Demystifying Aras Innovator

Demystifying Aras Innovator, or, The Zen and Art of PLM Customization

In one of my all-time favorite books, The Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the late Robert Pirsig discussed how tinkering with his motorcycle led him to ponder philosophy and achieve a level of zen in his otherwise chaotic life. The idea of tinkering and customizing in the PLM world is usually synonymous with upgrade problems, long production outages, and the increase in overall deployment complexity. In this article, I want to talk about how Aras Innovator seems to have found some answers to this age-old PLM issue making customization easy, flexible, powerful and painless.

Aras has a consistent reputation as the most promising of the small PLM vendors and they have publicly stated that their pretension of challenging or even joining the Big Three PLM vendors: Dassault Systèmes, Siemens-PLM and PTC. They have had some big splash successes at GE, Schaeffler, BMW, and Audi, but how have they done it and what is the special sauce that some customers are so excited about? 

Aras provides much of their Innovator solution on the internet at no charge to the customer.  This includes the core of PLM Change Management and other PLM focus areas. They use an Open Source model so anyone can download the compiled libraries by requesting a license online.  End-users are then welcomed as part of the "Community" and are able to provide open source apps and code development which enhance the product to suit their own needs.  As part of the community, these are available for everyone to share and add their own enhancements. Becoming a subscriber entitles access to the Aras source code as well as free end-user training (at a training facility or online), advanced support with hotline access, upgrades (performed by Aras even on highly customized deployments), and for subscriber-only features like integrations with external software (CAD, ERP, etc) as documented here: https://www.aras.com/services. This unique offering on the PLM market oftentimes leads corporate PLM teams to do some internal research and to cost-effectively start a pilot for test driving and customizing Aras as a customized Proof of Concept. The net result is that they are often more than satisfied with what they find and at this point they contact Aras and get a quote for the subscription service and its additional benefits. Occasionally, there will be sticker shock which will turn the customer back to the Big Three, but often the cost is seen as compensated by the pace and agility at which Aras can be deployed as well as the reduction the total cost of ownership due to the ease of customization and upgrades. In fact, since the internal teams have already customized Aras in the way most suited to their business, the time from product discovery to GoLive takes typically 30-50% less time than with the Big Three.

The thing that makes Aras so attractive is clearly the ease of customizing using the modeling solution with Innovator. Similar to how Pirsig loved his old greasy toolbox for touching up his old motorcycle, Aras is delivered more or less as a toolkit. Featuring the Open XML Modeling Engine layer for business objects including a completely open framework for creating business logic, modeling any specific data model, any number of bills of materials, any conceivable change process, and any possible business process in general is simple and upgradable with Aras. I spoke with customers and partners of Aras and found that on average, a full customization and deployment takes from several weeks to just three months because the modeling is so flexible. Also, the use of Microsoft .Net means that any number of young programmers can start immediately without needing to learn esoteric C++ or proprietary languages such as MQL. Better yet, the customization being contained in these XML files shields it from being overwritten or deleted during upgrades and patching. The time from finished pilot to Go Live was instantaneous according to all the people I talked to. Combine this with the open Web Services SOA Framework for integrating external programs and data, and you have a potent combination.

This may sound too good to be true, but it seems to hold up to scrutiny. Many people I spoke to compared Aras Innovator to MatrixOne or before its transformation into V6 in terms of ease of modeling. In fact, several people told me that they felt that had MatrixOne evolved into 2018 rather than morphing into ENOVIA V6 and now 3DEXPERIENCE or had SmarTeam survived, they would have looked very much like Aras today. The lack of stringent business rules could create issues such as releasing a BOM before all of its members are released (this would be a showstopper for other PLM vendors), but for Aras’ customers, the ability to do practically anything they want outweighs the possibilities for making errors. As far as I could determine, there were no cases I found where a deployed Aras Innovator implementation was shelved and replaced by another competing PLM system. Once the customer chooses Aras, they tend to stick with that choice.

Time will tell if Aras can truly catch up to the Big Three, and whether it will hold up over time and scale to the enterprise. Financially, the company has had heavy investment in the last year from invest groups like Silver Lake and GE Ventures to the tune of about US $60M. Development is under way to augment the current portfolio to include requirements engineering.  In January 2018, Aras purchased Impresa Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) from Infospectrum to move into supply chain management and service lifecycle management. In late September 2018, they announced the purchase of Comet to incorporate simulation lifecycle management and start building out a full Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) solution. Perhaps a more visionary result of the combination of Aras plus Impresa MRO and Comet is the management of predictive maintenance for Digital Twins.  The technical integration strategy is "Incorporate vs Integrate" - they intend to re-write the code so that it is the same architecture as their base code.

Another innovative aspect of Aras is the streamlined licensing concept: either you run Aras for free with fixes and new releases and do all the integration on your own, or you pay a subscription fee per user (pricing varies inversely proportional to the number of users by tiers) and for that you get free upgrades, free support, subscription-only features, security upgrades and a whole host of tools. This plays well to purchasing departments looking to streamline negotiations and nit-picking over precise license counts for atomic software pieces that they pay for but may or may not use - a process that can be painful with the Big Three. This ease of purchasing and the fact that assisted upgrades and hotline support included in the subscription service are invaluable in terms of savings for PLM implementations overall. And, the thing is, it truly works this way. I talked to several customers that said that major release upgrades took less than three weeks to accomplish, so customers really feel they are getting their money’s worth.

One criticism that could be leveled against Aras is their lack of their own CAD platform. They actually see this as a strength. The aforementioned Web Services SOA Frameworks of Innovator allow for tight integration of any API or external product in any way which the customer wishes to exchange data. Now, this integration is where the freeware limits are exhausted and customers need to start paying licensing to Aras. There are naturally a suite of vendors offering integrations as well. What is required is purchasing an Aras Subscription as well as a Librarian Connector and a Connector Subscription. Since they are not partisan to one particular CAD vendor, they aim to provide equivalent support to all CAD platforms and due to the Open XML Modeling Engine, the CAD product structure is fully associable to any number of various BOM types (EBOM, MBOM, SBOM, etc) with robustness in both variants and options management and workflow. This alone bolsters their claim to belong to the PLM elite.

A powerful application of this openness is used for the Aras sales strategy of “PLM overlay.” Typically, PLM vendors perform a “rip and replace” in obliging companies (or at a minimum encouraging them) to adopt a single vendor strategy. Aras’ approach when dealing with customers that have a strong installed base and a massive sunk investment in one of the Big Three is to propose to fill in the functional gaps which have frustrated the customer in their current implementation. Since Aras is so flexible from a development point of view, this allows for them to overlay their technology to implement specific business processes and integrate them easily and transparently into existing processes and systems. This approach was key to their wins at several customers such as Airbus: see the interview on Engineering.com here: https://preview.tinyurl.com/y7p432se.

Aras does have a good partner network that customers can deal with as well including Infor, CAP Gemini, Cloudsafe, Atos-Origin, Kobelco, T-Systems and others. They have alliances with Microsoft Azure and IBM for cloud-hosting services as well. One Aras partner I spoke with, Leon Lauritsen, VP & Partner of Minerva (https://minerva-plm.com), told me that “having been a partner of Aras for more than 10 years, the development and progression we have seen from Aras and the customer successes we have been able to deliver have made for a very interesting journey. The recent years wins against the traditional Big Three PLM players is proof about Aras and Minerva’s capabilities and we see an exciting and profitable future ahead of us."

So, if this is all so great, why are they not in the Big Three? Well, they are relatively new in PLM, coming to a market where the Big Three already have massive presence across the many industries where Product Lifecycle Management and its many spinoffs are required. Larger companies tend to wish to deal with other large software vendors, and Aras remains a small company itself. Also, Aras Innovator, being exclusively based on Microsoft technology, has not been deployed for a full implementation for a multi-thousands of users type of global, enterprise deployment and thus enterprise scalability has not been fully proven. That being said, in one of the larger selection processes in Europe (Dräger), Aras was selected instead of the Big Three for a full-blown PLM scope (https://www.aras.com/news/press-releases/2018/09/drager-selects-aras-as-global-backbone-for-products ). That is more of an exception than the rule though as, by and large, Aras is more typically deployed into smaller projects or as an "overlay" as mentioned previously.

As flexible as Aras is, it does not have the full width and breadth of portfolio as offered by, say, Dassault Systèmes with their CAD to Simulation to Manufacturing comprehensive Experiences, or the powerful VR/AR and IOT plays that PTC has with ThingWorx and Vuforia, or further, the heavy manufacturing portfolio complimented with the MindSphere IOT platform that Siemens-PLM touts. Aras can easily be integrated to existing systems for MES or Simulation or other key processes, but as yet it is not a one-stop shop in the sense that the Big Three tend to be. Using another analogy to the Pirsig book, Aras is more like the trusty greasy DIY motorcycle in your garage where the Big Three are the shiny new bikes on which you typically do not perform maintenance yourself, but leave it to the shop. Again, your perception will vary depending on whether you prefer turnkey solutions like the Big Three or an open toolkit like Aras Innovator.

Perhaps another weak spot is the lack of a SaaS platform on the Cloud such as those from up and coming competitors such as Arena, Autodesk PLM360, PropelPLM, OpenBOM and OnShape or the SaaS offerings from Dassault, Siemens-PLM, and PTC. Third parties such as IBM have offered Aras as a suite of SaaS services, but have gained little market traction with these offers. The debate is still open on the value of multi-tenant vs mono-tenant in the PLM world, but Aras seems to be taking a wait and see approach before truly jumping in with both feet. For the moment, they are primarily an on-premise or cloud-hosted solution perhaps also due to the all-or-nothing licensing scheme mentioned earlier. And, unlike Dassault Systèmes for example, they also do not have industry-specific bundling that could be used as a wedge for cloud sales. 

In conclusion, Aras Innovator is a strong competitor when it comes to flexible development and ease of deployment and upgrade and offers the industries most simplified licensing method. They technically can compete with the Big Three, but lack the Big Three's installed base, the portfolio breadth, and a clear cloud strategy. So, depending on your objectives and the business processes you wish your PLM project to cover, Aras could be an excellent choice or an incomplete one.

Article on LinkedIn : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/demystifying-aras-innovator-zen-art-plm-customization-finocchiaro/

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