Manufacturing is an industry that has been around for centuries. It is an industry that has seen a lot of change, and it is an industry that will continue to see a lot of change in the years to come. Many experts believe that the biggest change that manufacturing will see in the years to come is the adoption of digital transformation technologies. PLM software vendors see themselves as leaders in supporting industrial companies in their digital transformation strategies. The world of “digital” comes in the context of many discussions between manufacturing companies and vendors. All vendors are actively promoting digital transformation technologies explaining how their platforms can do their best to improve data management and process control. In my blog today, I would like to talk about different PLM system generations. More specifically, I want to talk about 3 PLM generations – 1/ Database; 2/ Web API; 3/ Web Services. I’d like to compare what is common and what is different between these three generations. We will also discuss some of the benefits that digital transformation can bring to the manufacturing industry.
Cloud-Native Platforms: From Data Silos to Information Flows
In my earlier article, A post monolithic PLM world – moving from systems to data, I discussed how the shift in PLM system implementations is moving from a specific data management system (or PLM platform) and data ownership into how to handle data, data handover and how to ensure the companies are optimizing their information flow, instead of focusing on what system owns a specific piece of information. Industrial examples are confirming that companies are looking at how to manage information and extract more value from the data. Also, companies are notoriously allergic to the idea of using “a single platform”, or how Gartner analysts called it “the vendor black hole” and moving into systems (or services) capable to ensure data augmentations between multiple systems and services.
While everyone agrees about the focus on data, when it comes to vendors’ specific technologies, platforms, capabilities, and architectures, you can hear less agreement about how the problem can be solved. One of the main reasons is that established PLM vendors own a majority of the existing PLM market and are not excited about making their legacy PLM platforms obsolete.
According to Gartner’s prediction, 15-20% of the PLM market will switch to cloud-native PLM systems and all vendors are looking at how their existing legacy and newly acquired (or developed) platforms can support such a goal. CIMdata, the leading PLM analytical company published research where they see 66% of large industrial companies are looking at how to replace their legacy platforms with new cloud-based technologies.
RDBMS based PLM
The first generation of PLM systems was born at the time when SQL-based database management systems were used as a core foundation of enterprise software. All enterprise data management systems were adopting SQL database management systems to store data and scale their operation. A typical architecture of such systems was a centralized database that stored all information for a company. On top of that, the PLM system had either 2-tier or 3-tier architecture providing a mostly rich-client experience to the customers. The systems like Siemens Teamcenter are taking their roots in this architecture. These systems usually provide very limited API access and traditionally have limited interoperability that in many ways can be compensated by direct access to SQL database by everyone who needs the data.
Web-based PLM and Web API
The adoption of the first generation of web-based applications, web servers-based architecture, and browser support kicked the new generation of PLM platforms. Although these systems were still using an SQL-based foundation, their web infrastructure allowed this platform to be more scalable and adapted to new web technologies, environments, and scales. Some of the existing mature PLM platforms were born at that time. With some differences in architecture and data management capabilities, systems like Aras, MatrixOne, and Windchill are all belonging to this group of PLM platforms.
Web-based systems play a big role in the foundation of reliable APIs (Application Programming Interface) allowing for standardization using different technologies over time. If you break that down word by word, you can get a pretty good grasp of what API means. API is an interface that is used to program software to interact with the application. In practice, an API is “a set of functions and procedures” that allow you to access and build upon the data and functionality of an existing application.
Nowadays, we are mostly talking about Web APIs, which allow us to expose the data and functionality over web communication. APIs are everywhere these days and are used by all web-based applications (browser-based, mobile, and hybrid). We used them everywhere – to log in o FB, for streaming Amazon Video movies and booking apartments on Airbnb.
Technically speaking, web APIs usually send data back and forth using HTTP requests. These requests often return textual data in the form of a JSON or XML response.
PLM platforms provide a variety of Web APIs to connect to their resources (mostly databases) to perform data load, extraction, and other functions.
Web Services and Multi-Tenant Platforms
Here is the last stop – web services and online platforms. What are web services and how is it different from other earlier web-based platforms? The simplest definition – Web service is a resource that is made available over the internet. It requires a network and following W3C standards from a technical standpoint. A web service is a software service that is designed to support interoperable interaction (human or machine based) over the network. It has an interface that follows W3C standards (these days mostly RESTful) but goes to their foundation to SOAP and other SOA standards.
Although web APIs and web services have a lot of things in common, they are not mutually exclusive. Technically, every web service is a web API, but not every Web API is a service. The definition of web service is more restrictive and it assumes that Web service must be online and Web services offer a specific set of data that can be used for specific needs.
While API is an interface that allows you to build your application or perform the data exchange, web service is a network-based resource for a specific task (eg. visualization, managing files, storage, etc. ).
How does it come in the context of PLM platform development and digital transformation? Web-based platforms are typically single-tenant applications serving the needs of a single company. They are not available online and cannot be used by other systems transparently. The PLM industry is just coming to the idea of web services, typically represented by multi-tenant platforms capable to service customers or other applications.
The difference between Web-based PLM systems and Web-service providers is still fuzzy, but within time will become more visible as more PLM web service providers will become available online (via different PaaS and SaaS solutions) and will allow industrial companies to build their future solutions. This is how these web services will support future digital transformation strategies for industrial companies.
Digital transformation is not a single event. It is a process that will bring a set of web services available for industrial companies to support their needs in managing data and organization of information flows and processes for the companies and across multiple companies. During the transformation process, legacy PLM platforms will disappear and gradually will be replaced with a new series of online web service providers. To imagine how it can work, you can think about a rich set of web services online today available to support a variety of online activities – driving, e-commerce, online booking, finance, and many others. Manufacturing companies are still exploring web service opportunities, but some of them (eg. one-click manufacturing service providers) are starting to come close to the reality of providing online manufacturing services for customers and other industrial companies. Just my thoughts…