March 29, 2017
AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” filled the ballroom of Nashville’s Loews Vanderbilt Hotel as attendees of ACE 2017 USA filtered in on the morning of March 21 for the three-day event. Rock music at 8 a.m. in the home of the Grand Ole Opry? It’s not what many attendees expected at a PLM (product lifecycle management) conference, but a bit of disruption to the norm is part of Aras Corporation’s vision for PLM.
Since 2007, Aras Innovator’s source code has been available as open-source software. Anyone can download it and try it out, and even modify the application themselves without fear that an update to a future release will break what they’ve built. The company makes money when users subscribe for technical support, software updates, and other consulting. It’s an interesting approach to the old problem of PLM implementations inevitably being customized to fulfill the specific needs of an end user, only to have those customizations gum up the works when the software vendor releases an update. Aras encourages users to modify and share their customizations via its online community.
“We are on fire, the company, since about 2013-2014 has been growing,” said Aras CEO Peter Schroer during his ACE 2017 keynote presentation in front of a slide showing a 51% compound annual growth rate. “I gotta say ... it’s because of you guys. The community is pushing us to continue to expand the product, build the scalability, build out the partner community so we can cover you everywhere. I would say the switch to open source, the opening up of everything we do — it’s an experiment and it’s played out perfectly.”
A CEO touting his company’s go-to-market strategy is to be expected, but Aras has steadily announced new PLM customers in what has traditionally been a staid market. It counts GM, Schaeffler Group, GE, Boeing, Airbus, Microsoft, Hitachi and Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding among its customers. A big reason for the traction in an area where companies are reluctant to make expensive, time-consuming and complicated moves to another company’s PLM solution is because they don’t have to. Aras Innovator can be layered onto existing data management solutions to complement and augment them.
It’s a strategy that makes sense as digitalization efforts promise to disrupt many industries.
“When we talk to customers at the VP-level, C-level, they don’t quite understand change management, they don’t understand CAD too well, but everybody at the C-level is taking about the ‘three DTs:’ the digital thread, the digital twin, and then the digital transformation,” Schroer said.
PLM to Keep Digital Transformation Under Control
Digital transformation is coming faster than previous product design and development shakeups.
“We had literally decades to get used to the rollout of 2D CAD and then 3D CAD,” he said. “What that means is—as we software vendors were bringing you new technology in CAD, specifically—you had time to build control systems. CAD allows you to go faster, you need better control systems to make sure you don’t get out of control. What happened is the acceleration from what was purely mechanical … to electronics, the software, the systems of systems … the timescale has been very very short.”
The quickly increasing complexity of products and systems is driving the need for improved controls. It’s driving the need for a digital thread that works in both directions as well as digital twins for specific products, which in turn results in Big Data needed to enable the digital transformation.
“So are we ready for that? No, the control systems are not there yet,” Schroer said.
What Schroer called a “lightbulb moment” was when industry analysts Gartner, IDC and CIMdata made statements about PLM not being an application anymore, but something that should be thought of as a platform.
“A platform: I like that, so let’s make that the next stage of the Aras journey,” he said.
Aras defines a PLM platform as an open, resilient, flexible suite of applications so that it has the ability to support customer data and processes over a long time (decades, in many cases), have a reasonable cost, and be able to support change. “As you think about platform, none of you should be thinking about ‘How do I replace 100 IT systems … all at one time,’” Schroer said. “We tried that 20 years ago ... It’s too big, you can’t do it all at once. As we think about our platform here, we have to think about doing something that is iterative. I think the digital transformation is very much a journey. It’s steps. It’s got to be iterative.”
Aras customers and partners took the stage and led breakout sessions over then next three days to share how they’re making that journey or making it possible.
Prospective customers I spoke to who are in the trial mode seemed to buy into the open platform idea of connecting multiple systems into something easier to use. “I compare it to navigation,” said one engineer lead scoping out Aras Innovator at the conference. “Years ago, to get from point A to point B, you had to know how to read a map, find where you are and where you’re going, decide on the best route ... Now you push a button on your phone. I want my engineers to have that kind of experience with PLM.