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How to find a PLM system that won’t let you down

In Erik Kaas’s Six reasons why manufacturing systems fail, the Sage ERP VP of product management identifies several ways a manufacturing system can do more harm than good. I wanted to jump in on the conversation, but because ‘manufacturing systems’ is such a broad topic, I decided to focus on PLM—something we know a thing or two about at Arena.

Steve Chalgren, our VP of product management and strategy, and one of’s “top 100 people influencing electronics manufacturing services,” agreed to help me shed light on what makes a PLM system successful.

Interview with Steve Chalgren, Arena’s VP of product management and strategy

What makes a “good” PLM system?

Steve: In general, you want a PLM system that can do the following things:

  1. Manage items—including parts and their associated documents and files
  2. Store and centralize approved manufacturer lists (AMLs)
  3. Create and manage several multi-level BOMs
  4. Control items and BOMs with a comprehensive change control system
  5. Allow for easy communication with suppliers—most likely using an ‘export to PDX’ feature or supplier sign-in
  6. Allow manufacturers to easily get their data in and out of the system

If your PLM system can do those things, you’re starting off on the right foot. As you move toward selecting a PLM system, it’s also important to establish realistic expectations and define internal processes that will work with—not against—a system’s unique features and functionalities. And of course, once you implement a system, you should conduct periodic audits and assessments of the system in order to make room for continual improvement.

Erik suggests that a poor manufacturing system can’t handle multiple suppliers—how does a good PLM system manage this?

Steve: I completely agree with Erik—a good PLM system supports multiple suppliers (and manufacturers) for any single item.

And in addition to multiple suppliers and manufacturers, you need to think about part number duplications, which are a fact of life for most original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Because manufacturers need to prioritize speed-to-market over a highly controlled part numbering system, duplications are likely to occur as part of the day-to-day imports or part creation process.

Since most OEMs have at least a few duplicate part numbers, you need to decide how to handle them when implementing a PLM system. You should either rationalize all common parts before implementing or set the system up in a way that accepts duplications as part of the process—like with some sort of non-critical path clean-up process.

Even if you resolve duplications before setting up your PLM system, the natural entropy of numbering is hard to combat—so while it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t have at least one numbering duplication in its system, manufacturers should periodically check to make sure the Item master doesn’t include major numbering duplications.

(Insider tip: Part numbering duplications aren’t always a bad thing! When time-to-market is a pressing priority, it’s alright to let duplications slide in the name of efficiency.)

A good PLM system (like Arena PLM) will offer the flexibility for a manufacturer to decide how to best handle part numbering duplications in day-to-day operations—whether it’s with a universal substitution using an AML or with BOM-specific substitutions.

Erik points out that a bad manufacturing system doesn’t provide sufficient control over the bill of materials—so how does a good PLM system solve this problem?

Steve: Maintaining an up-to-date bill of materials (BOM) depends on both the capabilities of a given PLM system and good organizational diligence. But if you’re using Excel to manage product data, no amount of diligence can guarantee a current BOM record.

In today’s competitive manufacturing climate, you can’t rely on shop floor tribal knowledge to get a product made right. For this reason, it’s so important to find a PLM system that makes it easy to keep the BOM up-to-date and universally accessible to the right people.

If you really want to be able to centralize and control your BOM, you need a cloud PLM system like Arena PLM. With Arena, any user who has a login can get into the system and reference the most up-to-date version of the BOM, and changes are controlled with a transparent, flexible engineering change process. These features make it much easier to keep everyone on the same page.

In general, what should a company expect its PLM system to deliver?

Steve: In order to set realistic expectations, select a PLM system that meets your needs today—rather than four or five years down the road. It’s just too expensive to try to forecast your company’s long-term future needs. After all, we all know how uncertain forecasting can be.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no PLM system can do it all. Arena PLM specializes in a particular core set of manufacturing challenges—namely, gaining control of product data, managing changes to product data, and sharing product data. We believe this is the heart of PLM—all you really need to get a product to market. We don’t solve every single problem that may arise during the manufacturing process, but we solve our customers’ most important problems and integrate with partners who can provide additional functionality and round out all your manufacturing needs.

Any final words for our readers?

Steve:Ultimately, it is important to be humble and pragmatic when determining PLM needs. If you’re just getting started, and don’t think you’re ready for a more robust PLM system, consider lightweight and specialized tools—like Arena Exchange and PartsList—to handle various aspects of BOM management and get you started.