VACCO Industries’ PLM implementation helps keep satellites and spaceships in orbit

Get five tips on how to ensure a successful PLM implementation from VACCO Industries, maker of engineering solutions for space and defense programs.

a rover traversing Mars

Erin Hanson

April 22, 2022

min read
  • Product lifecycle management refers to an all-in-one digital solution to track CAD drawings, bills, cost controls, and other data points.

  • By tracking data all in one place, stakeholders can see the value and ROI of an efficient PLM system.

  • Get tips on how to successfully implement PLM to improve your company’s processes.

If your company designs and manufactures parts for the Mars Curiosity rover or U.S. Navy submarines, you want to be fairly certain (okay, absolutely certain) that your data, documentation, and processes are in perfect order.

It’s amazing to realize, then, that a company such as VACCO Industries—which has created specialty valves, filters, and fluid-control products for the space, defense, and commercial markets for the past 60 years—has managed most of its data and processes in decidedly low-tech fashion: with network drives and file cabinets.

But when VACCO hired Engineering Manager for Design Support Richard Noriega, both the company and Noriega knew big changes were needed. At the time, he wasn’t even considering a product lifecycle management (PLM) implementation. “I didn’t want to touch a PLM system for VACCO, because in my past experience, they were very, very expensive,” he says. “Just to improve your processes doesn’t mean I’m going to spend $1 million plus.”

What is Product Lifecycle Management?

f15 airplane
VACCO manufactures the F-15 In-Flight Refueling Receptacle for Boeing. Image courtesy of Ron Bookout/Boeing.

Beyond the cost barrier, Noriega knew that VACCO’s upper management didn’t even know what PLM meant—not uncommon among manufacturers. PLM takes product data management (PDM) to the next level by bringing traditional product data (CAD models, drawings, and so forth) into one overarching system that also tracks bills of materials, change and quality management, cost controls, suppliers, and new product launches. For a traditional company used to scanning and filing paper documents, moving to an all-in-one digital solution would likely be a nonstarter.

Although he had originally eschewed the idea of a PLM system, an introduction to Autodesk Fusion 360 Manage changed his mind. The most important factor in that shift was cost: For a relatively low startup investment, Noriega was able to literally show management that Fusion 360 Manage could be the solution for all business functions. “I was able to configure workspaces and then demonstrate the actual transactions and how the business works,” he says. “By showing how we can tailor it to their functions of the business, more and more buy-ins started.”

But with the buy-ins came Noriega’s next monumental task: solidifying his PLM implementation strategy. With a small team comprising himself and a few business partners (that is, non-IT staff), Noriega managed the implementation for 250 users—and learned a few lessons along the way.

5 tips for successful PLM implementation

Seawolf sub in the ocean
VACCO valves and manifolds operate aboard ships in the U.S. Navy fleet, including the USS Seawolf (SSN 21). U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Electric Boat Corporation by Jim Brennan.

1. Know your requirements, and define a clear project scope

Any successful exercise in project management begins with requirements and scope. For VACCO’s PLM-implementation strategy, that meant first reviewing and documenting all processes to be included in the system, such as engineering change notices and change requests. It also meant identifying what would be included in the scope and making a plan for how to execute—but that didn’t happen initially. Instead, Noriega first started building out VACCO’s PLM system based on how he thought the business should run, without any plan or schedule, and ended up with a frustrating succession of system changes.

“It’s important to build your requirements and scope up front, and then the PLM piece is easy because you’re just building toward that scope and finalizing,” Noriega says. “When you follow that process, it really fits perfectly with PLM because PLM wants you to develop your processes, know where you’re going, and then start executing.”

2. Focus on one process at a time

Noriega initially thought that he would see larger return on investment (ROI) if he implemented five processes at once, covering everything from RFPs/RFQs to new product development to document control. But with such a small implementation team, he quickly found that it was difficult to be successful with all of them at one time.

“Going back to the scope and the requirements, if you don’t spend enough time to get that right, you’re not really taking advantage of evaluating your processes; you’re just building stuff,” Noriega says. “You’re not saving any time by taking five projects at the same time as opposed to doing it one at a time and doing it correctly.

“Doing requirements for a large process would take a month,” he continues. “But if you have a year scale, you can get five done successfully and effectively if you take them one at a time. And your stakeholders will like it better because you’re showing progress.”

3. Stay close to your project implementers before and after launch

The lesson here comes down to you being the champion of your business needs as the PLM system is built and implemented—both during and after the process is complete. Although it might make sense to engage with consultants to build and configure the system (as VACCO did with Autodesk Services Marketplace), it is up to the manager in charge to form a partnership with those consultants to ensure the project doesn’t veer off in the wrong direction.

cyclone helicopter
VACCO qualified the Jettison Shut-off Valve for the CH-148 Cyclone. Image courtesy of Royal Canadian Air Force/Corporal True-dee McCarthy, 12 Wing Imaging Services, Shearwater, N.S.

“Contractors don’t necessarily understand your business, so they tend to implement what they think you want, but only you know what you really want,” Noriega says. “Stay focused with them, have a clear scope, and really embed yourself in the process because Fusion 360 Manage is configurable enough to go in any direction. And you want to make sure you’re controlling that direction.”

4. Know the level of Your maintenance requirements

Fusion 360 Manage is based in the cloud, which appealed to Noriega. A cloud-based system meant less internal infrastructure to support it, so those closer to the business functions (Noriega and team) could run the implementation, not IT. But any enterprise-level system needs customizations and integrations to fully support the needs of the business, and manufacturers don’t necessarily have the in-house expertise to support changes, upgrades, and other factors that might affect the integrity of those customizations.

“You need to have that expertise in house in order to understand what it is, or you need to have that support [from a consultant] that’s able to understand it,” Noriega says. “So if this does break, who are you going to call, and how are you going to get this fixed? You have to talk to your suppliers and vendors on how much they are willing to support these implementations.”

maven space satellite in orbit
NASA’s MAVEN satellite contains VACCO parts in its propulsion system. Image courtesy of NASA.

5. Demonstrate PLM ROI to your organization

It’s a no-brainer that upper management is going to want to see ROI on any PLM system. But Noriega advises that this ROI isn’t always a strict dollar value: Rather than asking if the business is recouping the money spent, ask if the business is running better. With PLM, he’s able to provide a visual representation of how the business is doing and how projects are progressing.

“When a manager walks up to a monitor and now can visualize the entire business and see how healthy we really are, that was never done before,” Noriega says. “How do you put a value to that? Are we actually operating more effectively? I see that we are because we have more visibility, we have more integrity, and we are using the PLM processes on how we claim we run our business—because they’re embedded into the system. You can see it will become a dollar-value amount because you’re building better products.”

This article has been updated. It was originally published in March 2016.

Erin Hanson

About Erin Hanson

Erin Hanson is Design & Make with Autodesk’s managing editor and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She loves music, food, wine, and grammar (not necessarily in that order).

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