Product life-cycle management, or PLM, is an enterprise software application with a “footprint” that starts with the product concept, and proceeds through design to development and full-scale production. It was first widely applied in the automotive industry.

As such, does it have application or relevance in the process industries?

In its origins, a PLM solution was specific to data generated during product development, including computer-aided design, or CAD. Today, its reach can extend to include even those processes and documentation related to final product obsolescence. That makes possible documenting field experiences in a structured way so as to nourish the next round of innovation. An informational closed-loop is attained.

This trend is suggested, for example, in enterprise software supplier Oracle Corp.’s marketing phrase: “product value-chain management.”

Enterprise management of discrete-product lifecycles delivers quantifiable benefit when 1) complex products involve large numbers of parts and have relationships defined by a well-structured bill of material (BOM), and 2) where multiple entities contribute to product  development, manufacture, sale and support.

PLM is today a $3-billion market served by some of the most successful software companies on the planet. Indeed, the market is larger if services and support eco-system is included. However, adoption of PLM in the chemicals industries has been tentative — and perhaps with good reason.

Initial forays

Starting in the late 1980s falling costs for computational power first made enterprise systems feasible and ever more far-reaching.

In the rush for market share that characterized enterprise software markets at that time, application developers were willing to bend, twist and augment functionality that proved highly capable for discrete manufacturing and call it PLM for the process industries.

Applied at the right level, this can be fine. A chemical formulation replaces the automotive bill-of-material. After all, while a car may have more than 30,000 components parts, no common chemical formulation includes 30,000 ingredients. The data, information and workflow capabilities of PLM remain at the service of process industry users.

However, a better understanding of chemicals-industry requirements brings home the significance of other barriers to ease of translation.

PLM knits together data from various applications used in product development, including computer-aided engineering and computer-aided manufacturing in addition to CAD. The top PLM vendors, including Autodesk, Dassault Systemes, PTC and Siemens, provide those “data creation” solutions too.

There is a kind of equivalence in the chemicals industry, of applications involved in product development, including tools to support formulation development, laboratory data management, design of experiments and others. But there are key differences as far as achieving the same breadth of coverage with PLM.

Chief is that formula development involves a variety of processes; product data includes production process parameters; packaging can be an integral part of the product, and draws on its attributes; and product-related information includes structured and unstructured data. These can be a challenge for traditional discrete market PLM technologies.

Pincer attack

The second direction by which PLM could be approached for chemicals was extension of business (ERP) system product-information management capabilities. This approach seems to tacitly accept the limitations of PLM in chemicals in that product information is managed alongside other specialist applications. The enterprise system delivers a kind of overall glue for the application set and index to data, wherever held.

A third approach involves applications for specific aspects of the chemicals product lifecycle, built out with broader workflow and info-management capabilities.

In sum, chemicals companies haven’t waited for a total all-embracing chemicals solution. Indeed, they would still be waiting! Instead, in chemicals today it’s better to talk in terms of PLM “environments” rather than “systems.” This is because, even within individual companies, achieving comprehensive PLM capability usually involves phased deployment of different applications for specific areas and a build-up of integrations to knit them together.

What’s the latest?

Classic PLM benefits include:

  • Integration of all “data creation” systems, to reduce the complexity of managing product development through effective information sharing and collaboration;
  • Controlled value-chain information sharing — integration of information across the product development, manufacturing, supply, support and retirement processes;
  • Optimization of the innovation project portfolio — including information drawn from field performance recorded in maintenance and supply chain systems, and stored in ERP; and
  • Ease of collating and organizing information associated with industry regulations.

As a result, innovative, higher-quality products are brought to market more quickly and supported more effectively.

Given the hurdles, can PLM deliver these benefits for the chemicals industry? In the list of benefits, several are important to competitive position. But one, compliance with industry regulations, is not an option. It’s a “table stake.”

Data needed to meet regulatory requirements varies from region to region or even from one part of a country to another. Information is delivered and collected in multiple formats. The document management capabilities of the PLM solution must be highly flexible in these respects. In addition, compliance must be monitored throughout the product lifecycle, from initial development to retirement, given that regulations change all the time.

For example, the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Registration of Chemicals) safety standard requires manufacturers and importers in Europe to register chemicals of which more than one ton are used annually, by supplying information such as chemical formulations, uses, volumes used and safety test results.

The industry uses document management-type systems for this type of information, but it’s an area that PLM can address very well with its traditional strengths in centralizing document storage, version control and information dissemination. Consequently, many chemicals companies have led their PLM strategies with regulatory compliance as the core requirement. The danger is that a rich PLM system can end up as a glorified document-management system focused solely on this aspect of product-information requirements.

Always the questions

The next question is whether PLM can deliver the further benefits enjoyed by the discrete manufacturing industries?

Today’s systems have come a long way from the early forays described above. Data-handling capabilities can now accommodate the variety and dynamism of the information requirements in the chemicals industry.

Drivers for this change are numerous. Many chemicals-industry manufacturers have their own application and require specific product data. Raw materials prices are volatile and for many it is an ongoing mission to seek alternatives that can be factored into a formula.

Packaging and labeling requirements vary enormously from territory to territory and their development is in itself often a complex technical development issue, given the need to meet safety requirements and provide a sufficiently long shelf life.

By taking a pragmatic view of the balance between what should be included within the scope of PLM and where PLM should provide integration glue with specialized applications — for example, research, lab management and experiment design — information and workflow management solutions have evolved that can indeed support collaboration across the lifecycle.

A number of vendors have strong chemicals PLM capabilities, including Dassault with Enginuity, Accelrys; Oracle with Agile, Prodika; Infor with Optiva; and Siemens with Simatic. Others continue to build out from their original chemical-industry focused applications, including Selerant and Sopheon.

Summing up

Due to the limitations of the early solutions, the industry has a legacy of customized systems, stand-alone applications and integrations that, like the early ERP systems, are rather like concrete – you can have it any shape the first time, but it’s hard to change. However, the combination of growing process-industry PLM capabilities and the cost and accessibility advantages offered by the new cloud-based IT infrastructures will likely lead to change in this regard.

Tony Christian is director for Cambashi (www.cambashi.com)

Cambashi is an independent industry analyst firm based in Cambridge, U.K., providing insights into the use of information technology in manufacturing and process industries.