Product Life Cycle Management: A 101 Guide

header image for a blog about product life cycle management (abstract)

Commercial products, much like human beings, need to be guided through various stages of “life”—through a practice known as product life cycle management (PLM). 

The PLM process is a business strategy that combines human innovation with machine-powered data sharing. The goal is to create products that can perform better in the market for a longer period of time, and generate greater customer satisfaction. 

Here’s how a data-driven PLM system can extend a product's lifecycle and give your company a competitive advantage.

What is a product life cycle?

A product life cycle refers to the stages of existence of a product. The four stages are usually considered to be the introduction of the product, its growth, its maturity, and its subsequent decline. These stages can take place in the course of a single year or over decades.

The product life cycle encompasses, but is larger than, the product development life cycle, which occurs before a product launches. Specifically, it covers the product development process, or designing and building products so that they can be sold.

What is product life cycle management?

Product life cycle management (PLM) is the process of managing a product through all of its stages of existence. Today, PLM relies on software that collects and disseminates data so that employees can have an easier time designing products and coming up with strategies to sell them.

The PLM process involves humans or computers sending large quantities of relevant, up-to-date data to employees in different departments—for example, to a supply chain manager or a marketing director. These employees then use the data to make business decisions. Supply chain managers could supervise a product in its growth stage with automated ordering and deliveries, and marketing directors could use PLM software to budget and plot their full campaigns. 

Digital PLM solutions come from global vendors like Oracle, Netsuite, and SAP, as well as smaller providers like Teamcenter, Arena PLM, and Autodesk Fusion 360. These PLM systems allow companies to manage data and communications for tasks like product design, marketing, supply chain management (SCM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM).

How does a PLM system work?

A modern PLM system works in two main ways. First, it uses software to serve as a data and communications hub. PLM software archives and sorts company data, and then serves up-to-date information during all stages of the development process, production process, and sales process to employees in different departments. For instance, PLM systems can alert product design teams about real-time changes in raw material costs.

Second, PLM systems, through artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), aid modern product management by digitizing work previously done by humans. For instance, a modern PLM software system can combine computer-aided design (CAD) data with an existing bill of materials (instructions on how to build a product) to help engineers design a product and mitigate engineering challenges.

In 1985, for example, American Motors Corporation began using CAD and a central engineering database to help product designers create the Jeep sport utility vehicle. Through these PLM tools, the company avoided slowdowns and design errors that might otherwise have held up the development process.

Over the course of the development process, PLM software works in lockstep with project managers, producing valuable engineering data that will hopefully result in higher-quality products. When these data-generating processes occur during the product development stage, it is known as product data management (PDM), a component of PLM.

Benefits of product life cycle management

Product life cycle management allows you to make decisions that increase the chances products will sell and generate customer satisfaction.

Benefits of PLM systems include:

  • High-quality, up-to-date data 
  • The ability to improve processes through computer-aided design (CAD) 
  • Automation that provides teams with relevant information 
  • Faster time to market 
  • The capacity to identify and support well-performing products 

High-quality, up-to-date data 

PLM technology delivers the most up-to-date information to project managers, with higher data quality than they might get from an informal process without real-time updates.

The ability to improve processes through computer-aided design (CAD) 

Thanks to machine learning, a PLM system can improve on processes like coding and engineering. Machine learning enables computers to learn skills and improve upon those skills. This potentially speeds up production times and improves quality control.

Automation that provides teams with relevant information 

A PLM system houses company data and, via automation, sends it to the right teams when they need it. The system continually handles tasks like document management and quality management, and collects data and distributes it when needed.

Faster time to market

Because PLM adds so many efficiencies to a product development process, new items can reach the market faster.

The capacity to identify and support well-performing products

PLM solutions can help companies continue production of existing products that are selling well, plot marketing campaigns, respond to customer feedback, and expand product lines to capture new customers.

Challenges in product life cycle management

Product life cycle management can turbocharge a business, but this doesn’t happen overnight. There are two main challenges to implementing a PLM solution within a workplace.

Cost. The highest performing PLM systems run on sophisticated software, which can be prohibitively expensive, especially for startups.

Initial effort to set up the system. PLM software needs relevant data to provide useful information to employees. Humans have to initially program the software to collect data from the right sources. They also have to tell the software which employees need which types of data, which is usually based on their job title, their department, and their project portfolio. As such, it takes time and effort to get your PLM software system up and running.

Product life cycle management FAQ

What tools and technologies are used in PLM?

At the heart of a modern PLM process is a data-driven communication system powered by computer software. This software helps your team handle processes around managing products, including bill of materials management, document management, shipping logistics, supply chain logistics, and quality control. Large companies often purchase PLM software from global vendors like SAP, Oracle, and Netsuite. Small and medium-sized businesses may opt for more affordable vendors like Arena PLM, Teamcenter, and Autodesk Fusion 360.

How can businesses ensure success with PLM?

A key to ensuring success with PLM is to trust the data that PLM systems deliver—whether that’s dimensions for a product design or sales data for existing products. Using this data, humans can more objectively design products, plot product launches, or respond to customer feedback.

How can PLM reduce costs?

PLM can reduce costs by offloading work from humans to machines. It can help humans engineer a product from scratch, source the components in its bill of materials, arrange shipping logistics, and plot a marketing campaign. Although PLM can be expensive, it will provide employees with highly relevant data and make them more efficient.

What is an example of product lifecycle management?

A classic example of product life cycle management comes from the automotive industry. In 1985, the American Motors Corporation used PLM to give its engineers CAD assistance in designing new vehicles. The combination of machine efficiency and human intuition produced the Jeep Cherokee line of vehicles, which set off a decades-long trend of sport utility vehicle (SUV) popularity and boosted AMC’s value to the point that it was purchased by Chrysler.

What are some future trends in PLM?

Rapid advances in machine learning and chatbot technology will likely make PLM software more sophisticated and capable of extending even further into product engineering, coding, and logistics management. Some speculate that PLM will increasingly be used to promote supply chain sustainability amidst ongoing climate change and over-extraction.