Who Owns the Product Lifecycle?

Turn on the ignition of your car, back out of the parking space and go into drive. As you engaged the transmission, gently tapped the accelerator and stepped on the brake, you didn’t directly interact with the powertrain. Instead, your actions were detected by sensors and executed by actuators on electronics control units that then got the car to shift, move, then stop.

Although in the end, Toyota’s recall issues from 2009-10 wound up isolating misadjusted accelerator controls, speculation around the recalls directed the spotlight to the prominent role of embedded software, prompting the realization that today when you operate your car, you are driving by wire.

Today’s automobiles are increasingly looking a lot more like consumer electronics products. They contain nearly as much software an iPhone, and in the future will contain even more. According to IDC, the market for embedded software that is designed into engineered products (like cars, refrigerators, airplanes, and consumer electronics) will double by 2015.

Automobiles are the tip of the iceberg where it comes to smart products; today most engineered products, from refrigerators to industrial machinery and aircraft all feature smart control. Adding intelligence allows designers to develop flexible control logic that brings more functionality to products and provides ways to optimize operation to gain savings in weight, bulk, and cost.

Look at the hybrid car: to function, the battery, powertrain, gas and electric engines, and braking systems must all interoperate to attain fuel economy. It takes software to determine when to let the electric engine run or let the battery recharge. The degree of interaction between components is greater compared to traditional electromechanical products designs. Features such as anti-lock braking or airbag deployment depend on the processing of data from multiple sources – wheel rotation, deceleration rate, steering, etc.

The growth of software content changes the ground rules for product development, which has traditionally been a very silo’ed process. There are well established disciplines in mechanical and electrical engineering, with each having their own sets of tools, not to mention claims to ownership of the product design. Yet with software playing the role as the “brains” of product operation, there is the need for engineering disciplines to work more interactively across silos rather than rely on systems engineers to crack the whip on executing the blueprint.

We were reminded of this after a rather enjoyable, freewheeling IEEE webcast that we had with IBM Rational’s Dominic Tavasolli last week.

Traditionally, product design fell under the mechanical engineering domain, which designed the envelope and specified the geometry, components, materials, physical properties (such as resistance to different forms of stress) and determined the clearance within which electronics could be shoehorned.

Drill down deeper and you’ll note that each engineering domain has its full lifecycle of tools. It’s analogous to enterprise software development organizations, where you’ll often stumble across well entrenched camps of Microsoft, Java, and web programmers. Within the lifecycle there is a proliferation of tools and languages to deal with the wide variety of engineering problems that must be addressed when developing a product. Unlike the application lifecycle, where you have specific tools that handle modeling or QA, on the engineering side there are multiple tools because there are many different ways to simulate a product’s behavior in the real world to perform the engineering equivalent of QA. You might want to test mechanical designs for wind shear, thermal deformation, or compressive stresses, and electrical ones for their ability to handle voltage and disperse heat from processing units.

Now widen out the picture. Engineering and manufacturing groups each have their own definitions of the product. It is expressed in the bill of materials (BOM): engineering has its own BOM, which details the design hierarchy, while the manufacturing BOM itemizes the inventory materials and the manufacturing processes needed to fabricate and assemble the product. That sets the stage for the question of who owns the product lifecycle management (PLM) process: the CADCAM vs. the ERP folks.

Into the mix between the different branches of engineering and the silos between engineering and manufacturing, now introduce the software engineers. They used to be an afterthought, yet today their programs are affecting, not only how product components and systems behave, but in many cases might impact the physical specifications. for instance, if you can design software to enable a motor to run more efficiently, the mechanical engineers can then design a smaller, lighter weight engine.

In the enterprise computing world, we’ve long gotten hung up on the silos that divide different parts of IT from itself – the developers vs. QA, DBAs, enterprise architects, systems operations – or IT from the business. However, the silos that plague enterprise IT are child’s play compared to the situation in product development where you have engineering groups pared off against each other, and against manufacturing.

OK, so the product lifecycle is a series of fiefdoms – why bother or care about making it more efficient? There is too much at stake in the success of a product: there are the constantly escalating pressures to squeeze time, defects, and cost out of the product lifecycle. That’s been the routine ever since the Japanese introduced American concepts of lean manufacturing back in the 1980s. But as automobiles and other complex engineered products adds more intelligence, the challenge is leveraging the rapid innovation of the software and consumer electronics industries for product sectors where, of necessity, lead times will stretch into one or more years.

There is no easy solution because there is no single solution. Each industry has different product characteristics that impact the length of the lifecycle and how product engineering teams are organized. Large, highly complex products such as automobiles, aircraft, or heavy machinery will have long lead times because of supply chain dependencies. At the other end of the scale, handheld consumer electronics or biomedical devices might not have heavy supply chain dependences. But, for instance, smart phones have short product lifespans and are heavily driven by the fats pace of innovation in processing power and software capabilities, meaning that product lifecycles must be quicker in order for new products to catch the market window. Biomedical devices on the other hand are often compact, but have significant regulatory hurdles to mount which impacts how the devices are tested.

The product lifecycle is a highly varied creature. The common thread is the need to more effectively integrate software engineering, which in turn is forcing the issue of integration and collaboration between other engineering disciplines. It is no longer sufficient to rely on systems engineers to get it together in the end – as manufacturers learned the hard way, it costs more to rework a design that doesn’t fit together, perform well, or be readily assembled with existing staff and facilities. The rapid evolution of software and processors also forces the issue on whether and where agile development processes can be coupled with linear or hierarchical development processes that are necessary for long-fuse products.

There is no single lifecycle process that will apply to all sectors, and no single set of tools that can perform every design and test function necessary to get from idea to product. Ultimately, the answer – as loose as it is – is that in larger product development organizations, work on the assumption that there are multiple sources of truth. The ALM and PLM worlds have at best worked warily at arms length from each other as there is a DMZ when it comes to requirements, change, and quality management. The reality is that no single constituency owns the product lifecycle – get used to federation that will proceed on rules of engagement that will remain industry- and organization-specific.

Ideally it would be great to integrate everything. Good luck. With the exception of frameworks that are proprietary for specific vendors, there is no associativity between tools that provides a process-level integration. The best that can be expected at this point is at the data exchange level.

It’s a start.