TECHNOLOGY FOCUS, 22 Aug. 2012. Product lifecycle management software tools are evolving to meet rising volumes of software and requirements-based testing standards. The increased volume of software in aerospace and defense applications has created a demand for software that can trace software problems back to their source and make way for product lines based on similar hardware and different software.
As project requirements change and the level of software involved in military and aerospace systems increase, project lifecycle management (PLM) tools are facing changes as they attempt to provide companies with improved efficiency and more closely integrated applications.
Designing electronics for military and aerospace applications has become fast-paced compared to the days when project development could take decades or longer. Now, new product versions can be released every year or even sooner. While some projects still have decade-or-longer development times, this increase in overall development speed has made the desire for product lifecycle management (PLM) tools rise.
In addition to changes happening more quickly, the increased volume of software in military and aerospace electronics has created a demand for programs that can trace software problems back to their source and allow for product lines based on similar hardware but with different software and vice versa.
Product lifecycle management applications assist projects by organizing information and allowing access to it in a way that is useful for the people involved in a project. The tools that are used today help the designers of a product all the way from conception to manufacturing.
"You could say the defense world is a bit pragmatic because of the compliancy and audits." says Arsenin Rodriguez, director of business consulting at Infor in Enschede, The Netherlands. "What happened in the past, they grew over time using multiple apps, multiple systems. They created islands of automation; finding things was hard and complex. What the industry is looking for now is increased efficiency."
All over the industry companies are looking for ways to save time and money on systems. With a dwindling defense budget, the call for better organization and fewer mistakes is clearer than ever. The ways PLM tools have evolved to meet the demand for increased efficiency has changed just as the technology they are used to design changes.
One particular change in product lifecycle management tools is the focus on requirements-based testing and design. ""All of our customers in Aerospace and Defense have a renewed interest in requirement-based testing," says Chris Murray, vice president of business development at LDRA in San Bruno, Calif. "Requirements change over time, you need to have a way to change the requirements over time and understand the impact. The challenge has always been it's difficult to do manually. As requirements change over time it's very difficult to track that change."
In the past many companies kept track of requirements and their changes by using spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel. The problem with using a spreadsheet to track changes is the break in traceability; nobody knows when a requirement was changed or if the product has been tested to meet that requirement. For the defense and aviation industries in particular that is a problem, as auditors need proof that a product has been tested properly. Many PLM systems allow for a graphic representation of requirements and the ability to trace how they affect the design of a product, along with which standards and organization the requirement may have come from.
"Previous applications were domain specific," says Infor’s Rodriguez. "A PLM app had PLM data, and inventory app had inventory data. If you wanted to create a report that takes things together, you had to do a lot of export and load logic." The PLM tools used today are much more fully integrated with each other than the tools of the past, allowing different sections of organizations to share information more effectively.
PLM tools need to be capable of gathering and displaying information to different departments of companies that are often located in completely different areas. The goal of these applications is to allow the people involved with a product to collaborate with each other effectively. "Collaborate doesn't just mean shipping that information somewhere. It means providing the exact information to the right user," says Fernando Valera, product marketing manager for Visure Solutions in Tres Cantos, Spain.
"They might have different applications, but it's integrated. It’s application unaware," Infor’s Rodriguez explains.
These tools, since they are used by people who need to perform different tasks related to the product, need to be capable of giving each specialized group of people information that is relevant to their task while giving information to other groups that is relevant to their tasks as well. Instead of being one large repository of information, PLM tools have to sort the information in a way that it is useful to those who are using it.
The rise of software
"Many, many years ago the amount of software was very minor; there was a lot of hardware. The focus at that time was on the systems level and primarily on the hardware part of the systems level. At this point in time software is 70 percent of the system, that's a huge change," says LDRA’s Murray. "The problem with software is instead of being 100 lines of code, now it's hundreds of thousands of lines of code. The potential for software problems is immense." The amount of software involved in military and aerospace systems has been growing exponentially in the recent years, and with technology continuing to advance at such as rapid pace the volume of software in these systems is only expected to trend even higher.
The need for clear requirements and traceability is amplified by the ever-rising volume of software involved in military and aerospace electronics. "Something that's been identified is that 66 percent of the software defects can be traced back to the requirements," says Visure’s Valera. "Companies have invested in test tools; it's not only a matter of testing, but a matter of having the right requirements. Knowing from the beginning what you have to do and doing that in a way that you can guarantee straight from the start that your product will be okay. PLM tools are one of the first choices for these companies to go for, and hoping that they will solve all these problems."
Software is of critical importance for aerospace and defense systems designers. "As you look across the industry in military aerospace these systems are being driven by software. That's where the differentiation happens, that's where the growth is happening," says Chris Rommel, vice president of embedded software and hardware practices at VDC Research in Natick, Mass. "A lot of the tools that people have traditionally used on the PLM side, mechanical and hardware focused tools, can't address the software side well enough."
In the past, when changing a system meant swapping the hardware involved, PLM tools were less complicated. Now that military and aerospace systems have huge amounts of software, companies must be able to trace errors from lines of code to certain requirements, and from requirements to specific lines of code. The ability to identify what is causing problems enables companies to quickly eliminate bugs from their systems.
Product line development
"The older systems had quite a challenge actually creating product lines," says Infor’s Rodriguez. "What you'd really like to do as a developer is re-use requirements, code, and tests. A lot of requirement tools didn't do that very well." With technology advancing at a rapid pace, the ability to produce a new version of a product by adding in the latest and greatest components is a boon that PLM tools offer. Without specialized tools, the software, requirements and tests would need to be gathered from several different programs. By allowing companies to produce product lines in fewer steps, PLM tools reduce the chance of errors being added to products.
In addition the ability to create new product lines by adding upgraded hardware to existing software, adding new software to existing hardware can create a new product as well. "The companies that are using software to provide quick added value features in the product are now seeing the possibilities to release products based on different software." Says Visure’s Valera.
"I would say the most significant evolution isn't so much each individual tool and what is added," says LDRA’s Murray. "What I see more is each of those tools, the integrated development environments themselves, have integrated those different tools together. It's fairly easy to integrate with a tool and do a manual exchange of data, it's much more difficult for tools to be more deeply integrated."
What in the past was a series of loosely related tools has evolved into the overarching PLM tools that exist today. While the overall system may consistent of several different applications, or one application that allows for different views based on an individual’s role in product development, each individual tool or view is now closely integrated with the others.
Not only are PLM tools provided by PLM designers becoming more closely integrated, some companies are integrating other company’s specialized tools with their own PLM tools for complex scenarios. "Something we are doing is integrating with PLM tools, it's necessary if you have this backbone," explains Visure’s Valera. "The complexity of the situation and the specific needs of a company may demand a very specialized set of tools in each one of the areas even though these tools are provided in some extent in the PLM tools."
The sooner a problem is found, the less costly it is to fix it. In an effort to prevent problems from getting too far down the development path, PLM tools offer several methods of quality control to their users.
With all the advances PLM tools have made, bad information -- whether it be a lack of detail or incorrectly phrased requirements -- still can cause a lot of problems. Some PLMS, such as the Visure Solutions IRQA, enforce quality control when requirements are placed in the system. "The requirements need to be high quality, you will not be able to introduce ambiguity in the requirements., explains Visure’s Valera. "It flags low quality requirements so those elements do not get to lower levels in the development."
Not only are requirements watched closely, but the introduction of software complexity levels makes sure code does not become an indecipherable mess. "Most PLMs are more concerned about what happens downstream, and integrating software with hardware," says LDRA’s Murray. "What's been missing is integrating all those disciplines together across the actual construction and analysis of software. They want to make sure that the complexity of the software is within the threshold of their complexity metrics."
Software complexity metrics measure things such as cohesion, cyclomatic complexity, program load time, and a number of different metrics. These measurements help designers know whether there is too much software for a system, or if the coding practices can be improved. These measurements are not just taken at certain times, they are performed both statically, before the software is run, and actively, while the software is running.
The future of PLM tools
While PLM tools have become more sophisticated and encompass more aspects of the product lifecycle, there are still areas that are rarely covered by PLM tools. "There are a lot more people participating in the decision process, so the definition phase is becoming a key activity in the process," says Visure’s Valera. "I would expect PLM tools to reach the decision process in the future. This aspect is something only specialized tools do right now."
With such complex software, PLM tools are still working on becoming fully integrated. PLM tools may be head and shoulders above the tools used a decade ago, but the task of integrating tools that are so wildly different is a difficult one. "The overall product is recognizing that it's not as good as it needs to be in many of the various aspects as the whole process that they manage," says Visure’s Valera. "One of the things that is difficult to tell is that this software is so incredibly complex that, although it is a backbone, there are huge amounts of improvement that need to be done with how the various components work together."
The future of PLM tools is also based on the human component of systems. "People need to know how to use these products as well," says VDC’s Rommel. "You have an overarching need for training. People that are trained 30 years ago, 20 years ago, their ability to change is very much handcuffed by the legacy of their engineering organization. Assets are imperfect or tied to legacy processes, and many different legacy systems that make real change hard. It's an industry that's like moving mountains."
In an industry where standards last for such long periods of time, and where problems occurring in a project can cost millions or even billions of dollars, training people to use improved systems has become a problem, and many organizations are set in their ways. "You can go into some of the largest contracting organizations and you will still find folks pulling up their spreadsheets to check their requirements," says LDRA’s Murray.
Just as with any other change, eventually PLM tools will become more heavily integrated into companies and design practices will change with them. For the tools themselves, constant improvement coming from design and hardware is expected to pave the way.
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