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The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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Product Lifecycle Management and Automation Are Being Drawn Together

This post was written by Simon Hailstone of Cambashi


The worlds of product lifecycle management (PLM) and automation are being drawn together by a series of technological developments that are beginning to have far-reaching effects, not only in manufacturing, but across all industries.

For PLM vendors, this combination is manifesting itself in an upsurge of research and development activity, acquisition, and partnering. For those in industry considering future investment, from both technology and business improvement perspectives, the decision making just got harder. The driving force is a combination of the elements of hardware, “smart,” and cloud.






Hardware and devices

Additive manufacturing and printed components are set to revolutionize how products are developed and delivered. Fully defined 3D models give the manufacturing definition directly to the point of production. New industrial devices are becoming more powerful and capable, enabling direct communication with level 4 and 5 business systems. Scanners and autonomous vehicles provide new ways to capture the as-built, as-produced, as-operated environment.


Products, buildings, and even cities are becoming smarter and smarter as automation devices and networks provide comprehensive interconnectivity. However, continuous improvement in capability requires connection to the product and asset definition and a way of managing the closed loop process.


Proliferating mobile technologies enable access to information anywhere. Cloud-based infrastructure may be a more cost-effective mechanism for smaller companies to fully participate in a highly connected environment. These influences are part of a verticalization across industries, from service to hardware, that affects how products are defined, produced, installed, and serviced. In other words, the trend is to cover the complete life cycle, and that is why PLM is an essential part of this process.

Here we examine how PLM is coping with these drivers and the changes occurring across multiple industries. The article uses the terms product, service, facility, and asset somewhat interchangeably to reflect the fact that end-to-end life-cycle management applies to all of them, although the routes to operation and the time frames may differ widely.

Cross-industry influences

For some industries, managing the complete life cycle has been a way of life for a long time due to the long-term nature of the assets. These were usually highly capital-intensive and regulated industries, such as nuclear power, marine, and civil construction.

The construction, process, and mining industries have been monitoring, collecting, and processing operational data for years. Facilities, asset management, and location tracking solutions capture significant volumes of data daily. Does PLM technology have a role in this future connected world? In this context, PLM is a “wrapper” around the life cycle of individual assets. It can provide the definition and operational parameters of individual equipment items—whether they are pumps and actuators; elevators; heating, ventilation, and conditioning; or heavy equipment—and respond to in-service issues. Performance data—whether it is flow and temperature in process plants, structural deformation of structures, or environmental control in inhabited spaces—can be processed for more than just short-term corrective action. It can be fed back for resimulation as part of long-term continuous improvement and for data for next-generation design.

One consequence of the continuous quest for more intensive asset use in these industries is the adoption of mobile technology. This has historically focused on activities such as task management, operational data, and fault recording and reporting. The trend is toward delivering live information as 3-D models, animations, and service data. This kind of delivery is common in some manufacturing industries with production instructions, simulations, inspection information, and exception reporting being delivered and processed directly at the point of production via PLM.

As the building and construction industry moves more toward modular, fabricated structures and even “printed” buildings, the role of PLM may increase. The processes involved are more in the realms of traditional manufacturing and assembly than of construction. China is using modular construction extensively, and it has grown in the U.S. Couple this with a proliferation of smart sensors for buildings—to optimize not just utility usage, but also performance of equipment and finishes—and the ability to reconfigure spaces and PLM starts to become a key capability in this sector. The worlds of construction and manufacturing are colliding in the sense that information about products, the processes and machinery that produce them, the facilities involved, and the supply and delivery networks that support them are coming together as never before.

But we must be careful not to get carried away with the notion of PLM as an all-encompassing technology. Many other enterprise environments already provide much of this capability, from traditional facilities and asset management solutions to the rapidly developing building information management (BIM) sector. As physical environments become more connected, the underlying supporting infrastructures need to interact and connect seamlessly and reliably. This is as true in the PLM world as it is in the automation world, where established protocols and standards (e.g., ISA95, OPC UA, BACNet) are also being challenged to support new levels of connectivity.

The PLM contribution

To put this in context, it is worth taking a step back to look at some core capabilities associated with PLM. The scope is potentially very wide, so we will focus on two key areas particularly relevant to this discussion: product definition management and configuration management.

PLM product definition encompasses requirements, systems models, 3-D models, tests, instructions, process plans, tooling, quality metrics, service information, and packaging. These areas would traditionally have been in the form of documentation, but are increasingly captured as part of a complete virtual definition. Product definition also includes the definition of product structures (bills of material) and, critically, the process trail that led to the definition. This latter capability is vitally important when considering the potential increase in feedback from both production and in-service monitoring of smart products.

However, the scope of product definition is changing. PLM grew out of the discrete manufacturing arena—hardware focused and engineering centric with classical bills of material. Now PLM is found in service industries like telecoms, finance, fashion, and pharmaceuticals. It has to manage products with hard, soft, electrical, and electronic components. Even the hard components are changing with the adoption of composites and other new materials. This brings changes to both product definition and production processes and equipment.

Increasingly software is the key value benefit for finished products, allowing incremental improvements to products in service. This, combined with in-service monitoring, is moving the definition of products toward service provision where the physical item is only part of the “product.” Manufacturers can learn from service industries that have deployed PLM effectively to define and support a portfolio of service offerings.

As the move toward service accelerates, how will it affect providers of the wealth of monitored data from in-service products? Will we see a significant rise in recalls as both producers and consumers have access to more defect and risk-related information? It is clear that the full audit trail from definition to delivery will become increasingly important.

Configuration management is the second key capability. This is not just version control, it is the management of multiple complex configurations of multiple product lines, maintaining not just bill of material definitions but all the associated definition data. As products become more customizable, managing this complexity will become more important. In particular, as software updates become part of the service life cycle, products must be defined to enable future modifications in a way that enables sufficient scope for change. Of course this is not a new problem. More than 25 years ago, a major provider of automation systems stated that coordinating the configurations of hardware and firmware releases was a major issue resulting in significant warranty claims. We do have better systems in place now to help prevent this, but in the future it will be orders of magnitude more complex.

Coordinating all the information involved in developing, manufacturing and building, and servicing these mixed technologies, mixed material products (produced locally and delivered in an increasingly customized world) requires configuration management capabilities of considerable force coupled with rigorous traceability.

Broader visions

How are solution providers in the life-cycle management space encompassing a broader scope?

Within the primary PLM providers there have been notable developments. Siemens has been forging the connections between PLM and industrial automation ever since it acquired Unigraphics in 2007. Dassault Systèmes’ acquisition of Apriso puts it in the center of this coming together of worlds. Now under the Delmia brand, Apriso is part of a wider capability for virtual simulation of factory and production planning and commissioning and operations management. PTC has opted for partnership rather than acquisition to provide verticalization within manufacturing, with an intriguing tie up with GE Intelligent platforms. However, PTC’s focus is emerging in the service part of the life cycle with its Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities courtesy of Axeda and ThingWorx. Accomplishing the goal of Industry 4.0 and the IoT is creating the need for more sophisticated and integrated PLM systems in the industrial automation market.

Cross-industry developments require knowledge and experience outside of the historically restricted view of PLM. Service organizations, such as IBM, HP, and Accenture, are gearing up for this, with Accenture recently extending its PLM services capabilities. Alongside this there are signs that other industries and third-party providers are recognizing the need to bring together definitional and operational data. Rand Worldwide has merged its Imaginit Technologies and facilities management (FM) divisions, bringing together the worlds of BIM and FM.

Although not necessarily providing PLM in the traditional sense, a number of providers in adjacent industries are extending their capabilities in ways that will overlap and interact with PLM. Bentley Systems has been developing its presence in infrastructure asset management to complement its BIM and project control capabilities. It has hooked up with Siemens for complementary capabilities in constructing and operating factory facilities, perhaps signalling a move toward further cross-industry cooperation. Autodesk has a cloud-based PLM solution and has partnered with cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) provider NetSuite, demonstrating the potential for open interaction across enterprise platforms. Autodesk is also the major provider of solutions for architecture, engineering, and construction (such as BIM). With its concerted moves toward cloud deployment, it is positioned to support cross-industry life cycles.

The cloud also gives new companies the opportunity to develop PLM-like solutions rapidly and provide services without large-scale infrastructure investment. These solutions have tended to focus on definition phases of the life cycle, but some interesting trends are appearing. First is the acquisition of GrabCAD by 3-D printing company Stratasys. GrabCAD cannot strictly be considered a full PLM system. However, the close connection between product definition and product manufacture is important, because it is going to change the notion of industrial production at some point. A second area is the coming together of core PLM capabilities, such as workflow and configuration management, to support application development for IoT. Companies such as Solair Srl. based in Italy are starting to provide cloud-based IoT application platforms that link product in-service data with product definition data.

Avoiding the silos of the future

Life-cycle management environments, supported by enterprise software, have been chipping away for some time at the organizational and functional silos of companies and their extended value chains. But the technologies that have aided this are themselves in danger of creating their own silos. As vendors jockey for position, the danger lies in creating new silos. These are not the traditional functional and organizational silos of engineering, manufacturing, and supply; software, hardware, and electronics; architecture, engineering, and construction; and utility production and network planning, but these are data silos that hold the potential for enormous value.

Is there one answer as to where this data should reside? The notion of a “single source of truth” is often mooted in the PLM world, but what does this really mean in practice? How can this work in a future yottabyte (1,0008 bytes) world? This is not a job for a single source of truth. This requires a highly connected solution stack that includes at least PLM, ERP, and manufacturing execution system capabilities in manufacturing and extends to facilities and asset management, BIM, and other industry-specific environments.

The answer surely must be openness driven by protocols, standards, and defined architectures. In the same way that protocols are essential to communication between automation components, similar protocols are required to connect the data service platforms that are currently delineated in the realms of enterprise systems. But with statements such as “Data is the new oil,” the stakes may be too high to allow for such openness. Without it the smart, connected future and everything that goes with it will not achieve its true potential.

About the Author
Simon HailstoneSimon Hailstone has more than 20 years of experience in the engineering software industry. Before joining Cambashi in 2008, he held a variety of positions ranging from CAD/CAM R&D, software development, and database deployment through sales and technical account management to project management and process change. Hailstone has particular knowledge of PLM business transformation needs and in-depth knowledge of the supporting technologies.
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A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.


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