SAP has laid out the future path for its product lifecycle management (PLM) software over the next three 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 processes.

Project lifecycle management is already a significant business for SAP and the company currently has around 5,500 customers using its 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).

SAP said it responded to customer demand for more flexibility in the PLM product is to follow the upgrade strategy laid down for its main ERP package.

In September 2006, SAP committed to keeping the current version of its ERP software, mySAP ERP 2005, in place until 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, 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 the end of 2007 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 will 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 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.