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Two weeks ago I wrote about the simplification discussion around PLM – Why PLM never will be simple.  There I focused on the fact that even sharing information in a consistent, future proof way of working, is already challenging, despite easy to use communication tools like email or social communities.

I mentioned that sharing PLM data is even more challenging due to their potential revision, version, status, and context.  This brings us to the topic of configuration management, needed to manage the consistency of information, a challenge with the increasingly sophisticated products or systems. Simple tools will never fix this complexity.

To manage the consistency of a product,  configuration management (CM) is required. Two weeks ago I read the following interesting post from CMstat: A Brief History of Configuration Management Software.

An excellent introduction if you want to know more about the roots of CM, be it that the post at the end starts to flush out all the disadvantages and reasons why you should not think about CM using PLM systems.

The following part amused me:

 The Reality of Enterprise PLM

It is no secret that PLM solutions were often sold based in good part on their promise to provide full-lifecycle change control and systems-level configuration management across all functions of the enterprise for the OEM as well as their supply and service chain partners. The appeal of this sales stick was financial; the cost and liability to the corporation from product failures or disasters due to a lack of effective change control was already a chief concern of the executive suite. The sales carrot was the imaginary ROI projected once full-lifecycle, system-level configuration control was in effect for the OEM and supply chain.

Less widely known is that for many PLM deployments, millions of budget dollars and months of calendar time were exhausted before reaching the point in the deployment road map where CM could be implemented. It was not uncommon that before the CM stage gate was reached in the schedule, customer requirements, budget allocations, management priorities, or executive sponsors would change. Or if not these disruptions within the customer’s organization, then the PLM solution provider, their software products or system integrators had been changed, acquired, merged, replaced, or obsoleted. Worse yet for users who just had a job to do was when solutions were “reimagined” halfway through a deployment with the promise (or threat) of “transforming” their workflow processes.

Many project managers were silently thankful for all this as it avoided anyone being blamed for enterprise PLM deployment failures that were over budget, over schedule, overweight, and woefully underwhelming. Regrettably, users once again had to settle for basic change control instead of comprehensive configuration management.

I believe the CMstat-writer is generalizing too much and preaches for their parish. Although my focus lies on PLM, I also learned the importance of CM and for that reason I will share a view on CM from the PLM side:

Configuration Management is not a target for every company

The origins of Configuration Management come from the Aerospace and Defense (A&D) industries. These industries have high quality, reliability and traceability constraints. In simple words, you need to prove your product works correctly specified in all described circumstances and keep this consistent along the lifecycle of the product.

Moreover, imagine you delivered the perfect product, next implementing changes require a full understanding of the impact of the change. What is the impact of the change on the behavior or performance? In A&D is the question is it still safe and reliable?

Somehow PLM and CM are enemies. The main reason why PLM-systems are used is Time to Market — bringing a product as fast as possible to the market with acceptable quality. Being first is sometimes more important than high quality. CM is considered as a process that slows down Time to Market as managing consistency, and continuous validating takes time and effort.

Configuration Management in Aviation is crucial as everyone understands that you cannot afford to discover a severe problem during a flight. All the required verification and validation efforts make CM a costly process along the product lifecycle. Airplane parts are 2 – 3 times more expensive than potential the same parts used in other industries. The main reason: airplane parts are tested and validated for all expected conditions along their lifecycle.  Other industries do not spend so much time on validation. They validate only where issues can hurt the company, either for liability or for costs.

Time to Market even impacts the aviation industry  as we can see from the commercial aircraft battle(s) between Boeing and Airbus. Who delivers the best airplane (size/performance) at the right moment in the global economy? The Airbus 380 seemed to miss its targets in the future – too big – not flexible enough. The Boeing 737 MAX appears to target a market sweet spot (fuel economy) however the recent tragic accidents with this plane seemed to be caused by Time to Market pressure to certify the aircraft too early. Or is the complexity of a modern airplane unmanageable?

CM based on PLM-systems

Most companies had their configuration management practices long before they started to implement PLM. These practices were most of the time documented in procedures, leading to all kind of coding systems for these documents. Drawing numbers (the specification of a part/product), Specifications, Parts Lists, all had a meaningful identifier combined with a version/revision and status. For example, the Philips 12NC coding system is famous in the Netherlands and is still used among spin-offs of Philips and their supplier as it offers a consistent framework to manage configurations.

Storing these documents into a PDM/PLM-system to provide centralized access was not a big problem; however, companies also expected the PLM-system to support automation and functionality to support their configuration management procedures.

A challenge for many implementers for several reasons:

  • PLM-systems do not offer a standard way of working – if they would do so, they could only serve a small niche market – so it needs to be “configured/customized.”
  • Company configuration management rules sometimes cannot be mapped to the provided PLM data-model and their internal business logic. This has led to costly customizations where, in the best case, implementer and company agreed somewhere in the middle. Worst case as the writer from the CM blog is mentioning it becomes an expensive, painful project
  • Companies do not have a consistent configuration management framework as Time to Market is leading – we will fix CM later is the idea, and they let their PLM –implementer configure the PLM-system as good a possible. Still, at the management level, the value of CM is not recognized.
    (see also: PLM-CM-ALM – not sexy ?)

In companies that I worked with, those who were interested in a standardized configuration management approach were trained in CMII. CMII (or CM2) is a framework supported by most PLM-systems, sometimes even as a pre-configured template to speed-up the implementation. Still, as PLM-systems serve multiple industries, I would not expect any generic PLM-vendor to offer Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) CM-capabilities – there are too many legacy approaches. You can find a good and more in-depth article related to CMII here: Towards Integrated Configuration Change Management (CMII) from Lionel Grealou.


What’s next?

Current configuration management practices are very much based on the concepts of managing document. However, products are more and more described in a data-driven, model-based approach. You can find all the reasons why we are moving to a model-based approach in my last year’s blog post. Important to realize is that current CM practices in PLM were designed with mechanical products and lifecycles as a base. With the combination of hardware and software, integrated and with different lifecycles, CM has to be reconsidered with a new holistic concept. The Institute of Process Excellence provides CM2 training but is also active in developing concepts for the digital enterprise.

Martijn Dullaart, Lead Architect Configuration Management @ ASML & Chair @ IPE/CM2 Global Congress has published several posts related to CM and a Model-Based approach – you find them here related to his LinkedIn profile. As you can read from his articles organizations are trying to find a new consistent approach.

Perhaps CM as a service to a Product Innovation Platform, as the CMstat blog post suggests? (quote from the post below)

In Part 2 of this CMsights series on the future of CM software we will examine the emerging strategy of “Platform PLM” where functional services like CM are delivered via an open, federated architecture comprised of rapidly-deployable industry-configured applications.

I am looking forward to Part2 of CMsights . An approach that makes sense to me as system boundaries will disappear in a digital enterprise. It will be more critical in the future to create consistent data flows in the right context and based on data with the right quality.


Simple tools and complexity need to be addressed in the right order. Aligning people and processes efficiently to support a profitable enterprise remains the primary challenge for every enterprise. Complex products, more dependent on software than hardware, are requiring new ways of working to stay competitive. Digitization can help to implement these new ways of working. Experienced PLM/CM experts know the document-driven past. Now it is time for a new generation of PLM and CM experts to start from a digital concept and build consistent and workable frameworks. Then the simple tools can follow.




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