Who Will Disrupt Entrenched PLM Vendors?


What I learned this week … came from some discussions with Chris Williams yesterday about my blog post SAP – Too Much, or Too Little Credit for PLM? in combination with a conversation over breakfast with Oleg, author of PLMTwine. In both conversations I kept hearing about who is going to disrupt the big PLM vendors (Dassault Systemes, PTC, Siemens PLM). Maybe I am just a small thinker, but there seems to be a lot more talk about disruption than actual disrupting going on. Time to share my thoughts, with the expectation that I might be eating my own words on this very blog over the next couple of years.

Disrupting Giants

Maybe it is my jaded view, but I don’t see technology being the disruptor to PLM. I have drawn as many “waves of technology” charts as the next guy, and discussed how difficult it is for vendors to move from one technology to the next big wave. But two things have happened:

  • Enterprise software companies have managed to gain significant scale
  • Vendors have gotten smarter at riding waves of technology

Already I am sure there are people disagreeing. Let me share my experience.

The Technology Wave Argument

Let’s start with the technology waves. Who will out-technology the big vendors. Will it be a SaaS play like Arena Solutions? Will it be open source like Aras? Or a brand new technology, like Chris William’s Vuuch? Or a more generalized infrastructure technology like Microsoft SharePoint? Or the king of disruption (they are disrupting everybody, I think I heard the words “disruption” and “Google” at breakfast with Oleg more times than I orderd another cup of coffee (that is saying a lot).

OK, let me share some history that I lived through (maybe you have too). In the ERP world, many players have come and gone. Some have crashed and burned due to their own mismanagement, some have become obsolete in technology and withered away, and others tried and failed trying to migrate to new technology. So why doesn’t this happen to the current largest enterprise software vendor, SAP? Long ago, SAP burst onto the scense with Client-Server architecture with R/3. But truth be told, that transition was a slow and deliberate one. Since that time they have moved their technology along several times. Each time slowly, methodically, and never scrapping the old solution and going for broke on the new one. Countless others tried to grab the brass ring and jump to a new architecture, and drove their companies into the ground.

So while some get frustrated by slow evolution of architecture by big PLM vendors, I say they are being prudent. They are moving deliberately. Some say that will be their downfall. I say slow evolution is the best practice they learned from SAP’s success in ERP. I have heard the “we are going to make SAP (or Oracle, or whatever) obsolete pitch hundreds of times. Some from really great ideas and technologies. But where are they now? Part of the answer lies in the next section.

The Benefit of Scale

The key question in disrupting giants is what can you do that they can’t respond to? What can you where they can’t buy or build their way to the next generation? Particularly when most vendors are several steps ahead of the majority of their customers? Current vendors need to show a vision and a path, but revolution is pretty scary to most of the manufacturs they count as customers. As Oleg points out, and here I agree, one thing they can’t compete with is “free.” But I do not forsee the day that there will be an effort of the scale it takes to develop a full, integrated, PLM system. That is not just technology – it is data model and process as well. Let’s face it, this stuff is complex. But here is the thing. If one of these technologies gets hot, won’t the vendors with scale just acquire it? We are not talking about a solution with the broad interest and potential of word processing (Google Docs) or a brand new idea like social networking (Facebook, etc.). Who except a major enterprise player would invest in disrupting the PLM market? Who would find that investment appealing?

So is it SAP PLM? Or Oracle with their Agile solutions? They have the scale, do they have the will? Is PLM an interesting enough market that they will invest enough to compete with best-of-breed? Realizing, of course, that they have the advantage of their installed base in hand? Perhaps? But I don’t see this happening overnight. I believe the big ERP vendors will get to a level where they can compete, but the big PLM vendors have enough scale to stay ahead. SAP and Oracle will be players in the market, but I don’t think they will own it.

Bottom Line

Will their be acquisitions? Mergers? Sure. The names may change (I didn’t expect UGS to become Siemens PLM), but the assets (software and customer base) are large enough to live in. In my opinion. Unless they fall to their own mistakes, I don’t see a sudden displacement coming. I hope that I am not eating these words at some point, but if I should I will. But that is the way I see it.

Implications for Manufacturers

Buy the solution that works for you. Invest in it. Markets move slowly and software takes a long time to go away. Focus on the solution that meets your business needs, and that you feel you can grow with. Buy a solution that will fit the direction of your PLM vision. Keep an eye on new technologies and see where you can apply them. But I wouldn’t lose too much sleep about disruption right about now.

So have I just grown closed minded? Have I always been a small thinker and I just didn’t know it? Or am I making some sense? I hope you found it interesting. Let me know what it looks like from your vantage point.