9 questions to ask when evaluating PLM

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Summary: The PLM procurement process is a big job. So we’ve created a cheat sheet of must-ask questions to streamline your PLM system purchase. 

Given all the flavors available, what to look for in a PLM is sort of a big question.

So we trawled through dozens of research reports and hundreds of calls with clients and prospects to bring you the best 9 questions to ask when you’re evaluating PLM solutions.

Hopefully, these will help you get a product that works for you.

Without further ado, here are our 9 key questions to help you narrow down which PLM is right for you.

(PS there’s a bonus question at the end – make sure you stick around!)

1. How long will this take to implement?

The first question: how long does implementation take?

And with good reason.

Historically, PLM doesn’t have a great track record of deploying quickly.

In fact, Forrester reported in 2016 that “[on-prem PLMs] can take years to implement.”

In fact, we were at a sales conference recently where we heard from PLM purchasers similar stories of multi-year, multi-million dollar implementations.

“[on-prem PLMs] can take years to implement.”

So when it comes to what to look for in a PLM, ask your vendor what their average time is and how long they think they’ll take to get you up and running.

Because a long implementation time means two financial realities:

  1. Cash gets spent on business process mapping and management
  2. Time gets spent working inefficiently.

Both of these postpone when you’ll see PLM returns.

What to look for in your PLM

Look for a PLM that can be up and running in 30 days or less. This will usually be a cloud solution or a single-suite provider whose ecosystem you’re already deeply embedded in.

2. What’s the total cost of ownership (TCO)?

Price is tricky when it comes to what to look for in a PLM because so often the real price of the software is hidden.

It’s a little like rental cars: the cost isn’t in the car, it’s in the extra add-ons and fine print.

It’s easy to get wooed by a low sticker price (or in the case of open source software, no sticker price) only to discover your PLM costs far more than advertised to implement and service.

There are three big cost centers to watch out for:

  1. Implementation: It should take 30 days or less, come with almost no additional fees, and require little to no custom coding.
  2. Hardware: If you’re going on-premise, then you need to consider the cost of the actual server to build and maintain.
  3. Integration: A client of ours told us that during the evaluation process, a leading PLM consultant was charging $10,000 to connect the new PLM to an ERP. And that was one of five connections they were recommending.

What to look for in your PLM

Ask about the total cost of ownership over 5 years and ask specifically about the three big cost centers before you sign.

3. Does this new PLM work with my existing software?

The whole point of PLM is to share product data throughout your stakeholder network.

It fuels collaboration and makes product development faster, easier, and cheaper.

So what do you look for in a PLM?

Close integration with existing solutions.

There are a few specifics worth mentioning.

First, your ERP. Your new PLM should push product data into your ERP and pull financial data from it.


Because while PLM owns the parts data (e.g. an assembly needs x5 20mm screws) it’s the ERP that actually pays for those (e.g. 20mm screws cost $0.12 each).

Both are needed to deliver a product to market or the manufacturing floor.

Second, your business tools.

PLMs need to connect not only the systems but the people who use them.

And that means going to the people. Find out if the PLM you’re considering works effectively with your existing business tools like email, Excel, chat, or social tools.

What to look for in your PLM

The closer you can overlay your new PLM to the existing ways of working, the better your adoption and thus ROI is going to be.

4. Can non-engineers actually use this thing?

70% of PLM users come from outside engineering.

This means:

  • Interfaces need to look like modern business tool interfaces. Think MS Office, Slack, Jira, Excel, and Windows or Mac OS, not Windows 98.
  • User flows are visual and intuitive.
  • Basic user experience best practices are adhered to, like error correction, system visibility, and user-centric language and nomenclature.

Based on who uses PLM software, it shouldn’t be designed for engineers, but everybody else.

And this isn’t just because most of the users aren’t engineers. It’s also because of the objective of PLM.

The objective of PLM is to deliver products faster by leveraging product data.

But that product data is already being leveraged by engineering. Perhaps inefficiently, but it is being used.

Therefore, where a company can gain the most value is unleashing that product data to teams who have little to no access.

This includes procurement, sales, marketing and teams on the manufacturing floor.

What to look for in a PLM

Look at how your auxiliary stakeholders use product data now and then identify how they would use it if they had better access.

Your PLM should allow them to use product data how they want to do their job.

5. Are changes easy to make?

Your business is constantly evolving. Business processes should evolve with you. That’s why finding a PLM that can adapt and change is critical.

A recurring problem identified by CIMdata and Forrester is organizations get “rev-locked” when they buy PLM.

That means when they buy the software and as part of the implementation, customize it to suit their business processes and specific technology stack.

But as their business evolves, so too do their systems.

Over time, We see a divergence.

The PLM workflows operate one way, and the business operates another. Teams develop workarounds to deliver their product – workarounds that fail to achieve governance standards and rely on manual processes to move projects forward.

That’s why you should look for a PLM that relies on configuration rather than customization and can be reconfigured easily as your processes or technology changes.

What to look for in your PLM

Find a PLM solution that will work now, but bear in mind your business is going to change. Make sure you’re prepared.

6. Does it scale?

To us, scaling is how easy it is to add new users to your program or subtract them as needed.

Here are two examples.

Imagine you’re buying a car.

You buy one with five seats. The number of seats is an unscalable product.

You can’t add new seats to your car – you have to buy a new car if you wanted more.

Now, imagine that you’re getting a Netflix subscription.

You can easily upgrade/downgrade your level of service depending on how many screens you want to watch at once.

what to look for in a PLM netflix example

When it comes to what to look for in a PLM, you want the Netflix model.

You should find a solution that allows you to easily add or subtract users as needed, without requiring additional spend on hardware or to sign an additional multi-year contract.

What to look for in your PLM

Find a PLM that is geared up to sell licenses on a monthly basis and doesn’t demand a lot of hardware support. SaaS, cloud-based solutions usually work best for this.

7. Does it facilitate secure collaboration across departments, locations, and suppliers?

This is a big question but you can boil it down to three core things – how does it fuel collaboration within your four walls, within your organization across the globe, and across your global supply chain?

  1. Your own four walls: Remember that most PLM users are coming from outside engineering. Make sure you find what tools other teams use and your PLM of choice can easily push and pull data into those systems.
  2.  Across your national/international offices: To ensure a secure connection, does the person have to be plugged into the local network? If so, how will remote teams, say a manufacturing plant in Mexico or China, plug into the system? Make sure that multiple global locations get the same experience as the head office.
  3. Your supply chain: According to CIMdata, products today are made up mostly of purchased parts and assemblies, rather than companies buying raw materials and manufacturing from soup to nuts.

Most industrial and consumer products are comprised of 40%-70% procured-in content

When you’re evaluating PLM, ask how suppliers are going to access the system in a secure and cost-effective way.

What to look for in your PLM

Find out how your PLM provider is going to connect your team locally and globally and how they facilitate collaboration across your supply chain.

8. How does support work?

No PLM works perfectly all the time.

At some point, you’re going to need additional support.

Find out what that process looks like:

  • What support channels are available to you?
  • Is it self-serve support or is support provided?
  • Is there an SLA on how fast support needs to respond?
  • Is the support a dedicated resource?

We also recommend finding out the cost of support.

Is it all-inclusive, or are some things charged for? If so, is it just done hourly or is there a minimum spend?

Finally, if it is a paid service, find out what the average charge is for other similar companies.

What to look for in a PLM

PLM support fees have a tendency to add up fast.

Find a provider with at least some support included.

You should also be wary of self-service-only support like knowledge bases – it might be free, but you should be prepared to sink some serious time into solving even a small problem.

9. Do I have to change my way of working?

Finally, find out how much you and your team’s day-to-day will change.

PLM is designed to connect disparate silos and make it easier for people to do their jobs.

However, a common trap is to get into a PLM relationship only to discover that as part of the implementation process, your entire way of working needs to change to match the workflows of the PLM.

And we don’t think that’s efficient.

We think that PLM should work for the people who use it.

So when you’re evaluating PLM vendors, find out if they can support your current way of working.

There are a few ways to do this.

The best way is to present your vendor with a business process map. The more detailed the better, but even a rough guide will help you have a frank discussion of whether or not their solution can dovetail with how you work.

What to look for in your PLM

If there’s a big cost to adapting the software to suit your organization, move on.

It’s not worth the headache now, and certainly isn’t worth the pain later on as your processes change over time.

Bonus question: is now the right time for PLM?

Bonus question time!

As a maker of cloud PLM, our response is “of course it’s the right time for PLM!”

But there are some moments when a PLM might not be the solution to your problem.

For instance, if you’re one shop where most stuff is produced in-house, then you might be able to get away with stringing together processes with software like Dropbox, Excel, and email.

Alternatively, if you think a product is nearing the end of its life, either because the market has shifted or been disrupted, then PLM might not be the solution.

For instance, PLM isn’t going to revive blank CD sales or make horse-drawn buggies a valuable investment again.

On the flipside, there are lots of times when PLM is just the ticket.

It’s the right time to buy PLM if:

  • You want to get more from your engineering team
  • You think you can launch products faster than you currently are
  • Your competition has lower costs and faster iteration cycles
  • You’re moving into a space where rapid iteration/prototyping is the norm
  • Your business is expanding across multiple locations
  • Your organization is taking on digital transformation initiatives

Wrap up

Evaluating PLMs is a time-consuming and potentially painful process.

But it doesn’t have to be.

If you ask yourself and your vendors these 9 questions, you can quickly sort the wheat from the chaff to uncover a PLM solution that works for you.

Image credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash

Got questions about what to look for in a PLM? We’ve got answers. Get in touch and see how we can help.