PLM is far from the sexiest acronym floating around the Internet these days. Short for Product Lifecycle Management, PLM is often thought of as an esoteric offshoot of the equally obscure PDM, or Product Design Management – the way engineers track control technical data related to a particular product.

PLM is like PDM on steroids, extending the concept to cover “the entire lifecycle of a product from its conception, through design and manufacture, to service and disposal,” as Wikipedia puts it. If you haven’t heard of PLM, don’t feel bad. The category hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But Autodesk thinks cloud computing can change all that.

At yesterday’s Autodesk Media Summit in San Francisco, the awesomely named Robert “Buzz” Kross, senior VP of design, lifecycle and simulation, acknowledged that “PLM does not have a great history.” The 10-year-old market, he acknowledged, “is still fundamentally immature.” But he claimed that Autodesk PLM 360, which launched late last month, leverages the cloud to finally help PLM fulfill its promise to the enterprise.

I’m no engineer, and maybe that’s why the pitch impressed me. Kross said PLM 360 is specifically designed to go beyond PDM’s engineering focus and bring together all aspects of a product lifecycle, including supply chains, quality management, facilities and so on – and on all platforms. Kross added that it works with existing enterprise business models and practices, and installations take days, not months. And unlike traditional PLM, he said, the cloud makes it relatively simple to set up trial installations.

But as is often the case, the cloud’s biggest impact comes in rewriting the cost-benefit equation. According to Kross, a typical PLM installation can approach $5 million in the first year. PLM 360 clocks in under $300,000. Even if the product can’t match traditional functionality, cutting costs by an order of magnitude can open up the category to many more potential customers and use cases.

PLM may never be sexy, but as with other business applications from CRM to ERP, moving to the cloud can help make it dramatically easier and more affordable. I can’t judge how PLM 360 compares with traditional PLM solutions from vendors like Siemens PLM, Oracle, Dassault Systèmes, SAP and others. But assuming Kross’ price comparison is valid, even “good enough” and much cheaper can be a game changer.

fredric paul