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PTC LiveWorx - You feel the need for speed, says CEO Jim Heppelmann. But what about AI?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton May 17, 2023
It's back! Reporting from Day 1 of PTC’s LiveWorx 23 conference in Boston.


As stage comebacks go, Day 1 of PTC’s first conference since before the pandemic was certainly memorable. The opening session was a loud, pounding, cinematic affair with enough widescreen animations and lights strafing the ceiling at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) to put the Chemical Brothers to shame. A statement of intent and confidence, then.

Nearly 7,000 delegates filed into the hangar-like space just a few blocks from PTC’s head office, with 5,000 more attending the morning session online. An exhibition hall full of everything from trucks and tractors to wind turbines and robots showed the extent of the product management firm’s reach.

In the session hall, a roster of supporting talent was impressive too, with a chorus of blue-chip customers singing PTC’s praises. These included online retailer and grocery tech provider Ocado Group, which is using PTC’s collaborative Onshape CAD system for agile hardware development in its next-gen warehouse robots. Meanwhile, agile software DevOps via Codebeamer ALM was centre stage for factory automation specialist Festo.

Automotive multinational Volvo, a long-term PTC client, is deploying a mix of applications to help it reuse parts and factory lines across its own diverse portfolio. In particular, CAD application Creo and product lifecycle management (PLM) system Windchill have helped the automaker increase its lines and models, while reducing the number of parts – in the words of Silvi Laks, Volvo Group’s SVP of Vehicle Engineering.

As ever, PTC President and CEO Jim Heppelmann struck a difficult balance well in his keynote: being a commanding and convincing speaker while, at the same time, staying downhome and relatable. No self-styled IT messiah nor 'John the Baptist to Big Tech Jesus' he. Of the four-year hiatus since the last LiveWorx in Boston, he said:

Every disruption creates new opportunities. And right now, we find ourselves in one of the greatest periods of change for industrial companies that I can recall. And most of it revolves around… digital transformation.

Were you expecting him to say AI? I was. He continued:

Back in 2019, digital transformation was simpler. It meant getting to market faster, with lower cost and higher quality. But now, on top of that, there's a push to re-shoring, to make your products more intelligent, your factories more efficient, to build more resilient supply chains, to make your companies and products more sustainable and compliant, and to accelerate growth by complementing your products and services.

The environmental message was backed by Catherine Kniker, PTC’s Chief Sustainability Officer, who explained that 80% of a product’s environmental footprint is determined by design decisions upfront. By developing its relationships with software makers Ansys and aPriori, PTC is able to offer designers structural analysis and sustainability data within tools like Creo and Windchill.

Digital transformation is key to all of these options, explained Heppelmann. Since its last customer event, the $15.35 billion company has certainly been busy with its own, investing more than $3 billion in organic development and acquisitions. 

The latter have included: SaaS CAD provider Onshape; SaaS PLM player Arena Solutions; application lifecycle management specialist Intland; and most significantly, field service management cloud platform ServiceMax for $1.46 billion in cash – a record purchase completed in January. 

The ServiceMax deal closes the loop for PTC in terms of the “digital thread” it offers customers, presenting a new asset-centric vision of service, according to former ServiceMax CEO Neil Barua, now President of PTC’s Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) division:

Aligning the product and service parts of the PTC portfolio creates new superpowers for our customers. […] We call this an asset-centric vision because the as-maintained asset definition acts as the hub [of the wheel], serving as the integration point that pulls together all the powerful capabilities of the spokes.

(More from Barua in our next reports from LiveWorx, including an exclusive interview.)

Two messages rang out loud and clear from Heppelmann’s keynote: PTC lays claim to be the biggest PLM player, and now presents itself as a comprehensive, end-to-end cloud platform – a journey that, arguably, only began in earnest with its purchase of Onshape.

Among day one’s announcements was that the company’s Creo CAD suite, currently in v10, is now available as SaaS application Creo+, joining Windchill+, Thingworx+, Vuforia+, Kepware+, and Codebeamer+ on the Atlas platform, which holds up PTC’s new world.

So, PTC has been moving fast, in service of companies that need to move fast too, said Heppelmann:

We are helping leading-edge industrial companies to move with greater speed and agility to create a digital thread across the full product lifecycle, so they can be more efficient, sustainable, and compliant, and tackle the ultimate transformation by moving to SaaS.

This theme of PTC spinning a digital thread for its customers was reiterated throughout the day, looping from physical products to digital twins and back again in an endless cycle of data-gathering, renewal, and service improvement. 

The other key theme was speed and agility to tackle rapid market changes. For example, VF Corporation, whose brands include North Face, Vans, and Timberland, is using Windchill and retail solution FlexPLM to help it respond to evolving customer tastes. But is PTC responding to changing tastes as rapidly?

Heppelmann addressed those companies that, like VF Corporation, have a “need for speed that trumps all else”:

I'm talking about you fast-clock-cycle companies that are pioneering new market opportunities, like start-ups that need to get their first killer product idea off the ground, or anybody in fast-moving markets that cannot tolerate any process that slows them down. 

There isn't a one-size-fits-all description for companies in this category. Some of you are looking for short development cycles to stay ahead of market trends. Much of your product value is captured in software, and you want to develop it quickly and update it regularly. 

Some of you are creating cool new high-tech products that are highly dependent on electronics, where components get obsoleted quickly – you probably even rely on contract manufacturing because you simply don't have the time to build your own factories. 

Speed is critically important to our retail customers too. But their goal is not simply to get products to market sooner. Instead, retailers want to start as late as possible and get done just in time for the upcoming season. That's why we like to call it just-in-time [JIT] development. This approach helps brands ensure that the new products align well to the latest trends and styles each season. Starting later takes much of the guesswork out of the equation.”

He added that digital transformation across the entire waterfront of product development [nice Boston metaphor there, Jim] and supply chain is critical because, for retail to succeed, brands need to marry very short product development cycles with flexible and nimble supply chains:

They require tools that digitize the entire product development process, make it very easy to collaborate with existing suppliers, or to onboard new ones to get their new products to market just in time.

My take

Good stuff. A confident, impressive event that talked a lot of sense – from a provider that, unlike many, is rooted in everyday realities, including augmented and virtual ones. Yet despite Heppelmann’s efforts and the upbeat, impressive nature of the company’s post-pandemic event, PTC’s shares fell by 0.8% on the day. Why? 

The answer may be in the company’s messaging. Despite the slick visuals, solid presentations, and convincing customer stories, including from Fresenius in the vital healthcare space, PTC seemed to be ringing a lot of old bells. 

JIT development, SaaS, cloud platforms, digital transformation, and even – whisper it – the Metaverse are all worthy but over-familiar themes from the pre-COVID world. In 2023, they perhaps just don’t play as well at a post-pandemic comeback event.

Heppelmann spoke of “pop-up metaverses” and “the Industrial Metaverse”, meaning immersive digital twins in the manufacturing and product development space. As such, he should be congratulated for stressing one of the few uses of “the metaverse” that makes good enterprise sense. 

Yet the term itself serves little purpose in the wake of the slow, embarrassing, public collapse of Meta’s multibillion-dollar vision for the technology. Just say “immersive digital twins”. Or better still, invent a new term for consultants to sell, just as the IT industry did with ‘the cloud’.

The key point is this. In 2023, all everyone wants to hear about – rightly or wrongly – is AI. Yet this was barely mentioned in the keynotes, beyond a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment in the sustainability section, where references to ChatGPT felt token and bolted on.

At a Q&A panel later, I asked Heppelmann about this stark messaging omission for a company that has long included generative elements in its CAD tools. Why hadn’t this been more of a focus?  He replied:

A lot of stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. So, I was probably just sparing you from [a presentation that took] even more time. We've talked a fair amount about generative in the past, so maybe others just felt like it was a new idea. But again, we had to cut the session back, so it was a cutting on the floor.

However, with questions about generative AI then dominating the hour-long Q&A, the realization that the “cutting on the floor” was playing badly with 100 or so journalists and analysts became apparent for Heppelmann. The result? A collective shrug from the markets.

Let's see what emerges as Day 2 kicks off...

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