This article discusses recent changes in the definition and capabilities of product data management (PDM). The term “collaborative engineering” generally is applied to the newfound ability of engineers to design together across the miles using computer-aided design software that is linked by a PDM system and Internet technology. The system uses software and servers that take advantage of the Internet and an intranet, and include a common Web-browser interface that lets employees at a company and their suppliers interact, even if they are in separate locations. PDM systems are quickly becoming more than ways to archive past product designs and link engineers via their CAD systems. But the many uses of such systems can easily be confusing or overwhelming to the everyday user. Advocates, including Turk, Strom, and Bourke, argue that the movement to expand PDM systems beyond their initial use can make for a tighter design cycle and a bigger profit for engineering companies that take advantage of the possibilities.
Collaborative engineering is no longer enough. No sooner had the concept been defined and the buzzword coined, than the computer-aided engineering community moved beyond the limitations of simple product data management, or PDM, to embrace an even broader definition of the term. And the PDM systems of old—that is, of only a few years ago—are being called upon to manage more of a company’s processes, including keeping tabs on financial records.
The term “collaborative engineering” generally is applied to the newfound ability of engineers to design together across the miles using computer-aided design software that is linked by a PDM system and Internet technology. The system uses software and servers that take advantage of the Internet and an intranet, and includes a common Web-browser interface that lets employees at a company and their suppliers interact, even if they are in separate locations. Or the software is used to tie together a far-flung operation such as an aerospace or automotive company, where employees work in many different locations, sometimes in many countries.
The PDM system also serves as an in-house tracking mechanism to store all documents associated with products as they move from design to manufacture. Documents can be easily retrieved from what is essentially a digitized company library or database. In this instance, the PDM system works as a project tracking mechanism, whether it’s used in one location or in several. But those definitions apply to PDM systems in their most basic form.
With the stepped-up rate of technological change that engineering companies now have to manage, a basic PDM system has mutated to include many aspects that are common to the enterprise resource planning system. And at least one consultant advocates that companies should integrate their PDM and enterprise resource planning systems.
Drowning in Alphabet Soup
And just what is an enterprise resource planning system, which is often called—just to confuse matters and add to the alphabet soup—an ERP system? This software, also implemented across the company, gives executives a bird’s-eye view of the financial, accounting, human resources, engineering, and other disparate aspects of the overall company. ERP systems tie together the spectrum of company operations, including contract management, production, procurement, cost accounting, and finance.
This differs from a PDM system, which is designed to manage information only about the actual product itself.
An ERP system lets executives easily see, for example, how accepting a particular contract may affect the company’s financial bottom line. Before the age of the Internet, the intranet, and the graphical user interface, company managers might have had to sit down with reams of printed financial reports, the contract proposal, and a calculator to find the bottom line. Now, that bottom line is only a mouse click away.
So it’s understandable that computer vendors want to push more of this newfound technological capability beyond the bigwigs to everyday computer users within a company.
For instance, the Windchill product from PTC in Waltham, Mass., includes PDM capabilities. It acts as a central repository for design documents and it allows engineers at different locations to design online in tandem. The PDM capability also gives users a way to keep track of where the part is in the development process.
“But we go way beyond that,” Peter Turk, vice president of marketing, is quick to add. “Windchill does a lot of other things.”
Some of those other capabilities include source management, product life cycle management, and workflow management.
Useful Sourcing Capability
The sourcing capability included in the software allows engineers to find the most cost-effective suppliers for each component of the part they’re designing. They can price and compare suppliers as they design the part, to assure that it is made as cheaply as possible.
“The idea is to make your component purchases as early as you can in the cycle,” Turk said.
The ability to source components as the product is being developed slashes the costs of final design because overall product costs are frequently front-end loaded; that is, they are heavily tied into component procurement, Turk said. In other words, getting the parts at the lowest cost possible ensures that the product is made for as little money as possible. Low-cost parts slash final product costs even more than does an efficient design cycle time, Turk said.
The workflow management part of the Windchill system automatically assigns tasks to different project participants. Engineers typically receive assignments via their e-mail inboxes from supervisors, who use the Windchill software to get an overview of where the product is in the design cycle. Using this information, the supervisors can then assign tasks to balance employee workloads or to relieve bottlenecks. Because suppliers, partners, and other outside organizations can be included in this overall view, the supervisors know exactly where the part is located—whether it’s still in the procurement process or is now being manufactured.
Configuration management is another feature included in the Windchill software. Such capability is frequently requested by companies large enough to have the means to implement the software, Turk said. If a customer requests a particular part supplied by the engineering company in the past but needs a different size or slightly different style, the configuration management aspect of the software comes to the rescue. It can almost be thought of as a way to customize parts quickly.
“A customer might say, 'I want a bearing exactly like this one you made before, only I want it thicker,’” Turk said. “But making it thicker changes the characteristics of the product. If you change one parameter, you have to change everything. And you might have to switch to harder steel to support the changes. But the configurator part of a product automatically changes everything that will need to be done, leaving you with an updated design.”
PDM Manages More Than Products
As it stands now, only very large companies can afford the cost and the time to implement these large across-the-board software systems, Turk said. Such companies spend a great deal of time—sometimes up to a year— before implementation customizing and configuring the software so it meets the company’s particular needs. Customizing might mean changing the Web browser to reflect company user interfaces. And the IT team might configure the software so that documents are sorted by document number rather than by name, for example, depending on what company executives request.
As PTC and other companies roll out solutions that are affordable and easy to configure, smaller engineering companies will be turning to these all-encompassing software packages in the future, Turk predicted.
Meanwhile, industries such as aerospace and defense have a stake in marrying their PDM and ERP industries in order to take advantage of the resultant cuts in time-to-market and production costs, according to Richard Bourke, president of Bourke-Arnold Enterprises, a manufacturing systems consulting company in Pasadena, Calif.
“Managing product data in the changing aerospace and design environment requires a quantum leap past the early days of sepia drawings and dispersed print crabs,” Bourke wrote in a white paper for the Product Data Management Information Center, a joint effort of the Management Roundtable of Waltham, Mass., and Life Cycle Solutions of Avon, Mass.
Product Life Cycle Management
Bourke maintains that for product life cycle management—that is, following the product closely and ensuring the lowest cost every step of the way—companies must integrate their PDM and ERP systems. Companies that exist as far-flung enterprises without a central headquarters particularly need to integrate these systems, because these large disparate companies are so decentralized that the PDM and ERP systems have to serve as a main office or a central repository for all company information.
Usually, only these very large companies can implement stellar ERP systems, because investments in startup time, acquisition costs, and training deter smaller companies.
“Integration reduces the opportunities for errors commonly found in disjointed, nonintegrated systems,” Bourke said. “Errors, such as the loss of product data over the stages of design, can be eliminated. The cycle of engineering changes can be reduced substantially by the ready availability of information when needed by many users. This is a marked contrast to the massive documentation packages circulated with older, manual-change methods.”
Bourke points out that integrating these two massive company systems serves to link parts of the company’s financial systems. Bills of material for parts are generated in the PDM system, for example, while the ERP system is charged with overall financial management of a company. So archived bills of material usually reside in the ERP system, where they can be used to help keep track of profits and losses.
As if that weren't enough, another change looms on the horizon for companies with the means of implementing PDM systems. These companies will find they can more easily enter the engineer-to-order arena, according to Ulf Strom, the president and chief executive officer of Design Power in Cupertino, Calif.
If a product is engineered to order, it basically is customized for a company, or built exactly to customer requirements. A PDM system that links engineers across the company allows them to design products speedily according to customer whims, Strom said. His company sells a product, Design++, that lets engineers add their own information and knowledge to the PDM system as they create customized designs.
In short, the process that a particular engineer once used to come up with the design is outlined and included with the CAD model. It resides in the system so that other engineers, who might need to tweak the design or create a similar product in the future, can refer to it. Design Power calls this a knowledge-based system because the engineers’ thoughts accompany their design. The secondary engineers can understand the original designer’s intent, Strom said.
In this way, parts that are engineered to order aren’t created in a vacuum. They can be captured within the PDM system as easily as parts that have been built over a period of time by a group of people, Strom said. (See “Computing” on page 18 to read about a company that recently implemented Design Power’s product.)
PDM systems are quickly becoming more than ways to archive past product designs and link engineers via their CAD systems. But the many uses of such systems can easily be confusing or overwhelming to the everyday user. Advocates, including Turk, Strom, and Bourke, argue that the movement to expand PDM systems beyond their initial use can make for a tighter design cycle and a bigger profit for engineering companies that take advantage of the possibilities.