PLM on the Cloud—Securely Supporting the Extended Enterprise Ecosystem

An in-house PLM system that interfaces with a subset PLM system in the cloud can achieve security and collaboration

Ananthakumar Mani
Ananthakumar Mani

One of the most common challenges in the manufacturing industry is the integration of extended enterprise users with the collaborative design and development phases of product development in an effective manner. To help streamline the product development process, product lifecycle management (PLM) systems are often deployed to help internal users collaborate across divisions and provide access to real-time information that is essential in managing the design process.

Traditionally, these PLM platforms are limited to internal users, and as a result, they are highly secure. They ought to be protected as they store a plethora of design information pertaining to the organization’s own products, as well as sensitive data about the products of suppliers. In the event of a data breach, this information could be accessed by competitors or counterfeiters, which can lead to the devaluing of intellectual property (IP) and losing the competitive edge for every organization involved. Organizations also have an obligation to protect the designs of their suppliers from other suppliers who may compete with them.

Unfortunately, a system executed in this manner fails to deliver on the promise that PLM offers. Internal users are able to streamline collaboration with other internal users and access to internal information, but a critical part of the product development process is excluded: the external users. Inputs from suppliers, prototypers, shippers, consultants and other external users are necessary for manufacturers to work around available materials and ensure the quickest time to market their products. Though the internal system can be configured to bring in the extended enterprise users, the process of enabling them is too complex, cumbersome and expensive. It is mostly the information technology (IT) enablement without compromising on security, data integrity, ease of access and performance considering the stringent IT policies governing them.

The first solution that comes to mind for this problem is implementing a PLM system on the cloud, giving offsite users and users outside the organization easy access to keep the system up to date. On the other hand, the prospect of putting the PLM system’s design and product information on the cloud could still cause apprehension in customers’ minds about the security of the data.

The real solution, then, is to find a sweet spot that both locks down secure information in an in-house PLM system, yet enables seamless collaboration for extended enterprise users. This can be achieved by implementing an in-house PLM system that is capable of interfacing with a subset PLM system in the cloud. This way, sensitive information that needs to be kept internal can be hosted on this PLM system, safe from exposure to the cloud, while non-sensitive data to be shared with external users can be regularly updated on the cloud counterpart. When external users complete their portion of the product design on the cloud, that information can be pulled into the in-house PLM system (through integrations) and completed by the manufacturer. The cloud system will contain only the data that needs collaboration.

The administration and maintenance of such a cloud system is not cumbersome. Being a subset and supplier-facing application, it can be a template solution with minimal changes to the software, which can be set up in a short duration of three weeks. Scaling due to business fluctuations up or down is easier on a cloud environment.

This approach also has the potential to bring down the cost of total PLM implementation. While extending a traditional implementation for external users can take between three and four months, the amount of testing and certification for readiness involve huge efforts, especially when there is a change in the system. An extended system with a cloud component can also conduct training over the cloud and can even be conducted autonomously via scripts. Being able to create an instance of the system via the cloud also allows hands-on, sandbox-style training for external users to speed up training and bring down costs, all without putting the configuration and data on the in-house system at risk of any inadvertent change.

Looking forward, this method of PLM will likely become an industry standard. It has potential to transform Industry 4.0 in Germany. To make Industry 4.0 successful, manufacturers need to track product information, and feed suppliers with the right information at the right time in a most cost effective and secured way. This can be easily achieved by implementing PLM on the cloud for extended users. As more organizations adopt PLM in the cloud, global manufacturers sourcing parts from around the world will be able to securely share data between plants and extended users across the world. Manufacturers that are able to share product data securely between continents via the cloud will find they have a vast advantage over the competition.