“The Innovation Process Needs Flexibility and Freedom!”

An interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Jörg W. Fischer

Professor Fischer, for more than a decade, your work has revolved around the topics of product lifecycle management (PLM) and information management, the product development process (PDP) and the digital factory. That’s a long time for an industry as fastpaced as ICT. What developments would you describe as the milestones in this area?

There have been an unbelievable number of developments with a major impact on the industry in the last 10 years. The ones I consider most worth mentioning are the development of PDM (product data management) into PLM (product lifecycle management). With PDM, it´s just about administering CAD data, whereas with PLM the idea is to manage all product data throughout the entire life cycle. We now have access to IT systems that make this possible, which we almost take for granted. Another important milestone was the development of the digital mock up (DMU), so we had the possibility to produce digital product prototypes in 3D, long before the real prototype was ready. The same thing happened around the same time to factories. Another step came when the DMU was made available for different types of simulations which made it possible to make reliable predictions about the future behavior of products and factories. The quality was far superior compared to existing simulation techniques. There have been tremendous changes in the last two or three years, mainly fuelled by ideas relating to Industry 4.0. I’m delighted at the number of smaller companies that run at the front of the pack in this area, and there are two developments I think are worth highlighting. At the moment, the problem we face is that digital models and reality are gradually developing in different directions. Painstakingly constructed digital models are quickly becoming irrelevant for actual operation of the machines. To automatically compare real machines with virtual models, one of our partners – IPO.Plan – has developed a wonderful solution. They use a robot with a system called IPO.Eye which can move by itself across the shop floor and scan in the actual situation in the factory, which it then uses to update the digital model. In the future, it will be this kind of technology that will make it possible to carry out ad hoc simulations in the factory. The second development worth pointing to is virtual machine tooling. We now have the technology that will allow machine tool manufacturers to deliver a virtual machine to go alongside the real machine. Both systems will operate on the same control systems so they both react almost exactly the same way. The fact that even smaller machine tool manufacturers are doing this as a matter of course, companies like our partner ELHA, is a wonderful sign of their innovative flair.

An important part of most business strategies these days is productivity improvement stemming from cost squeezes and competitive pressure. What roles do PDP and PLM have to play in this area? And what should SMEs in particular be more on the lookout for in this regard?

Companies have invested huge amounts of money in recent years, trying to avoid wasting resources and making their material flows more lean. For every material flow there is a corresponding information flow. What’s interesting is that wastage in information flows doesn’t seem to be relevant in this respect. As the PDP becomes more and more integrated with IT systems, the volume of product data that will need handling will increase. The demands this will place on companies will be much worse than what we’ve seen to date. Up until now, people have tried solving the issue on a purely technical level, e.g., by using a PDM system. Planning the product development process in terms of organizational rationalization is pushed aside, but the mature processes are left in place, which obviously isn’t really that effective. Making the PDP more lean is an absolute necessity, especially when introducing or redeveloping products in PLM. It’s important to see this as a genuine opportunity to rationalize the organization and to do this carefully, as part of a continuous improvement process. SMEs need to be aware of the fact that an investment in lean management will be especially lucrative if the idea behind lean management is also applied to product development. But this is an area where companies often need help. Our Steinbeis Transfer Center for Computer Applications in Engineering has made a breakthrough in this area. We’ve developed a technique called Do(PLM)Con, which allows us to examine the current situation in the product life cycle and make the information that’s developed transparent for everyone involved – without complicated IT terms – so people can see for themselves where the problems lie. Based on this, we work with the customer to identify targets and help them during implementation.

It goes without saying that answering customer requirements has a central influence on product success. It’s important to improve the standard of documentation in requirements management, and avoid errors resulting from misinterpretation. You’ve been working on the development of a requirements management system which is integrated into PLM, which should help solve the problem. Can you provide us with some insights into the tool?

A key success factor for companies these days is the ability to quickly translate a good concept into a successful product. Innovation shouldn’t be down to chance. If you think about that fact that, according to experts, 50% of product launches don’t succeed, naturally you have to wonder why that is. Clearly, lots of companies don’t manage to transform market requirements into a product or its components. Requirements go through a number of levels of abstraction in the product development process. This refinement process works beyond the boundaries of departments or companies. The requirements have to be expressed time and again in verbal terms, and explained and discussed. With each stage of this transformation, there’s a risk that the requirements will be misinterpreted or be taken out of context. For us the issue was whether it would be possible to develop a methodology to eradicate these problems, something based on the system functionality of the Teamcenter PLM system developed by Siemens, which is also quite similar to the intuitive approach used by engineers. We succeeded in doing this with a technique called SITIO (Securing Information Transformation for Input and Output). Our transfer center now offers customers consulting services on the introduction of this process and we’ve noticed strong interest in the topic on the market.

Professor Fischer, it’s now been a year since you started working at Computer Applications in Engineering, a Steinbeis Transfer Center that was set up by Prof. Dr.-Ing. Wolfgang Hocheisel 30 years ago, and has been successfully headed up by him ever since. The services on offer range from consulting to implementation or adaptation of PLM components. What trends have you noticed in terms of the types of tasks customers ask you about and their requirements?

Based on discussions held with people in the market, we’ve currently worked out three key trends. Lots of companies have successfully introduced PLM components and used them to automate a number of routine processes. But when they do, they then start to notice lots of weaknesses in their processes. More and more of our customers are wondering what’s the best way to systematically make the PDP lean. Another trend is the shift toward engineering to order (ETO), or just producing based on customer requests, and then there’s configure to order (CTO). Lots of companies are actively working on making their products more modular. At the same time, they’re working on the introduction of suitable configuration systems. Our goal is to offer customers configurable products that fulfill the individual requirements of customers, but which also consist – to a large extent – of standard modules that can be mixed and matched. In lots of cases, this would allow companies to move away from workshop production or standalone production toward proper production lines, simultaneously reducing complexity with major potential to cut the cost of product development and manufacturing.

What mustn’t be forgotten is that without the right underlying methodologies or organizations that “think in modular terms,” the modular approach is not possible. Another trend is the increasingly intense debate about the relative positioning of PLM systems and ERP systems. There’s a borderline between the two systems, with the strictly formalized processes of enterprise resourcing planning coming up against the technological, innovative processes of product development. The issue people are debating is the extent to which the tendency of SMEs to see PLM as an add-on of ERP might by hindering the innovation process because things become more formal as a function of the system. The innovation process needs flexibility and freedom! In the future, PLM platforms will increasingly have to provide a proactive working environment that preempts what we want to do and helps us. This would then put people center-stage and allow them to orchestrate the creative process without wasting time on laborious formalities.


Professor Dr.-Ing. Jörg W. Fischer is a project manager at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Computer Applications in Engineering and is a professor at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences. The portfolio of services offered by the Steinbeis Enterprise ranges from consulting to the implementation or adaptation of PLM for companies of all sizes.

Professor Dr.-Ing. Jörg W. Fischer
Steinbeis Transfer Center Computer Applications in Engineering (STZ-RIM) (Karlsruhe)

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