What PLM technology can connect virtual and physical worlds?

We live in a physical world. Everything in this world seems to be created in a parallel, virtual space. This space is in our heads, in the computer systems we use to design this physical world, and in the global enterprise systems that manufacture, support, and dispose things in this physical world. Certainly, there is a connection between these worlds that we can discover and use. But how? I’m sure this is a long journey. In this post, I will think out loud about some possible technologies that are available or emerging today to help us to establish this connection.

Practically, to create links we need to establish two elements of connection – (1) stable identification system; (2) technology for keeping the identification of this information.

Identification system

Probably the best resource identification system today is the URI based system from which the Internet was founded. There is some interesting research that I found in the area of creation of persistent unified resource locators (PURL). Such a system can be potentially adopted to indentify virtual objects. This system eventually can be used to enhance identification of today’s virtual models created with CAD/PDM/PLM and other manufacturing systems. On the physical side, technologies like RFID cards, QR (Quick Response) codes and smartcards can be the most common.

 Proxy objects

These identification technologies can be connected together by proxy objects. Information on the virtual side can be organized in the various cloud services and locations as an organized network of virtual objects describing everything that has been designed, manufactured and has existed. Now, on the physical side, various technologies (cameras, RFID readers etc) can be used to scan information from physical devices. What is missing is a sufficient amount of cloud services that will allow us to store and keep track of this information online.

 This idea is a little futuristic, but considering some of the products already available, I can see that some already show ideas and prototypes for this futuristic future.  For example, an idea is the ability of created physical objects to react to their environment, –  is something I may be expand upon in  future posts.

 Below are some examples of existing development and applications that inspired me in writing this post.

 When Blobjects Rule the Earth


(Bruce Sterling, SIGGRAPH 2004, August 2004.) Bruce Sterling’s speech at SIGGRAPH 2004 describes a vision of objects that are con­nected to information related to their design, creation, and use; end-user reviews, ideas, and improvements; and where they are at all times.

 UWTeam Researches a Future Filled with RFIDChips


(Kristi Heim, The Seattle Times, 31 March 2008.) Researchers at the University of Washington are exploring the positive and negative aspects of using RFID tags to track the movements of people in a social setting — by tracking them­selves.

 Home-Based Health Platform


Researchers at the University of Florida are developing an ambient system to measure a person’s vital signs as he or she enters the house, transmitting the information to family or doctors, as a way of monitoring at-risk individuals or the elderly.

 And one more… The book (Shaping Things) by Bruce Sterling influenced me to  think differently about the  world in which we design, manufacture and live today. While Bruce is indeed a futuristic writer, a lot of good ideas in this world originated in futuristic writing. I hope you will enjoy the following interview with Bruce about his concept of SPIMES- virtual and physical objects:  


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  • Alec Gil

    Hmm, interesting topic. I will bring the discussion to a perhaps more pragmatic problem I’ve been thinking about at my company. Soon we will be changing our DNC system. I’d like to propose a solution where the product fabrication requirements, generated by our ERP system, will exhibit themeselves in a form of a bar code presented at particular CNC Work Center. After the bar code is scanned, the system will automatically download the relevant Machine Code, which we manage in our PLM system, to the Work Center. Quite a few details still need to be worked out, but this is one practical example of what you are writing about.

  • Alec, Thanks for such good example. Make sense.
    Can you just clarify – what is DNC?
    Regards -Oleg.

  • Interesting! I have a couple of thoughts:

    a. You describe a system where the artefact and the information about that artefact are geographically separate. I’m sure there are circumstances where it’d be better to keep the data on the artefact fact itself (on a chip, perhaps, or even written!), making the need for a stable and consistent identification system and a connection to the data less critical.

    b. Tagging artefacts helps greatly with identification, but tagging is generally only possible at the start of the artefact’s life. For the foreseeable future the world will be full of things which haven’t been tagged.

    We’ve been playing using a 3D scanner and our shape search technology to identify objects. It’s for a particular application where there’s a whole bunch of spare parts (accumulated over several decades), no-one really knows what they are, but there are some 3D models. It’s never going to be as reliable as tagging as a way to identify the parts, but where that’s not available it’s better than nothing.

    Being futuristic, I can imagine walking around in a foreign country wearing a pair of glasses which recognise objects and label them with what they’re called in the relevant language!

    As an aside, I’ve been told Dyson colour parts on their vacuum cleaners in such a way that identifying spare parts is easy (they can ask the customer ‘is the red bit or the yellow bit broken?’).

  • Andrew,
    I liked your examples. The case with spare parts, I think, is very realistic for maintenance and repair. With regards to tagging- I’m not sure tagging will survive as technology, but something “connected” for sure need to come.
    And… about “pair of glasses”- wait few more days- I’m writing about something similar.

  • Hi Oleg,

    I believe the acronym is “direct numerical control”. It is software used to download cutter location programs to machine tools.


  • Tom, i think you are right.

    “direct numerical control” – this is more about CNC networking. I see wikipedia explains it as “networking CNC machine tools” allows to optimize programming loading in NC machines.

    Alec, is it what are planning to do?

    Regards, Oleg

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