Product Life Cycle Management: How to Choose Software for Your Company

Smartsheet Contributor Joe Weller

June 21, 2017 (updated August 5, 2021)

The product life cycle management (PLM) software market is a large one. In fact, it is expected to be worth $50.7 billion by the end of 2017. That is an intimidating figure that favors companies releasing new software, and the huge increase in options may put regular buyers on edge. Companies may understand the value of a PLM software system, but they still want to choose one that meets all their needs while saving them money (both in acquisition and implementation). This is all still possible in the market today, but organizations need to know what they need, what is available, and how to best acquire and implement a solution. 
This guide provides a deep dive into PLM software, from the product life cycle and the theory behind it to tools available to implementing the software. We discuss the value of PLM consultants, where PLM belongs in your company, and some some uses, challenges, and benefits. You’ll learn key details for implementing a PLM system and choosing a vendor. We also include a matrix that compares the different popular systems and offer expert advice that provides valuable insight on picking the right solution.

What Is the Product Life Cycle Management and Software?

The product life cycle (PLC) is the cycle of stages that a new or redeveloped product goes through, from origin to sunset. According to the PLC theory, products go through four defined stages: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. Each product has a different curve on the graph for sales and time spent in each stage. However, the majority of new products do not leave the introduction stage, as they fail early on. Companies can use the product life cycle to manage the marketing and resources for their products and to plan for the future.


Product life cycle management is the management theory behind PLC. When professionals discuss PLM, they may also be referring to the software or platform they use to manage their products. PLM as a management theory is the vision that your company has for managing all aspects of your products, including data, people, software, manufacturing, and marketing. As a platform, PLM is an information management system that can integrate all of those items in a software system. 

A closed-loop PLM system is based upon feedback. Some portion of the output is fed back into the system, which maintains the necessary output condition by keeping track of its current state. For example, waste from the original process is fed back into the system and recycled. Also, products that are obsolete or no longer functioning could be fed back into the system or broken down into components and made into new products. Two PLM building blocks that influence new product performance are operational integration and information systems usage, which essentially mean that a closed-loop system helps push new product performance along because it combines operations cohesively and makes good use of technology.

PLM software manages your projects, compliance, integration, change control, and quality needs in five core functional areas: 

  1. Product Data Management (PDM): This area is mainly responsible for the product data. PDM can include technical specifications, computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering models, and bills of materials (BOMs). PDM has version control and security. 
  2. Product Information Management (PIM): This area deals with the information you need to market and sell your products. PIM is where you keep the product data to give to the media and to track your product catalog. 
  3. Collaborative Product Development (CPD): This area of PLM allows different firms to work together to develop a product. The functions necessary for CPD include conferencing, data translation, and data sharing. CPD may also include digital mock-up, virtual reality, and imaging using photorealism.
  4. Direct Materials Sourcing: Also known as direct procurement, this area of PLM deals with sourcing the materials from suppliers during the design process (rather than after designs are already completed). You use the PLM software to create the BOMs. The sourcing agent can then accurately plan for the costs, supply availability, and buying process.
  5. Customer Needs Management and Product Portfolio Management (PPM): Customer needs management areas are responsible for capturing product requirements and decisions across the life cycle of the product. Customer requirements are traditionally stored in multiple places across a company, and this software module keeps them in the same place. PPM puts all of these requirements together.

A Brief History of Product Life Cycle Management Software

Computers were the main disruptive innovation in the manufacturing industry in the 1980s. At the time, the industry also had disruptors such as worldwide transportation and improved telecommunications. The aerospace and automotive industries first designed and performed PLM. Using CAD tools, designers made drawings and specifications for their products. They then added a database with information about the products attached and called it product data management (PDM) software. Some automakers looking to speed up their production processes were calling it their product or engineering databases. With databases that made all of the details accessible, they were able to resolve issues faster and reduce the need for costly engineering changes. However, these databases essentially had the same function and purpose as today’s PLM software: they stored designs, drawings, specifications, and manufacturing information centrally. 

Once other industries realized the value of a centrally located repository for manufacturing information, they also incorporated PLM-type software. These industries include electronics, clothing, and packaged goods. PLM software allowed for globalization of manufacturing. At one time, companies had to handle manufacturing at one site. With PLM, companies can manufacture different products across the globe. Engineers can be on one continent, while designers and manufacturing can be on others. Because PLM systems provide a way to manufacture private-label goods quickly and efficiently, these companies can compete with the big consumer-goods companies.

Understanding the PLM Platform

You use a PLM software platform to automate the management and integration of product data in your business. PLM software can act as a comprehensive system, or some may operate in modules. PLM software can help your company with new product development, launch, product information management, creating a single set of record for data, tracking package design regulations, and virtual crash testing. However, outside of these functions, it may be time to consider a PLM software system if you are looking for more high-level functions such as:

  • Process Change: To keep up with the progression of your competition, you need to streamline your processes. 
  • System Refining: This includes your production machinery and sensors. 
  • Improve Your Business Practices: This includes the human interactions that affect your production.
  • Simple Revisions: Even small changes can have big ripples. 
  • Version History Controls: This is critical for businesses that need compliance controls met.
  • Tracked Changes: It is important to know who in your organization made changes and when.
  • Use Parts of Previous Designs: This helps to minimize the need for new parts down.
  • Ensure Old and New Components Fit Together: This huge money saver allows the least amount of reworking and redesigns in new product development.
  • Interface with Supplier Relationship Management Software: PLM software can work to help you effectively communicate with your suppliers. 
  • Role-Specific Access for Internal and External Users: Roles are assigned based on need and your company’s structure.
  • Reporting and Analytics: You can design the information and metrics that you need to report.
  • Product and Production Monitoring: Make decisions that reflect what is going on in your facility. 
  • Up-To-Date Data: Manual data entry can lead to a backlog of information that is obsolete.

However, PLM software may not adequately manage the packaging life cycle process. Some experts recommend packaging specific software that can integrate with PLM software and other business systems. They state that packaging is too specialized for a generic PLM environment. With a separate packaging module, you can distribute this function while staying integrated as they evolve. Further, since different companies often use different systems, it is important to be able to accept projects for packaging in numerous formats.

PLM Consultants: What They Are and Where to Find One

PLM consultants are people outside your organization that can help you choose and implement PLM software. PLM consultants focus on finding the best software option for your company and help implement it. They should have expertise in many software suites, and possibly in making them complement your existing software. They should be able to provide a fresh perspective about the needs of your company and in taking you through the steps to get your company’s priorities clear and challenges addressed prior to a deployment. Finally, PLM consultants should be able to maximize your return on investment with PLM implementation in a matter of months. Overall, the consultant should be able to deliver technology, organizational change, and business improvements. 

The best way to find a PLM consultant for your business is to ask your contacts. Before selecting a consultant, you should interview prospective firms and individuals, review their prior work, and get their references. Good PLM consultants are lauded in the industry and have excellent reputations. Further, they will have the experience necessary to prevent (versus solve) your problems. Lastly, they will not prefer or be beholden to a particular software system. 

The Benefits of Product Life Cycle Management Software

Today, it is essential to have a single source for your design, manufacturing, sourcing, and distribution. PLM software becomes the single source of truth for companies from development to the sunset of products. The major benefits of PLM include:

  • Getting your products to market faster.
  • Keeping your products competitive.
  • Creating a centralized system that increases your response time.
  • Improving product quality.
  • Reducing staff downtime.
  • Eliminating part shortages and disruptions.
  • Improving communication between different offices and locations.
  • Capturing any deviations.
  • Lowering prototyping cost.
  • Reducing waste.
  • Enabling innovation and new features.
  • Allowing you to determine how much a design change costs.
  • Centralizing product information.
  • Expediting packaging mockups.
  • Lowering overall cost.
  • Allowing for variety, but with mass production.

One of the biggest additional factors driving PLM software adoption is globalization. Companies around the world are making and selling products to multiple countries, each with their own regulations, requirements, and preferences., and keeping track of this information is incredibly complex. For example, Coca-Cola sells about 1.8 billion servings of its drink every day in almost every country in the world. Further, Coca-Cola products are slightly different depending on the country it is manufactured for. This product variation is due to the differences in the country’s taste, marketing regulations, and even in their understanding of terms such as “diet.” PLM software is necessary to keep track of these differences. 

Other factors that push the need for PLM software include:

  • Outsourcing
  • Multiple designing and manufacturing centers around the world
  • The increase in product complexity
  • The availability of third platform technologies such as cloud, mobile, big data, analytics, and social business
  • Innovation accelerators such as IoT, big data, 3D printing, cognitive computing, and augmented and virtual reality, which add higher levels of complexity to new products

Where Can You Use Product Life Cycle Management in Your Company?

PLM is no longer only for the engineers. If all your departments have access to all the information on a product, their performance can be seamless. However, if you are concerned that this will give them too much information, you can configure your PLM software to give them access to certain modules based upon their role within your company. For example, your sales team would not need detailed schematics of your products. However, they may need the marketing-mix details. The following is a list of departments that you can involve in your PLM software and assign user-defined roles:

  1. Sales
  2. Product and Brand Management
  3. Supply Chain
  4. Manufacturing
  5. Service
  6. External Partners
  7. Engineering
  8. Research and Development
  9. Customer Support
  10. Information Technology

Some Uses for Product Life Cycle Management Software

There are many different industries and facets where PLM software can be beneficial. For example, in manufacturing, sample fulfillment is a part of the product development process that needs careful tracking. Sampling is sending small amounts of a product - especially chemicals - to the customer to ensure they meet their specifications. The samples must adhere to compliance requirements, have accurate labels, and be sent in a timely manner. PLM software can be used to maintain a record of the customers’ needs, log their feedback, create a product library, track samples and their shipping information, track sample success rates, and reduce the cycle time from order to delivery.

Another example of using PLM software is in formulation management. Formulation management is controlling the specifications in industries such as engineering, pharmaceuticals, and food. You can create different versions of a recipe in PLM software, as well as address new customer specifications. Providing stakeholders access to the information stored in PLM software can also increase visibility and approvals on new products. You can also run what-if scenarios in PLM software, such as determining the nutritional impact on a food when ingredients are changed. You can use the software to check compliance for specific formulations, and keep manufacturing instructions handy. Lastly, a PLM system can generate master recipes from those in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and those that are approved for manufacture.

Information Technology in Manufacturing

There is much debate about Information Technology’s (IT) place in manufacturing. Many people feel that IT helped push the industry to what it is today: the backbone for development. If this is true, then the communication and computing power of IT acted as the guide. Today’s forms only survive because IT gives them the agility and customer support. Further, with modules in the software, customers can have the variety that they need. This variety mandates the requirement for two main things: interoperability and supply chain transformation. Interoperability can certainly come from a module format in software platforms but would be even better if it came from open standards and a clear specification of interfaces across the IT industry. Experts say that interoperability standards would push the IT industry into a mature stage.

The supply chain transformation would support both the needed customer-centric perspective and speed of delivery. This transformation would be a real-time strategy that includes end-to-end visibility. Now, it would also include the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, which has only been used for the most part in products for consumers such as smart refrigerators and alarm systems. As is evident, IT is coming into a new era in manufacturing with a networked world, and PLM is poised to manage it. 

The Challenges of Adopting Product Life Cycle Management Software

PLM software may be considered difficult to implement technically. The technical challenges include integration between existing systems, data migration, and customization for your company. However, the biggest challenge is in changing the way your people work. 

PLM is meant to streamline organizations and tasks, and thereby the roles of employees. However, with anything new and different, there come challenges. First, PLM changes the interactions of your staff. Designers and engineers may not have had to previously interact with each other. With PLM, they have access to each other’s’ work almost instantaneously. R&D and marketing may also never had contact with each other. With PLM, marketing can see what R&D’s intent was when they developed a new product and can bounce ideas off them. However, what is different here is not necessarily worse. Your processes are evolving, because PLM is not just software, but also a management theory of closer communication. Your staff may not like having to communicate with new departments and may be reluctant to change their methods. Experts say that the only real way to get PLM to work well in your company is to overhaul not just your software, but also your organizational processes. 

Some other challenges that companies may face when considering PLM software include:

  • Needing outside consultant help
  • The high investment in server and networking infrastructure
  • Training their IT staff to administer and deliver support
  • The heavy burden of on-premises systems, especially in small and medium-sized businesses

How to Implement a Product Life Cycle Management Platform

Implementing a PLM platform takes time, money, and effort. Although these systems are proven exceptionally effective at streamlining your business, it is important to consider exactly how you will implement a new PLM system. Therefore, you must consider the processes and practices to use when adopting a new system. These include the methodology that you will use to implement your system, the ways that you can strategize your products, and get the most value out of a system. Carefully planning your adoption will give you the maximum return on what will be a substantial investment. 

Two main methodologies that people consider during implementation are the Waterfall method and the Agile method. Vendors often use the Waterfall method in software implementation because it is sequential, and is the traditional approach. It flows downward (like a waterfall) through the different stages and is simple to manage. However, critics of the Waterfall method complain that it is very inflexible because they must slow down or back up the process to adopt any changes. At the end of the process, your single, large outcome is met.




Waterfall Method

By contrast, the Agile method is iterative and incremental. It is more complex to manage because multiple departments and cross-functional teams can work on the implementation simultaneously. Agile requires tighter control and a more experienced project manager to keep the scope, schedule, and costs in check. However, the overall implementation is faster and may be more comprehensive. Further, at the end of the process, you may have achieved multiple objectives.


Agile method

The architecture of your software system will affect your ability to scale, adapt, and maintain flexibility with your changing business strategies. Therefore, taking the time to appropriately plan your software architecture and functionalities is important. Experts consider PLM software unique because of the enormous amounts of data and content that it manages. Plus, with such a huge amount of data comes the need for increased processing power. Bad architecture choices can bring about a host of problems, including higher costs and poor software performance. 

Next, you should carefully stage the deployment of the modules or applications within your software system. Each module touches another module, so planning how they interact and will migrate is critical to maintaining your business flow (to do this, you may need to make trade-offs with respect to your current systems and goals). The better your estimate of the deployment schedule, the better your implementation will flow.

One of the challenges of developing and maintaining products is sharing product data with all the stakeholders. Experts still consider data sharing an immature process in organizations. As integration and data compatibility are amongst the chief complaints of PLM implementation, experts recommend that organizations figure out how to work with the current standards, proprietary formats, and languages on the market. 

Experts further recommend mapping production data as far ahead of the actual implementation as possible. Having clean product data prior to this mapping process is critical and focuses on the migration strategy long before any new problems arise. 
Other best practices for implementation include:

  • Set specific PLM deployment metrics and timelines.
  • Train all your staff comprehensively after the deployment.
  • Set up super-users and user roles within the system.
  • Get your super-users to continue training where necessary.
  • Determine where other PLM integration makes sense with existing software in your company.

Consider using enterprise integration engineering (EIE) to align your corporate strategies with PLM technology to meet your key performance indicators (KPIs). EIE is a field of research that defines frameworks to link business functional areas. This process helps organizations understand how all functional areas contribute and add value to the enterprise. This framework can contribute to your business having a strategic handle on its needs prior to a PLM implementation.

Another methodology to employ is action-research (A-R). A quality improvement program, action-research is research done to either solve a current problem or reflect an entire organization’s problems. In a PLM implementation, A-R is another method of discovering what your overall problems are and how to fix them based on real-time data.

Product Life Cycle Management Software Vendors

The PLM software market is evolving and extremely competitive. It includes many different options that provide best-in-class service and support for companies of any size. Although there is a movement toward a consistent standard of PLM requirement, the systems currently vary wildly. There are the large, standard suppliers of PLM Software, boasting well-known names and other enterprise packages, as well as smaller niche companies that design specifically for certain industries. In order to choose a software vendor, you need to understand the tradeoffs among platforms and that the landscape is constantly shifting due to mergers and acquisitions of companies, software, and modules. You need to decide which PLM backbone is suitable for your company’s needs now and in the future. Further, you will need to consider these tradeoffs in the platform with respect to the departments that the software will serve. For example, your engineering department may prefer a software suite that is best in class for support, while your IT department may need a suite that is better suited for integrating existing software. 

The big technology vendors still include Siemens (once UGS), Aras, MatrixOne, Dassault, Oracle, and SAP. Different manufacturing firms, particularly those who manufacture products under another company’s brand name, use Siemens Teamcenter. The platform is scalable and built upon its database, and houses many different applications. Many other large companies in the U.S. are using Aras Innovator, a free, open source PLM platform. Enterprise solutions are for pay, as are other support options. Some companies offer their software free as a test and as an off-the-shelf starter model for your company to customize. In PLM software, open source means that you can customize the software yourself because the programming is Linux-based and compatible with many systems. These new open source systems alleviate the problem of inconsistent standards. However, note that open source is not necessarily the same as free in PLM software. 

Other vendors can also help your company develop applications that suit your business’ needs more closely. You can adapt and develop a basic PLM platform around your company’s unique infrastructure and development processes. Some vendors dedicate themselves to this specialization. 
Integration with other software systems is also possible, depending on the platform that you use. These options may be new modules from the PLM software company, or software you already have. These may include:

  • Business Analysis Systems
  • Customer Relationship Management Software
  • Business Process Management Software
  • Computer-aided Design
  • Portfolio and Project Management
  • Project System
  • Document Management
  • Quality Management
  • Variant Configuration
  • Collaborative Folder Sharing
  • Supply Chain Management
  • Enterprise Resource Planning

How to Choose a PLM Vendor

Choosing a PLM vendor is a big commitment. You need to invest considerable time, money, and forethought into your search. Slowing down and being methodical can maximize your investment. The following is a list of steps you can follow to make that decision easier and allow you to compile a shortened list of vendors that might fit your bill:

Step 1: Strategize 
Why is a new PLM system the right answer for your company? Based on the work your company has done, what evidence suggests that a PLM platform is your best solution? What are your product development problems? What goals can a PLM system help you achieve? Gather a group of stakeholders to help you flesh out these answers. 
Step 2: Analyze your Current Processes 
What processes do you want to address first? Prioritize your processes and determine where they cause your business problems. Some experts recommend doing a full mapping of your processes, and then figure out realistic improvement initiatives based on the timeframe of implementation.
Step 3: Evaluate the Current Offerings 
The PLM solutions market is a bit flooded and the offerings are constantly changing. In order to shorten your list of potential products, you need to devote the right resources to sourcing. If you do not have the in-house manpower, a PLM consultant may be a good option. You should be aware, however, that many consultants have preferred software that may not be your best bet. 
Step 4: Prioritize 
After you have identified the problems in your processes and looked at the available market options, you can compile a list of goals and determine the implementation plan for your company. You should discover a return on investment that comes quickly with processes that are more streamlined, better communication, and all of the other benefits touted by PLM systems. 
Once you’ve incorporated the steps into your process, there are some other things to consider. One of the debates in PLM software system acquisition is whether usability is more important than functionality. Another way to look at this is how easy your new system is to learn and use versus how many features it offers. Your company should expect a learning curve on all new software - professionals today are shrewd enough to expect this. However, PLM solutions should be accessible to non-expert users, with a low learning curve. When you choose and develop your software, consider the various requirements of your users. Although some of the best systems available integrate with Microsoft Office products such as Excel, you should not look for systems that mirror their functionality. Additionally, more and more solutions are push (versus pull) systems. This is an important point because push systems are better equipped to function with new data gathering, such as IoT. 

Lastly, the size of your business is relevant to the software you select. Small- or medium-sized businesses especially need to consider that larger vendors are not the only options capable of meeting their needs. Since PLM software was designed for large companies, there may be functionality that is inappropriate for smaller businesses; functionality that you may never use. Smaller businesses should also evaluate the platform’s technical support, so you don’t waste money hiring support staff for the software.

PLM Tools to Look For

PLM solutions offer a range of tools that specifically cater to the product life cycle. However, since not all software systems are made the same, and since not all companies are looking for the same functionality, the tools listed below are the essential ones to determine you need, and that a PLM platform should provide:

  • Requirements Management
  • Compliance and Regulatory Management
  • Portfolio Management
  • Different Regulatory Requirements
  • Enterprise Product Record
  • Change Management
  • Social Collaboration
  • Visualization and CAD Integration
  • Bill of Material
  • Formula and Recipe Management
  • Reporting and Analytics

Use this matrix to review the list of these tools and more, and the current product offerings on the market.








The Future of Product Life Cycle Management Software

One of the biggest industry complaints in PLM software is the lack of common standards not only across different PLM platforms, but also with other programs that could possibly be integrated with PLM systems. This poses a barrier for smaller companies that could benefit from using a PLM system, as the lack of standards lowers the feasibility of interoperability from company to company, and the interaction between supplier and customer. This problem is especially stark between American and foreign companies. It is understood that the higher the complexity of the data, the less the capability of sharing that data to date. As a result, the U.S. in particular is falling behind in manufacturing compared to countries like Japan, that are pursuing consistent operating standards.
With consistent standards, a few things in the manufacturing industry would change. These include:

  • More small and medium-sized companies could adopt PLM.
  • PLM would be used in the mainstream part of the business, not just engineering.
  • Educators could teach students about it.
  • Software companies could incorporate more modules for increased use.
  • PLM functions may be bundled into other applications.


Paul Magel

Paul Magel, President, Business Applications and Technology Outsourcing Division at CGS, says: 
“At CGS, we design, implement and support PLM initiatives for apparel and fashion brands worldwide. In addition to core product data management, bill of materials, and technical specifications, BlueCherry® PLM draws from its enterprise heritage to deliver a broader set of integrated line planning, design, product development, sourcing, and production capabilities.


We believe that PLM will evolve to a more social and collaborative platform. During the idea phase, designers go through many iterations, and receive input from multiple departments and team members. Today, often a lot of those ideas, suggestions, and designs are not tracked in one platform. Designers use multiple tools because Adobe Illustrator is the norm, and inspiration is coming from outside the office and online, with apps such as Pinterest and Instagram.
As we look ahead at the future of PLM, vendors will bring a more modern and simpler UI along with a social experience to the platform. Different departments and teams within an organization can provide input within a collaborative environment in PLM that allows for all comments and iterations to be tracked and translated to a tech pack.
Mobility will also be a factor. Designers need to access their PLM platform and data anywhere and anytime. This will allow enabling designers to maximize their creativity and ultimately allow companies to deliver on-trend products at social media speeds.

When selecting a PLM software, it is important to map out existing processes and define new process models. This will help you examine current case studies and vendors to determine a PLM solution that will best fit your current needs. Each industry is different, so when creating a shortlist, it is important to evaluate vendors with experience in your specific industry. This will help you uncover best practices and join a community of users with relevant industry expertise. A large group of users with similar needs and challenges will be able to drive the product roadmap to meet their requirements.”


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