A single version of the truth

Product lifecycle management (PLM) software is helping designers to store, share and manage information with everyone across an organisation by doing all the legwork.

Mike Richardson looks at some of the leading solutions enabling companies to stay competitive.
Information pervades our everyday lives and the Internet has made it possible to consume it in vast amounts. How we use it is entirely our choice. Information is power and we should use as much as we need to make our decisions. However, it's only powerful if we know not only how to acquire it first, but how accurate it is too. Information also modifies the way companies in the supply chain consume what they need to know in order to keep pace with technology. The latest advances in digital manufacturing techniques are helping aerospace designers make alterations to new products in seconds and see how every minute change will affect the entire supply chain.

Professor Jim Scanlan of Southampton University and Ian Poccachard, then of Rolls-Royce, founded Plexus Planning in 2003. Plexus allows decision makers to analyse the product and associated processes to highlight and act upon priorities. Plexus can be applied at various stages of the product development process, but a particularly important application within aerospace is supply chain improvement.

“The development of an aerospace product is essentially a race against time whilst at the same time trying to minimise risk,” begins Scanlan. “At every stage of product development, decision makers continually try to ensure that resources are targeted at the highest priority areas. At the early design stage, for example, designers use PLM tools and sophisticated optimisation workflows to undertake sensitivity analyses to prioritise design effort. Later in the product development process the sheer scale of product data makes the identification of priorities extremely difficult.

“Why is supply chain design such a challenge in the aerospace industry? There are several difficulties. Firstly, unlike automotive and consumer goods industries, the production volumes in aerospace products are small. Secondly aerospace primes try to build a supply chain based on risk sharing, but the gestation period for a new aerospace product is often measured in decades. Finally, because of the very high level of performance expected from aerospace products, there's little opportunity to use standard parts as widely as other industries. Hence the supply chain becomes deeply embedded in the design process which requires complex interchange of information and careful negotiation of contracts, confidentiality and ownership of IP. A typical aerospace supply chain is an extremely complex multi-dimensional network of connections involving, geography, time, responsibilities and often politics.

“Aerospace prime contractors used to undertake the majority of manufacturing in-house. In recent decades primes have, largely for reasons of efficiency, placed the vast majority of manufacturing outside their organisation. A discipline that has emerged in recent years has been that of supply chain ‘design' where right at the beginning of a project, key suppliers are systematically identified and the supply chain built holistically to minimise risks and costs. Plexus has been designed and proven to fit this role by gathering and manipulating all of the relevant knowledge for an engineering development in order to optimise the product development process and provide a complete PLM environment.”

It's all about teamwork

Resource Engineering Projects, a division of Resource Group, is a Siemens PLM software partner with over 20 years engineering experience within the aerospace sector. The company offers Siemens' Teamcenter software, implementation, support and maintenance services.

“The aerospace industry is highly competitive and exists as a complex multi-tiered supply chain requiring suppliers to work closely together on aircraft components,” explains Resource Engineering Projects' director, Paul Martin. “A PLM solution enables them to have greater control over their product lifecycle and achieve a reduction in manufacturing costs though efficiency gains such as improved bill of material accuracy and reduced time to market of a product though increased global collaboration.

“With Teamcenter, you can establish a single source of product and process knowledge that connects all global team members everywhere, all the time. Your teams can access this single source to find needed information quickly, reducing the time it takes to search for information by up to 65%, resulting in R&D costs being dramatically reduced and enabling companies to maintain an acceptable profit. Teamcenter also provides decision makers with better visibility into the most up-to-date product lifecycle information to make faster, more informed decisions.”
Enterprise application and service specialist Infor helps customers improve operations, drive growth and quickly adapt to changes in business demands. The company's director of business consulting for aerospace & defence, Arsenin Rodrigues says that the use of PLM in aerospace is based on efficiency, control and profitability.

“As these concerns ‘filter' through the supply chain they have a wide range of effects,” he reveals. “However one continuous theme is that the risks being faced by large aerospace companies is being ‘shared' throughout the supply chain – this risk management must be co-ordinated and PLM is a key technology in that.

“The main benefits in adopting PLM are improvements in product quality and a faster time to market - or to the required scale. The key is to then go beyond what one system can offer by looking at its integration - PLM linked to ERP or other elements of a supply chain management system. At this point the possible improvements in terms of reduced inventory and improved profitability can leap significantly, but only if the data flows across the systems that may indeed be across different sites or even suppliers.”

The comfort blanket

Taking on new systems to replace legacy ones can sometimes prove a headache for employees that have become reliant on them. Some are sceptical whilst others welcome the new solution with open arms.

“There is indeed great reluctance for organisations to implement new systems without very good justification,” agrees Scanlan. “This is, in many ways, a good litmus test of how important the new solution is perceived to be. Plexus has been introduced into many large aerospace organisations with great enthusiasm. This is largely because the tool is very easy to use, but also reflects the fact that it provides a unique solution to a complex high priority problem in the aerospace industry.

“Plexus is widely welcomed by everyone that uses it. Where there is a legacy PLM system then this can be retained. Plexus will interact with this system and will build a complete database of product and project data by adding supplier, BOM, and know-how from project knowledge workers and other sources to give a model that visualises the complete value chain. This type of complete value chain picture is normally only achieved painfully through an unstructured mass of separate spreadsheets, meetings and post-it note sessions.”

Infor's Rodrigues says his company offers two approaches: “One for those looking to add to existing systems - where either the weight of those legacy systems is enough to demand any additional investment and follows the path already laid out, or the need is for additional systems rather than a new solution, and another for those looking to actually move over to a new platform for whatever reason. Infor10ION is our new middleware offering that enables integration with a whole range of Infor and non-Infor systems – it's lightweight, incredibly quick to install and based on open standards.

“For those companies looking to actually implement an entire new system, our new strategy of basing suites of software around an industry rather than a product has resulted in Infor10 Aerospace and Defence – a system that includes ERP, CRM and SCM/PLM capabilities.”

Meanwhile, Resource Engineering Projects' Martin explains that there are many different approaches to handling the legacy data issue: “We generally find that companies initially feel the need to import all their old project data into their ‘new database'. However, through talking to other companies who had already adopted PLM software, they felt this would perhaps not be the best thing to do, and decided that importing their old data into the ‘new system' on an ‘as and when required basis' was found to be the most efficient and cost-effective approach. This does, however, vary from customer to customer, dependent on their data security model.”

Let's get digital

The conversation now turns to ‘digital manufacturing' and the kind of role it is playing in an aerospace company's PLM set-up. Scanlan believes that this philosophy has a number of interpretations.

“It ranges from the exchange of geometry data with the supply chain to directly produce manufactured geometry using CNC machines to the interchange of design data in the supply chain in order to collaborate in the creation of a design,” he confirms. “A recent trend is the increasing use of ‘direct digital manufacturing' - also known as rapid prototyping. Aerospace companies are now starting to exploit this technology to develop parts with sophisticated geometries that would be impossible to manufacture using conventional CNC processes. This capability changes the dynamics of the supply chain and can dramatically reduce development lead-times.”

Rodrigues says that while digital design has been used for many years now, digital manufacturing is a much broader subject.

“From a PLM view, the manufacturing capability is very important in understanding how the product will be built and produced,” he avows. “Design decisions have an impact on manufacturing capability. Embodiment points for design changes are more effective if the operational data, i.e. progress per tail number, configuration being produced, inventory, procurement etc, is viewed. Our strategy with Workspace and in the context of capabilities means that people don't have to leave their systems environment to view information from other domains - this is important to the decision making process. This increases the quality of the decision and naturally, the speed that translates into lead-time reduction and cost control of design decisions.”

It's Martin's belief that digital manufacturing enables OEMs to design the entire manufacturing process digitally at the same time that designers are designing the next product/concept.
“Consequently, manufacturing engineers are able to provide immediate feedback to designers if there are any constraints in the part manufacturability,” he points out. “This type of collaboration between manufacturing engineers and designers creates a holistic view of product and process design and can save millions of pounds in costly rework having to be done.

“For example, a company tendering for new contracts could use a digital manufacturing system to create a 3D simulation of a complete production line and analyse the different production variants and concepts as part of the request for quote (RFQ) process. This kind of transparency and precision in planning and proposal preparation can help a company gain greater customer confidence - and ultimately help it quote accurately and win new contracts.”


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