Product Lifecycle Management: Definition, Process & Tools

Instructor: Shawn Ferguson

Shawn is a recent graduate from Walsh College's MBA program in Michigan. He is currently an instructor at his current company and previously was a substitute teacher.

This lesson will discuss the basics of product life cycle management. Most products that are developed go through some sort of life cycle management. Examples would be products such as cars, computers, heavy equipment, aircrafts, etc. Product life cycle management, or PLM, is seen in product that have a long develop time or long life span.

Product Life Cycle Management

A car design has to be conceived, developed, prototyped (which is making just one or two to test out), manufactured, supported and then re-designed or retired. Now, PLM, or product life cycle management, is not just for one car individually; we are talking about the entire model line. PLM is the management style used to ensure that a product is developed, manufactured and supported the most efficient and cost effective way possible for the company. It was created by the American Motor Company in 1985, but is still used by almost any manufacturing company with a product life cycle.

To understand this better, let's look at the F-15 Eagle fighter jet originally made by McDonnell Douglas. Back in the late 1960s, McDonnell Douglas decided to enter a contract with the Airforce to conceive, develop and create a new fighter jet for them. The F-15 Eagle was born because of this need. Today, the F-15 is still flying due to life cycle upgrades, but will soon retire from service because of new designs, new technology and new customers.


PLM & Business

Why is PLM a necessary business technique today? Because increases in technology, manpower and specialization of departments, PLM was needed to integrate all activity toward the design, manufacturing and support of the product. Back in the late 1960s when the F-15 Eagle was conceived and developed, almost all manufacturing and design processes were done by hand. Blueprints or drawings needed to make the parts for the F15 were created on a piece of paper. No electronics, no emails - all paper for documents. This caused a lack of efficiency in design and manufacturing compared to today's technology.

old design

PLM Four Processes

With product life cycle management, there are four processes to consider.

  1. The life cycle starts with conceiving the idea of the product and its basic specifications.
  2. The life cycle moves to design with more detailed specifications, analysis and manufacturing consideration for machines, tools, etc.
  3. The life cycle then moves to the realization of the product, planning for manufacture, assembly, quality checks and testing.
  4. The life cycle ends by serving the product, selling and marketing, maintaining and supporting, and then termination.

This timeline can change due to customer needs or new customers. Take our F-15 Eagle example. The US Airforce stopped buying F-15E Strike Eagles in the very early 1990s during the first Gulf War. Other countries, however, are still buying new F-15 Eagles for their military such as South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. These new customers have asked for variations or changes to the original or U.S. version of the aircraft, thus changing the life cycle of the product.

Tools & Techniques

Just like the process itself, the tools needed for PLM are various and depend on the application, product and needs of the companies involved. The main tools for PLM are Computer Aided Design system (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). The CAD systems allow engineers and designers to create the product using electronic blueprints that house dimensions, specifications and other qualities for each part, system and the product as a whole.

The CAM system takes the CAD drawings and allows machines and people to physically create the parts using whatever machines they want. This software allows every person involved with the PLM process to have access to needed information. Take our F-15 Eagle example again. A hand drawn blueprint could not be emailed back in the 1960s. It would have been copied and hand delivered to different departments that needed it. The department that worked on the electronics had a blueprint and so did the engine department. What if a change occurred and no one handed the engine department the new blueprint with the needed changes? A lag of information would occur, and then the product has a problem. . . two departments are working with two sets of information. Project life cycle management helps reduce or eliminate those sort of issues with CAD, CAM, communication and other techniques.


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