Business applications vendor SAP has laid out the future path for its product lifecycle management (PLM) software over the next three-plus years.

Once the domain of a company's engineering department, PLM tools are now in use across organisations to help them better track the development of products as well as to document and support those development processes.

Project lifecycle management is already a significant business for SAP and the company currently has around 5,500 customers using its SAP PLM software, according to Hans Thalbauer, vice president of PLM solution management at SAP.

Users are looking to do more with their PLM software, particularly the ability to draw upon information held in other applications such as ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management), SRM (supplier relationship management) and SCM (supply chain management).

At the same time the competitive landscape is heating up. Oracle, SAP’s main applications rival, announced in May plans to acquire PLM specialist Agile Software for $495 million. It’s a way for Oracle to get more serious about the technology given that its own PLM offering only attracted a small number of customers. Other companies that have recently made major investments in PLM companies include German industrial giant Siemens and its $3.5 billion purchase of UGS and the acquisition by computer-aided design (CAD) software vendor Dassault Systèmes of MatrixOne for $408 million.

Customers told SAP they want PLM to be more flexible and so the vendor decided to apply a page of its ERP playbook to SAP PLM, Thalbauer said. In September 2006, SAP committed to keeping the current version of its ERP software, mySAP ERP 2005, in place through 2010 and provide new functionality through optional enhancement packages instead of upgrading the entire software release every year or so. SAP will take this same approach for PLM going forward, providing regular extensions to the software, which customers can then choose whether or not to adopt and at what point they take on particular new functionalities, he added.

The first PLM enhancements will appear by year-end with new processes for portfolio planning. Then in 2008, SAP plans to simplify the software’s user interface and tailor the display of information to reflect the role of the individual accessing that data, Thalbauer said. There’ll also be work to provide more contextual information, he added. For instance, after changing a component in a product design, an engineer would be able to easily view data such as the inventory on hand for components and the locations of suppliers for those components.

As well as working on new products in-house, many companies collaborate with external partners and PLM software needs to better facilitate that usage too. Capabilities to enable collaboration on a global basis will appear next year, Thalbauer said.

Coming in 2009 will be the ability for users to centrally manage all their product-specific information including ideas, designs and requirements and then move that data around the company. An enhancement package due out in 2010 will help companies bring in real-world information from products already out in the field labelled with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, barcodes or other sensors to help in the design of new offerings.