The Challenges of PLM Collaboration

​The development of smart, connected products makes cross-company collaboration even more complex.
Users from non-engineering departments and partners outside the industry sector involved have to be integrated.
Their disparate requirements call for adaptable IT solutions that support cross-company collaboration
and guarantee the highest possible level of data security and know-how protection.


There is cross-company collaboration - and then there is cross-company collaboration. A machine and plant
manufacturer who works with a large number of small partners has different requirements of a collaboration
(which is taken to stand for engineering collaboration in the following) from those of an automobile manufacturer
who wants to work together closely with one of their large system suppliers. Large-scale cooperations
and joint ventures need different mechanisms to protect intellectual property from those required
for communication between different company locations with heterogeneous IT landscapes. Collaboration
during the offer or aftermarket phases requires different information to be provided than in the product
engineering process. Companies thus need collaboration tools that can be configured flexibly, and they
need a partner who understands their process requirements and who can support them in implementing
and integrating an appropriate solution. The complexity of data communication is often underestimated.
And anyone who believes that the IT department will somehow sort it out misunderstands the strategic
dimension of collaboration within a company.

​Growing Demand

​It is nothing new that companies collaborate with external partners in developing and manufacturing products. In sectors such as the automotive industry, the proportion of outsourced work has been stable at around 70 or 80 percent for a considerable time. In other words, the majority of the value added is generated in the supply chain. So where is the growing demand for collaboration, as noted by many PLM experts and indicated by recent surveys, coming from?

One important driver is undoubtedly the development of smart, connected products and services,
which demands additional expertise that many companies simply do not have in adequate measure. At the  same time, the connectivity provided by the Internet of Things (IoT) promotes the development of  new, service- oriented business models, and this leads to the integration of departments outside of  engineering in the collaborative processes. Of course, in industries such as machine and plant  engineering, which continue to have a relatively high manufacturing depth, the traditional drivers  of collaboration, such as cost savings and compensating for capacity fluctuations by outsourcing peripheral activities, still apply.

The growth of cross-company collaboration has a qualitative aspect as well as a quantitative one.
The complexity of the information to be exchanged is increasing. Companies are not content with exchanging  just development data; they also want to exchange other sensitive information reliably and safely.  Because de- velopment cycles are getting ever shorter, it is necessary for this information to be  sent back and forth and synchronized at very frequent intervals. As a rule, data is not simply  passed in one direction in the course of collaboration. In particular, Tier 1 system suppliers  often act as an information hub between OEMs and the extended supply chain.

​Adaptable Solution

​The requirements on cross-company collaboration are becoming more complex, and they demand solutions that can be adapted flexibly to match the requirements of the partners with whom data is  exchanged. On the one hand, they have to support the secure exchange of data via the Internet and  other communication channels. And yet, on the other, they have to be so deeply integrated in the  enterprise systems (PLM, ERP, etc.) that the exchange processes and ancillary processes such as any  data conversion that may be necessary can be fully automated. Flexibility must not come at the  price of excessive outlay for customization. In other words, the collaboration software should be  preconfigured or should be simple to configure via templates. And it should provide standardized  connectors that use the official interfaces of the systems that are being integrated to make sure  that it can be rapidly integrated into the corporate IT landscape.      

Exactly what information is to be exchanged or provided to the partners, what IT systems this  information comes from and in what formats will depend on the use case in question. And so, it is not enough to simply implement a given software solution. Prior to implementation, it is necessary to carefully  analyze the current exchange processes and future requirements in order to ensure that the solution  can be used as efficiently as possible. Part of this analysis involves clarifying some fundamental questions, such as who is to operate the collaboration solution and who has ultimate sovereignty  over the data. Under certain circumstances, it may be expedient to use the collaboration solution  as a cloud-based service rather than actually installing it. In some areas, PROSTEP AG is already offering such operator models.

​Different Use Cases

​​​​Ultimately, the choice of operator model will depend on the use case. On the basis of its  experience from many customer projects, PROSTEP has identified four use cases or application scenarios and  developed corresponding best practices for implementing a suitable solution. There will undoubtedly  be other use cases or hybrid forms, but these can be catered for without difficulty, thanks to the  openness and scalabi- lity of the software solution. The core components of a collaboration  solution are the integration platform OpenPDM and the data exchange solution OpenDXM GlobalX.

Fluid Partnerships

​In industries such as machine and plant engineering and shipbuilding, the supply chains are not  subject to such strict hierarchies as in the automotive industry. The clients generally cooperate directly  with a large number of partners of different sizes, who each take on very different tasks. And this  means that there is a huge variety in the type of information exchanged, generally entirely  unencrypted and via email or non- secure FTP servers. Which is an open invitation for product  pirates and other data thieves. Since well before the NSA scandal, however, companies have been  becoming more aware of the risk to their ​ intellectual property when collaborating with external partners and of the need for reliable data exchange.

​In  this  scenario,  the  relationships with the  partners  are  generally not  so  close as to result in a regular exchange of data in both directions, and the relationships are subject to more frequent change. It is therefore not worth  fully automating the data exchange process. Despite this, however, companies want the exchange activities to be automatically logged so that they can be traced.

The users define what  they  want  to send,  and  check  in- coming data back into the backend system. Thanks to a special partner client, which will generally be provided by the customer,  companies  that  do not  have their own  PLM system are able to easily visualize the PLM structure information and  the associated  metadata  that  they receive.

​Integration of the data exchange solution in the users‘ familiar Windows and Office environment  ensures that files of a certain size, with a particular filename extension and/or for recipients in  particular countries are always made available in encrypted form on the exchange platform. The  possibility of sending data sim- ply, on the fly, and nevertheless securely is an important aspect  of promoting acceptance of the solution.

​Long-term data exchange relationships

​In the case of companies that collaborate over the long term and/or constantly have to exchange  data, it makes sense to establish a facility that offers the regular provision of data. Such a facility  is often used when two OEMs collaborate with each other or when an OEM collaborates with a Tier 1 supplier and high volumes of data need to be exchanged and synchronized on an almost daily basis. To achieve this,  the PLM systems on both sides  are coupled  via  connectors.  The  integration  platform OpenPDM  controls extraction of the metadata and CAD data, any necessary adaptation of the structure and  metadata, pa- cking of the data, transfer via OpenDXM GlobalX, inspection of the data quality and  import into the data structures of the recipient system. As a rule, regular provision of data of  this kind is designed as a round trip, since the data has to be processed and returned by the recipients.

If the provision of data is to be largely automated, the partners first  have  to  clarify  what  data  is  to  be exchanged.  They  also need to decide whether the  entire set of data is to be returned or  only  any  data  that may have  been  changed.  Unlike  many PLM systems, OpenPDM is able to identify what data has changed and therefore minimize the volume of data to be transfered. In order to map, or harmonize, the data and structures, the  partners have to have defined binding rules, for instance for handling part structures, materials, etc. Establishing the regular provision of data thus  demands a cer- tain amount of preparatory work. On the other hand, the advantage is that users then  no longer have to concern themselves with data exchange.

​Collaboration in joint ventures

​​​​In the case of joint ventures and other long-term collaborations, such as those between Daimler and Renault or between the motorcycle division of BMW and Indian motorcycle manufacturer TVS, a selective  regular provision variant is often used. This combines automated data exchange with protection of  intellectual property. The challenge here is to filter the data and documents contained in the  backend systems in such a way that the partners receive all the information needed for their work,  but no more. Selective regular provision is also of interest to companies that have locations in  countries in which there is an underlying risk to intellectual property or where the government of  the country has stipulated that the development data for a collaboration must be present in the local network of the partner.

​OpenPDM  permits  finely  tuned  filtering of the  source  data down  to  attribute  level. This  allows  even  parts  and  compo- nents fitted in different  products to be cleanly extracted and kept synchronized. If the exchange partners use different PLM systems, as is the case with BMW and TVS, the metadata can be converted to a neutral format during  export and then made available in PLM Services XML or STEP AP242 format.

​On the partner side, this  is used to generate a Windchill model, which serves as a reference structure for Catia data  provided in na- tive format. It is also possible to extract neutral formats such as JT or to  trigger conversion of the data into these formats during export. The integration platform checks  and documents whether the data complies with the rules agreed between the partners.

​Close collaboration with multiple partners

​When dealing with distributed development with multiple partners, conventional data exchange is stretched to its limits, even if it is largely automated. If regular provision is to be established, it would be necessary to set up numerous point-to-point connections, which would entail considerable administrative overhead. This makes it more difficult not only to incorporate new partners, but also to dismantle the development networks quickly once the project has been concluded. Furthermore, it is possible that the backend systems used by some of the partners may not be designed for cross-company collaboration, for example because they do not offer sophisticated role and permission functionality.

​For  companies  that  deal  with globally distributed  development projects  with changing   partners,   PROSTEP   offers   a ​Collaboration Center  for  the  provision of jointly used data. The metadata, CAD data and structure data can be  extracted automatically from the backend systems, converted as required and synchronized at the  touch of a button when changes are made. Synchronization is carried out by comparing the data.

​The Collaboration  Center  supports  both  secure  online access  via  Internet  and  offline  processing  of  the  data  in  a  special  offline  client. The offline client makes it  possible to work in PDM and CAD structures and allows online  synchronization  with  the Collaboration  Center,  thus  making  surethat the data is up to date on both sides. The platform provides the project partners with all the  important PDM/PLM  functions,  including  version management,  workflow  management  and  project  management, thus allowing them to coordinate their work on the project extremely well. One of the  biggest advantagesis that clients can incorporate new partners in the project quickly and with a minimum of effort.

​Simplication of data logistics

​In conclusion, we can say that cross-company collaboration will continue to grow and will lead to the integration of partners from different industries and non-engineering departments in the partner networks. The traditional PDM/PLM systems that have become the established backbone for digital  development within companies provide little support for this in their standard configurations.  Implementation of PROSTEP‘s collaboration solutions plays a key role in simplifying and automating  data provision in this context. In the form of the Collaboration Center, it for the first time  provides partners with PDM/PLM functions for joint work on a project that they had previously only known in their own backend systems. In this way, it makes an important contribution to improving  efficiency in distributed development projects. But it is equally important that the partners  harmonize their collaboration processes more closely. When analyzing and optimizing their  processes, they are able to take advantage of the support of the consultants at PROSTEP, who are thoroughly familiar with a variety of different collaboration scenarios.

PROSTEP AG is recognized as a partner to the leading manufacturing companies worldwide. We count the top companies in this industry among our customers. PROSTEP is an independent consulting and solution development company, but also supplies ready-made product solutions. Our strength lies in a combination of industry-specific expertise, process know-how and technological competence. We offer our customers competent consultancy services, a comprehensive range of other services, and innovative solutions covering every aspect of product lifecycle management.

The PROSTEP Group has a current headcount of more than 250 in Germany and the USA. In addition to its headquarters in Darmstadt, PROSTEP also maintains branch offices in Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, and Wolfsburg, as well as in Birmingham, Michigan (USA).

About PROSTEP, Inc..
PROSTEP, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of PROSTEP AG and is located in the hub of the US automotive industry, Birmingham, MI. PROSTEP is the leading vendor-independent PLM consultants for the discrete manufacturing industry specializing in PLM Integration, PLM Migration, CAD data exchange, and 3D PDF technology. With 250+ employees throughout and 20+ years of experience, PROSTEP specializes in PLM consultancy services and engineering solutions. PROSTEP are experts in providing leading global manufacturing companies with the support they require for designing and optimizing their internal and cross-enterprise development processes.