these new technologies but is actually getting rid of traditional siloed methods towards product data and workflow “Most of the time companies get stuck due to organizational stuff. Organizations are not necessarily structured in a way that promotes optimal collaboration,” says Stan Przybylinski. “Instead, they are still operating as separate functions.” Another large hurdle facing the engineering side of business is their hesitation to share work in progress designs and their tendency to protect their siloed product data.
“With Product Lifecycle Management, we see a lot of complaining that others will see into their department or work product, and that comes from a silo mentality,” says chief architect at Razorleaf, a consultancy specializing in Product Lifecycle Management and engineering-related implementations, Jonathan Scott. “If you work in product definition, you are supposed to work with people in other domains. You need to be in continuous integration mode where everyone is involved in evolving the baseline. Exposing work should not be viewed in a bad way, but in a good way that lets you move ahead.”
Similarly, if transformation is about reformulating old process to boost innovation and trying new business models, then companies have to broaden their objectives past just engineering. There needs to be a smooth continuous data flow that incorporate the entire operational lifecycle. This is where the idea of digital thread can help out greatly.
Similarly to Product Lifecycle Management, there has been a lot of speculation about digital thread could streamline processes greatly and give us countless insights. These insights could lead to predictive maintenance services, innovative products, and custom manufacturing practices. These all sound like great improvements, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of clarity at what digital thread actually is and even less certainty on how to implement this effectively.
Another critical component for successful digital transformation of engineering is called Digital Twin. Much like digital thread, there is uncertainty between different providers as to what it is. Some companies like Siemens Product Lifecycle Management Software and Dassault Systèmes see it as a complete 3D portrayal of the product and its behaviors. Others like PTC connect a digital twin with a particular, serial numbered product.
Digital Twin and digital thread aren’t without their flaws though. Sometimes there can be obvious gaps or loose ends in the data flow. For instance, if a company were to create a digital twin of a product and then start collecting specific usage data in the field, sometimes they can’t utilize that data for further iterations because they have no way to deliver that data back to the engineers, creating an ineffective open-loop workflow. In a similar instance, some companies have made great steps towards integrating CAD and software development data, but often handle this data in a separate system. By doing this they create a data flow that isn’t complete or seamless, undercutting the usefulness of digital thread.
“Companies need to focus on how the digital thread connects data used all the way through the lifecycle to generate better decisions and to get upgrades and better products out the door. If engineering is focused on one-off projects, they might improve the customer experience,”says director of marketing at Aras, Mark Reisig.” but if they’re not connecting processes throughout the end-to-end lifecycle, they are not helping the business.”
According to Bertrand Dutilleul, the CIO of french boat manufacturer, Beneteau, it’s looking to shorten development time and aid its boat assembly workers by steering its Product Lifecycle Management foundation to a continuous digital flow of data. Over the next 18 months, they plan to implement PTC’s Windchill Product Lifecycle Management platform. The first six months will focus on converting current boat design into precise assembly instructions. To bolster confidence within the workers using this new digital approach, the following six months focuses on building a new boat to be pushed to the shop floor. Once the flaws are ironed out, this new digital workflow is distributed plant by plant.
“It is very important to have a reference plant—the key to success is selecting the right team for your first project,” says Bertrand Dutilleul.“You need an energetic, visionary project leader to establish momentum and provide continued executive sponsorship.”
After implementing the core Product Lifecycle Management, Beneteau hopes to expand its digital transformation by adding new capabilities like augmented reality. With these new capabilities, Beneteau would be able to help assembly workers with work instructions and they could make it more effortless for their customers to customize their boat designs. With the Internet of Things, Beneteau would be able to better inform themselves on how their boats are used in the real world, which would lead to smarter design decisions for future iterations and preventive maintenance. “These use cases are only made possible by first building a solid foundation through PLM,” says Bertrand Dutilleul
Without first creating a solid Product Lifecycle Management foundation, engineering and manufacturing companies can get caught in periods of idleness by concentrating on acquiring new attractive technologies like 3D printing or Virtual Reality.“Oftentimes, organizations are buying technology with no particular plan,” says Mark Reisig. “They are not looking at the business horizontally and this is where they get stuck.”
Digital transformation is not just about integrating previously siloed data into a new system, it’s also about normalizing various processes throughout the company so that every employee is on the same page. This is no easy task however, because change is almost always unwelcome and will be met with some sort of push back, especially if there are no glarring or blatant problems with the old system.
“The drive to harmonize processes is typically a company perspective,” says the vice president of PTC, Mark Taber. “but engineers doing the work may not be dissatisfied enough, thus are not anxious to change what they do except in incremental ways.”
For already established and successful companies, this transformation can be a huge headache and can cause some major disruptions for their already existing product development practices and product portfolio. “You’re thinking about how you get from here to there, not where you want to be,” explains Jonathan Scott of Razorleaf. “If you have to bring along the baggage of what you’re always done, you’ve got an extra constraint to deal with, and it’s a big one.”
“The projects I see failing never fail for technology reasons. They fail because of change management,” says the CEO of Dassault Systèmes, Guillaume Vendroux. “That can be avoided. The problem of transformation is likely to happen when a business is not engaged. The business needs to engage. It needs to build digitally minded processes in order to leverage the technology to get the value out of it. I see that on a constant basis.”
How to Bring about Change Effectively
In order to begin to sow the digital thread, Companies need to start dismantling their silo mentality by introducing model-based systems engineering practices. These practices focus on using models to represent a specific product throughout its entire development process, including information like shape, behavior and contextual information. “Systems engineering helps us see across discipline lines by looking at the design and definition of a product while things are still fuzzy,” explains Jonathan Scott. “Getting everyone in the various disciplines to look up higher in the process is how we become more holistic.”
According to Stan Przybylinski, vice president of CIMdata, another noteworthy breakthrough when it comes to completing complicated initiatives like Product Lifecycle Management is taking advantage of different agile practices.These practices can help dismantle complexity barriers that come with implementing these initiatives, but they may also produce additional obstacles. “The agile methodology allows you make errors and correct them quickly because you learn from the errors.This is the reason why people are using agile,” says Vendroux. “even though if you look on paper, it is significantly more complicated to manage and so therefore costs a bit more. But, it’s so much more powerful at the end of the day.”
By making a product centered view instead of the typical functional view, companies can stimulate and strengthen cross-discipline cooperation. Not only can this create multidisciplinary teams within the engineering sector but it can also extend further beyond to include other role in other areas like supply chain and manufacturing. “You need to create teams with multiple skills that have one common vision for product features,” says Brillio’s head of digital infrastructure, Vinod Subramanyam.
Recruiting a vital executive as a sponsor is just as crucial as team collaboration and new management for getting the essential buy-in. In order to accomplish this, engineering management has to be able to accurate and effective argument for the digitalization process. “So many folks in engineering talk in bits and bytes and that doesn’t help people to understand what they’re talking about,” says Jonathan Scott. “Executives won’t fund what they don’t understand.”
Sometimes the pressure for digital transformation can both come from the higher ups and from down below. That was the case at American professional motorsports organization Team Penske. In 2018, the race team began to integrate a new engineering platform based no Siemens Software’s NX called Teamcenter. After an entire year of migrating legacy data, creating system architecture and end-user training, the race team began to introduce digital twin methodology. With this they were able to iterate through prototypes much quicker, bringing them to life in virtual models and simulations before any physical products were built.
“End users have become aware of what’s possible with digital models, making their daily tasks more straightforward and allowing them to be more effective,” says the design engineering manager for Team Penske, Drew Kessler. “Top management has been pushing for performance increases at a faster rate, which is also enabled by digital methods.”
In order to diminish the time between design and manufacturing, Team Penske plans to incorporate Teamcenter Manufacturing with the build processes. “Having a functional digital twin and using virtual/digital development methods allows us to develop at a rate faster than our competition,” Drew Kessler explains. “Time to market is critical in motorsports—there is a race on the track every weekend, but between the weekends, there is a race to develop and manufacture new parts.”
Ultimately companies need to realize that digital transformation is not a sprint to the finished line, but a marathon to increase productivity incrementally. “You’re talking about people modifying the way they’ve done things before,” says senior vice president of Siemens Product Lifecycle Management Software’s Americas’ digital industry software division, Del Costy. “Companies that set a vision and see it through end-to-end get great results identifying new business opportunities and driving profitability—and that’s the holy grail of transformation.”