Managing Content Throughout the Product Lifecycle

A guide to content management systems to support product lifecycle information.

A guide to content management systems to support product lifecycle information.

Manufacturers have implemented many initiatives, such as lean manufacturing and just-in-time (JIT) practices, to help their organizations produce high-quality products with reproducible design processes across many generations of a product. This systematic approach has led many companies to formalize lifecycles for their products, such as survey, design, build, quality assurance, sell, support and end-of-life.

During product lifecycles, a tremendous amount of product-related information is generated, ranging from meeting notes and marketing materials, to computer-aided-design (CAD) drawings, test results, and sales collateral and reports. This content is of high value to manufacturing companies, and many of them are challenged to derive maximum worth from this information.

One way to help guarantee content optimization is to efficiently manage and share product information throughout enterprises. Making accurate, consistent information available to manufacturing, selling and support partners is equally important. Increasingly, many manufacturers are using content management systems (CMS) to manage and leverage content across these audiences and throughout the product lifecycle.

What to Look for In A CMS

There are a number of features and functionality that a CMS should offer in order to effectively support product lifecycle information:

  • Web-based repository  Solutions should provide a Web-based repository where all content created during the product lifecycle is stored and managed.

  • Native contribution  Users should be able to contribute content to the system in its native format  such as CAD drawings, Word documents, spreadsheets and images  enabling them to continue to create and update content using tools already familiar to them.

  • Web-based access to information  Once content is submitted into a CMS, all authorized users should have Web-based access, eliminating the need to install additional software applications on their computers.

  • Document management functionalities  Companies need to be able to manage multiple document types with full revision tracking so they can access previous versions of product documents. In addition, workflows can be used to manage content review and approval processes, including tracking comments and related revisions. And, some CMSs take this function one step further, notifying relevant users of content changes.

  • Collaboration  CMSs often provide ad-hoc, Web-based environments where team members can share and collaborate on product content.

  • Native contribution  Users should be able to contribute content to the system in its native format  such as CAD drawings, Word documents, spreadsheets and images  enabling them to continue to create and update content using tools already familiar to them.

  • Records management  Records management capabilities enable manufacturers to manage information and products subject to regulatory mandates, such as ISO and Sarbanes-Oxley.

  • Search/index capabilities  The ability to full-text index content, regardless of content type, and search by metadata allows users to locate relevant content. Metadata models should be flexible and enable users to tag content with metadata specific to each product, including product attributes, its location within a product hierarchy, and product or content status.

  • Security  Each content item should have associated security, ensuring only authorized users can access and change content.

  • Conversion  Dynamic conversion (conversion to an appropriate display format on content delivery) and inbound conversion (typically conversion to PDF format when content is initially created or modified) deliver the correct content, in the correct format, to the right user.

  • Dynamic delivery  This functionality includes the ability to dynamically and securely deliver content, in the correct context, to internal and external users, including repurposing content and preserving corporate branding.

These content management features and functionality can be utilized across all phases of the product lifecycle.

Content Management for Each Product Lifecycle Phase

While there are many ways to segment the product lifecycle process, the following phases illustrate a typical lifecycle and the use of content management for each part of the process:

1. Survey  In order to design, manufacture and sell the next-generation product, it is important to survey everyone involved with it, compile their input and summarize the results as a new product specification. This process produces content such as meeting notes, survey results, feature lists and marketing requirements specifications. Content management can then be used to store the information in a Web-based repository and provide a collaborative environment where geographically dispersed teams share survey and specification information.

2. Design  The design phase involves creating specifications, designs and prototypes of new products, based upon information gathered in the survey phase. Content generated during these processes includes CAD drawings, visualizations and sub-assembly specifications. Once this content is submitted, a CMS can be used to initiate workflows for review, approval and notification processes, and even convert CAD drawings to PDF format for viewing and access from desktop computers.

3. Build  The build phase involves decomposing a new product design into sub-assemblies; developing manufacturing processes to build each sub-assembly and the final product; and coordinating product manufacturing with internal and external plants. To ensure product quality, all manufacturing units coordinate product changes through engineering change orders and notices. All change orders and notices can be managed and delivered through the same content management process as all other manufacturing content, ensuring consistency and accuracy across product manufacturing groups.

Additionally, ISO 9000 and 9001, other quality documents and work instructions are created. One company, the Belgium-based imaging firm Agfa Corp., is using a CMS to manage and deliver ISO 9001 procedures, records and work instructions via the company's intranet, and product and materials information via Agfa's partner extranet. By making business information readily available on these sites, Agfa said it is gaining a number of competitive advantages, including reducing costs, increasing employee productivity and bringing products to market faster.

For example, the company eliminated an $80,000 yearly cost for producing a CD-ROM containing information sent to equipment dealers and suppliers on a quarterly basis. Now, Agfa's dealers and suppliers access information previously mailed on the CD-ROM on the extranet. The CMS-powered sites also enhance global communication between Agfa's employees and partners. For example, development teams in the United States and Europe use the intranet to share information and collaborate on content, allowing Agfa to deliver its products to market faster.

4. Review/quality assurance (QA)  Concurrent with the build step of the product lifecycle is a continuous review of the product under development and its ability to address the identified product requirements and conform to QA programs. The product review may lead to product changes that require the creation of engineering change orders and coordinated revisions to work instructions, quality manuals and preliminary product manuals.

As in other lifecycle stages, a CMS can be used to manage the content generated during the review/QA phase and make available information created during previous phases. Since many documents created during the review/QA stage include internal-only information as well as information that must be shared, the CMS should have redaction capabilities, showing a viewer only the portions of that document he or she is authorized to see.

5. Sell  The selling step consists of creating customer-focused product manuals, support and repair manuals, selling strategies (product positioning and how to sell guides), marketing collateral, product warranties, and product manufacturing and sales reports. All of this content needs to be accessible to the correct groups within the sales and support organizations through an appropriate CMS.

A CMS can also facilitate translation and localization of sales, marketing, repair and instruction documents, extending workflow to internal translators or external localization agencies and then delivering content in the appropriate language for the appropriate audience. Digital asset management capabilities also come into play in this phase, for such activities as managing marketing and training videos and other rich media files.

6. Support  As new products are sold, customer service organizations should be able to access all relevant content  such as support and service manuals  created throughout the product development process. Additionally, support groups author their own internal and external content, including product support articles, service bulletins and service difficulty reports, and that information should also be available to all relevant parties. In rare cases, support organizations document product deficiencies identified by customers, and pass them to product design and manufacturing teams for resolution. The end result is typically a manufacturing or sub-assembly change requiring an engineering change order and revisions to product documents, manuals and information for suppliers.

For companies looking to make the most out of their product lifecycle information, a successful content management implementation can effectively support this critical business objective.

Companies also can use a CMS to improve productivity by providing employees, suppliers and partners with real-time access to critical product information from any computer with a Web browser. This accessibility, combined with the ability for product team members to easily collaborate through the Web, helps manufacturers bring products to market more quickly.

About the Author: Todd Price is vice president of product management for Stellent Inc., a provider of content management solutions. Price has more than 18 years of experience in the software industry and has managed all levels of the software lifecycle.