Customer experience, PLM and the digital thread

18 October 2019

A strong digital thread that connects every stage of a product’s lifecycle is fast becoming the best chance to deliver exceptional customer experiences, writes Graham McCall of Aras

“Those organisations that can own their lifecycle will innovate faster,” believes Graham McCall

Over the last decade, there has been a paradigm shift in the way in that product and services companies want to use data: In short, they want more information and control over the entire operational lifecycle of their products, including the aftersale period when those products are in service and in use.

With this information, they can discover new ways to improve the experience of customers, faster and more confidently, even in-flight. They can coordinate a customer-focused response when new opportunities or threats emerge: new market entrants, new product technologies and mounting competition, for example.

Furthermore, product development and business strategy teams can use new information and insights to improve future offerings.

The shortest path to meeting your future customer’s unmet needs, to own their experience, is to own the product lifecycle. This forms the heart of any organisation’s digital transformation journey.

Ownership means that information must be immediately accessible, complete, accurate and actionable by the stakeholders whose job it is to effect improvements. Furthermore, data and technologies must be malleable, so that they can be used in new ways.

For a business to sustain year-on-year transformation– including incorporating technology and service innovations that have yet to be invented – information and actions must be managed end-to-end across the product’s lifecycle on a platform that can continually be added to, adapted, upgraded and evolved to meet the company’s ever-changing strategic needs.

Easier thread than done

This is easier said than done, of course, owing to the complexities of existing legacy product lifecycle management (PLM) systems, based on outdated architectures and sub-optimal processes that persist in many manufacturing organisations.

If a PLM system does not share product data with pillar systems, such as customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing execution (MES), and supply chain management (SCM), then the danger is that a business will end up either performing redundant work or duplicating tasks.

In short, disconnected tools mean disconnected processes. The result is that nobody owns the lifecycle, making it impossible for anybody to own the customer experience. This leaves businesses vulnerable to competitors, as frustrated customers contract with alternative service providers or choose to buy from other suppliers.

Underpinning any products and services business should be a connected product lifecycle – a digital thread that connects all product streams with their digital assets, from concept through design, manufacturing and service.

When a change is made to a product or process in one part of the thread, that change should be automatically disseminated to each stakeholder along the chain.

These updates allow the entire ecosystem to collaborate using data and analytics from the connected systems to increase a business’ operational efficiency and improve the quality of its products, services and responsiveness to customers.

Effecting such a digital transformation can be a tricky business. According to a recent article in Forbes Magazine, 84% of companies fail at digital transformation.

And, according to a 2018 McKinsey Global Survey of 1,733 business executives, just 14% said that their digital transformation efforts have delivered sustained performance improvements, while only 3% report complete success at sustaining change.

Organisations seeking to own the complete lifecycle of product information cannot rely on old technologies. When data and processes are locked in by the applications that manage them, the company’s available insights and actions are limited to the capabilities of the tools they reside in: inflexible tools yield inflexible data, processes, and strategies.

The importance of senior management endorsement cannot be underestimated. If the CEO fails to set a strategy for connecting data throughout a product’s lifecycle, including delivery and field service, then product data will be broken down into disconnected silos.

The answer is not a monolithic PLM system with static integrations. Rather, an open-platform approach is needed, one that provides the flexibility to optimise processes and select the right technologies, a system that creates connections to data across the lifecycle of a product.

Getting circular

There is a tendency to think of PLM as a linear system, tracking a product from its conception to its end-of-life, but it should be a recursive, circular digital thread, a cycle that leads to additional business, more competitive products, reduced development times and closer relationships with customers.

Forward-thinking companies are beginning to form their underlying ecosystems into such a continuous digital thread, creating closedloop product feedback, predictive analytics, and connected digital twins that enable the full traceability of products.

In the process, they are eliminating redundant work and exploiting the benefits of their data and analytics to make data-driven decisions with greater speed and agility.

Regardless of the industry in which an organisation operates, with the right leadership, culture and an open, flexible, scalable and upgradable PLM system, it can own the lifecycle of its products, enabling it to transform it business.

Those organisations that can own their lifecycle will innovate faster, achieve greater operational efficiencies, increase their ability to react to market conditions, and sustainably deliver an exceptional customer experience.


Graham McCall is vice president of operations at Aras, provider of a resilient platform for digital industrial applications. Aras customers using its technology to manage complex change and traceability across product lifecycles include Airbus, Audi, GE, GM, Honda and Mitsubishi. Learn more about Aras at aras.com or follow the company on Twitter: @aras_plm

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