In many sectors of the manufacturing industries, especially those considered “high tech,” developing and introducing new products faster is seen as the primary driver for growth, while managing changes to products is seen as the top challenge for maintaining quality. That is, product change is a source of improvement and opportunity, and, at the same time, a source of complexity that introduces quality problems. Automation enhances quality at the local facility level. It is also critical to the continued prosperity of many sectors of manufacturing in the Western economies in terms of productivity. However, it is often viewed through the narrow lens of “making things in this facility more efficiently and in a more repeatable way.”
Even exploiting automation technologies fully to achieve improvement at the local plant level often requires consideration of an integrated web of processes and practices. However, many industries that have embraced high levels of automation in their own facilities have to cope with lengthy and complex supply chains spanning a number of organizations in a number of countries, or perhaps even a worldwide set of relationships more appropriately characterized as a supply network. The different stages of the product life cycle are likely to involve different participants in different roles; for example, a development partner with advanced prototyping facilities would likely be replaced by a facility with mass component production capabilities once the product was finalized.
The ideal is therefore to consider automation technologies in the context of optimizing the operational performance − speed of product flow, inventory levels, and quality − across the whole network throughout every product life cycle. This covers not only steady-state production, but also all the changes. At this broader supply-chain level, the product life-cycle problem extends to interorganizational processes and information. As a result, the search to maximize benefits − for example, by optimizing “where to make” decisions or when to invest in new manufacturing technologies − often founders on the difficulties of communicating information, the processes which by nature are more opaque than tangible material movement, or manufacturing process steps. Nevertheless, interorganizational processes and information can be critical, and ensuring that they are fit for purpose, especially at the interorganizational level, is a complex problem that demands effective information technology (IT) integration across the value chain, including supply chain and automation.
The requirement for effective communication starts at the early stage of the formation of the supply chain, that is, in the product design activity. Examples of activities that are both nonvalue adding and potential sources of error are creating different versions of design information simply for communicating changes to other members of the design network and the inefficiencies involved in manually updating information in multiple places to reflect the latest design changes.
This is where the concept of product life-cycle management (PLM), which has its roots in product data management and has evolved to management of the full life cycle, originated. However, the benefits of effectively using information go way beyond “keeping everyone on the same page.” PLM systems are now widely exploited for access to previous design information, allowing organizations to properly evaluate existing components or subsystems in the new product.