The Intersection of PLM and Sustainability

First, A Few Misconceptions about PLM and Sustainability

After writing my recent post The Road to Model-Based and Connected PLM, the topic that emerged to interest me the most is the contribution that “Real Product Lifecycle Management” can have to global sustainability. But first, allow me to address two widely held misconceptions about PLM and Sustainability.

For myself, as well as most PLM consultants and market analysts, real PLM is a business strategy that envelops the whole product lifecycle through requirements, ideation, development, manufacturing, logistics, quality, usage, service, and even decommissioning. So I use the term “real PLM”, to refute the common misconception that PLM is an engineering technology, software product, or enterprise IT system.

Image courtesy of CIMdata illustrates that PLM spans the complete product life —

The execution of a PLM strategy is certainly made possible by technologies and software, but fundamentally PLM is a business strategy that should start with business requirements and business goals, not technology trends nor software vendors. I recently discussed this topic with my peers at Share PLM in  7 Easy Tips Nobody Told You About PLM Adoption.

Likewise, there is similar confusion about sustainability. It should not be equated with climate change, which gets most of the attention these days. The topic of sustainability is more extensive than that of a changing climate on Earth or decarbonization of the economy, both of which sadly have become politicized.

For me, sustainability is very simple; its acknowledging that we live on a finite planet that cannot support the unlimited usage and destruction of its natural resources. Long-term sustainability will certainly require that we humans address climate change. Yet, there is so much more involved which may make the digital transformation movement appear rather small compared to the sustainability transformation of consumer attitudes and business practices.

As a result, I view sustainability not as just another business opportunity but as a moral imperative and social responsibility to my children and future generations.

Connecting PLM to Green Issues

Fellow PLM marketing consultant Richard McFall first approached me in 2019 with his observation that the role of PLM was not receiving the awareness it deserved as part of the suite of strategies and tools to address climate change. He made a solid argument that PLM-enabling solutions (e.g. PDM, CAE, CM, MBSE, DMfg, MDO, etc.) were already contributing to green technologies for improving product efficiency, developing renewable energy, sequestering greenhouse gases, and tracking the carbon footprint of products.

With my interest in sustainability, I challenged him to think in larger terms about the role of PLM in contributing to sustainability, in particular the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Image from United Nations on Sustainable Development Goals —

Richard also pointed out that there were no organizations or groups which allowed professionals in our industry to freely discuss the intersection of PLM and sustainability by sharing news, examples, and especially encouragement. As a result, we formed the PLM Green Global Alliance group using the LinkedIn platform.

We decided to call our initiative the PLM Green Global Alliance (PGGA) because we are highly focused on PLM. We are Green due to our environmental concern for the planet to sustain both healthy businesses and ecosystems, not because of any politics or party affiliation. We are Global because addressing sustainability and climate change requires international cooperation. And finally, we are an informal Alliance and coalition that creates a professional network between participants who have common interests and concerns but did not yet have a platform to discuss them.

The group now includes hundreds of members from around the world who are, in small and big ways alike, advancing the use of PLM enabling technologies towards sustainability of their products, employers, and industries. You can read more about our mission and goals on our intentionally non-commercial looking PLM Green website.

As the PGGA is now established, our focus is on sharing news, trends, examples, and analysis on how PLM-enabling technologies are contributing to a more sustainable low carbon circular economy. The most encouraging developments we are witnessing are the application of PLM in a way that enables Systems Thinking, Products as a Service, and the Circular Economy, in that order. Let’s examine at a few of these and explore how they are interrelated.

Sustainability Requires Systems Thinking

In the section on PLM and Sustainability of the PLM Global Green Alliance website, we explain the importance of this relation:

“The goals and challenges of Product Lifecycle Management and Sustainability share much in common and should be considered synergistic. Where in theory, PLM is the strategy to manage a product along its whole lifecycle, sustainability is concerned not only with the product’s lifecycle but should also address sustainability of the users, industries, economies, environment and the entire planet in which the products operate.”

If you read further, you will encounter the term Systems Thinking. As there might be confusion here between Systems Thinking and Systems Engineering, let’s look at the differences.

Image from US Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office —

For Systems Engineering, I use the traditional V-shape to describe the process. Starting from the needs on the left side, we have a systematic approach to come to a solution definition at the bottom. Then going upwards on the right side, we validate step-by-step that the solution will answer the needs.

The famous Boeing “diamond” diagram shows the same approach by complementing the V-shape with a virtual mirrored V-shape which provides insights between a virtual world and a physical world. This understanding is essential when you want to implement a virtual digital twin of one of the processes/solutions.

Boeing MBE Diamond Image from a 2018 INCOSE Presentation —

The differences between systems thinking and system engineering are that we connect the virtual world with the physical world, allowing us to analyze in “an environmental-friendly manner” alternatives with the lowest environmental impact.  Systems thinking extends the stakeholders in a system engineering approach to add also environmental constraints to the solution scope.

PLM Provides the Platform to Implement Systems Thinking

The image below from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is an example of systems thinking. As you can see, it is not only about delivering a product.

Image courtesy of Ellen MacArthur Foundation —

Fellow PLM consultant and PLM Green contributor Ilan Madjar was recently quoted in a Digital Engineering article on the “Balancing Act of Sustainability”:

“With systems thinking, we consider the whole process of sourcing, manufacturing, using, and recycling a product and its components in a holistic manner.”

Systems thinking provides a more holistic approach to delivering products to the market and what happens during its whole life cycle of use. The drivers for system thinking, therefore, are not only focusing on product performance at the most economical price. We also take into account the impact on resource extraction in the world, the environmental impact during its active life with more regulations, and ultimately how to minimize the waste to the ecosystem. This means more reuse, repurposing, or recycling.

To learn more about systems thinking, I recommend this blog post from the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) on Systems Thinking and How It Can Help Build a Sustainable World: A Beginning Conversation.

PLM, when properly implemented, provides a platform that supports not only Systems Engineering but more importantly Systems Thinking over the entire lifecycle. The realization of a Systems Thinking mindset requires the foundational elements of PLM. These include considering the environmental impact of solutions and their full lifecycle. Currently we mostly focus on delivering products as efficiently as possible without considering environmental impact and downstream externalized costs.

Products as a Service Will Power the New Circular Economy

To ensure greater accountability for the product lifecycle, one of the European Green Deal targets is promoting Products as a Service (PaaS). There is already a business trend towards selling products as a service that has evolved due largely to financial benefits, more so than environmental concerns.  Ken Webster’s keynote presentation at the 2021 CIMdata PLM Roadmap & PDT Fall Conference: “In the Future You Will Own Nothing and You Will Be Happy” addressed this trend. Ken is author of the recommended reading The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows.

The concept of Product as a Service is not something that most legacy manufacturers can easily transition to. It will require them to restructure their business model and reimagine their product portfolios as part of the larger, more sustainable circular economy.

Yet, the upside is substantial to both product manufacturers and planet ecosystems if they can make the switch. Manufacturers will have greater control over their products’ lifecycle with more monetization opportunities from use of their intellectual property than just those from its original sale.

Most importantly, because they will also have ownership of its environmental impact over the entire lifecycle, the manufacturer will be incentivized to deliver product upgrades and create repairable products,  instead of consumers dumping obsolete units into the unrecyclable junk chain.

For this reason, the circular economy offers great promise to increasing sustainability. As such, it is one of the themes we are covering within the PGGA that has a dedicated page of circular economy references on our website.  Likewise, it creates many new challenges and opportunities for the PLM profession as we shall discuss next.

PLM will Enable Products as a Service

Delivering a Products as a Service requires a reliable tightly-coupled feedback loop between servicing products in the field and the research and development organization which evaluates fixes, features and upgrades. In traditional manufacturing companies, the service department is far from engineering due to historical reasons.

Image from the author Jos Voskuil —

With the digitization of our product data and processes, we can begin to connect all stakeholders related across the lifecycle. I consider supporting this type of enterprise collaboration as the most important use case of any PLM strategy and implementation. Increased levels of collaboration and data management, both inside and outside of an organization, will absolutely be required if PLM is to make a meaningful contribution to overall sustainability that is more than simply externalizing costs to others.

A few years ago, I was working with a company that wanted to increase their service revenue by providing maintenance as a service on their products on-site. The challenge they had was that the installation delivered at the customer site was performed through piecemeal projects. There was some standard equipment in their solution; however, ultimately, the project organization delivered the final result, and as a result product information was scattered all around the company in silos.

There was some resistance when I proposed creating an enterprise product information platform that would dissolve silos with aligned processes.  It would force people to work upfront in a coordinated manner by redefining internal workflows, something which always creates anxiety. Thankfully, with the increasing distribution and digitization of operations, accelerated by the pandemic, this is rarely a point of contention.

A whole new solution space of Lifecycle Sustainability Assessment Cycle is emerging that will require numerous PLM capabilities including data management, materials sourcing, BOM consolidation, configuration management, workflow collaboration, system integration, regulatory standards measurement, and KPI tracking.

Another very important example is that from my PLM Green colleague Klaus Brettschneider who recently profiled the use of PLM in tracking the carbon footprint of products in this Digital Engineering article. This may become the most important use-case of PLM to address the near-term challenge we have to attaining long-term sustainability; reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere that are fueling climate change.

Innovations Made Possible by PLM will Lay the Path to Sustainability

It is unrealistic to expect individuals, companies, industries, or entire economies to change their ways overnight. The principal challenge we face is to define a path forward to sustainability that is achievable and acceptable for all stakeholders, including product manufacturers, suppliers, investors, consumers, and government agencies.

Last year, the Boston Consultancy Group published this timely article: The Next Generation of Climate Innovation, showing different pathways for companies. The need to innovate using new technologies remains the most challenging part as in most transformations.

Image of the Climate Innovation Canvas from The Boston Consulting Group —

Across the globe, thousands of companies are working on innovating new green technologies that contribute to sustainability. These include:

  • make products and processes more energy efficient
  • find and develop new sources of renewable green energy
  • predict, monitor and track carbon footprints of products and processes
  • decarbonize entire industries and economies
  • store and transmit alternative energy supplies
  • reduce or sequester human-generated carbon emissions
  • capture naturally produced greenhouse and methane gasses
  • pioneer and deploy green manufacturing processes
  • simulate and test global geoengineering technologies as solutions
  • decompose and reuse assets, materials, and natural resources
  • minimize or mitigate the damage to infrastructures from extreme weather events
  • innovate new methods to grow and distribute food that is less wasteful
  • design apparel and footwear that is more environmentally friendly to avoid the dumpster

In the coming months the topical moderators within the PLM Green Global Alliance will be examining many of these innovations and applications in our posts, events, and discussion forums. We have already begun to discuss examples, case studies, and references on the PLM Green website under resources and in our past news and events.

It’s the Ideal Time to be Part of the PLM Profession

It is hard to imagine a more important and timely use of PLM than in its application to power the innovation required to transition to a more sustainable economy. For myself and my fellow PLM Green contributors and participants around the world, it is rapidly becoming a most motivating and rewarding time to be part of this movement.

At whatever stage of your career you may be in, we invite you to join us here on LinkedIn and help make a difference!

Jos Voskuil, PLM Green Global Alliance Co-Founder  

1 thought on “The Intersection of PLM and Sustainability

  1. Jos Voskuil – Amersfoort NL – As an independent PLM consultant I am focusing on bringing modern PLM to mid-market companies. A mission based on experiences from all around the world, working with the big enterprises but also very small mid-market companies. It is the human side that interests me the most ...
    Jos Voskuil on said:

    And more to come in the upcoming weeks when we will discuss with several PLM vendors their sustainability efforts – internally and for their customers. Stay tuned !

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