This article focuses on various features of product data management system (PDM). A PDM system manages all forms of product data; that is, computer-aided design or text files, or anything else concerning product development. PDM systems also ensure that bills of material are generated on the design side. The bill of material describes exactly what parts will be used in each manufactured product. Using the bill of material (BOM), a manufacturing engineer determines the most efficient set of operations to manufacture a product and may request a design modification to streamline production. BOM development should logically take place in the PDM system at the same time the product is being developed and then should be released to the enterprise resource planning system—and thus to the manufacturing side—when the product design is complete. An enterprise-resource planning system is a company’s operational, planning, and control system used to manage the resources of the manufacturing part of the operation.
The days of the new economy could be behind us for good, but they’ve bequeathed to engineers a questionable legacy: a big, steaming bowl of alphabet soup.
Engineers who work at companies considering implementation of a product-data management, or PDM, system are bobbing in the stuff: PCC, CPD, PLM, and even cPDm. What does it all mean? Well, the initials are different, but they all pretty much stand for a method of what is most commonly referred to as collaborative product development.
To recount the history of PDM technology, which can broadly be defined as a way for engineers and suppliers to talk among themselves via a network as they work out product details, it’s necessary to toss around a few more abbreviations. The first commercially available systems came onto the market in the late 1980s, according to Richard Bourke, principal of Bourke Consulting in Pasadena, Calif. Engineers and managers found they needed a technological method of handling computer-aided design data.
“So PDM isn’t as mature an industry as CAD; its roots were in CAD,” Bourke said. “First came CAD, and then came the need to manage CAD data so that engineers got the right CAD versions, they redlined the right versions, they put the right versions back where they should be, and they checked out the right versions in the first place. It was a way of eliminating sneakernet.”
“Sneakernet” is jargon for the method of transmitting electronic information by personally carrying it from one place to another on a floppy disk or other removable medium. The idea is that people are using their shoes to move data around rather than using the telecommunications network.
PDM also sprang from another need in the engineering community, Bourke said.
“I say that I backed into front-end product management configuration about 10 years ago because I realized ERP couldn’t handle it all and a lot of tools needed to blend with it,” he said.
Previously, Bourke worked as an enterprise-resource planning consultant. Now he handles both technologies, helping companies to assess the need for systems and integrate them.
An enterprise-resource planning system is a company’s operational, planning, and control system used to manage the resources of the manufacturing part of the operation. Bourke described it as the technology that coordinates production of the product, once the product has been defined by mechanical engineers. In contrast, a PDM system manages all forms of product data, which could include CAD files, text files, or anything having to do with the product, he said.
ERP itself evolved from an earlier-generation corporate network known as manufacturing-resource planning two, widely used in the 1980s. MRPII evolved from materials requirements planning, or MRP, systems that were popular in the 1970s. In this business, initials are nothing new.
Engineering the BOM
PDM systems also ensure that bills of material are generated on the design side. The bill of material describes exactly what parts will be used in each manufactured product. As such, it needs to be complete and accurate because it’s the source document relied on by employees in purchasing, product, inventory control, and other departments associated with manufacturing operations. It summarizes an engineer’s designs and provides the interface to all departments involved in manufacturing the product.
Using the BOM, a manufacturing engineer determines the most efficient set of operations to manufacture a product and may request a design modification in order to streamline production. Bill of material development should logically take place in the PDM system at the same time the product is being developed and then should be released to the ERP system—and thus to the manufacturing side—when the product design is complete, Bourke said.
Before PDM systems, mechanical engineers often gave manufacturing engineers the blueprints for the part they’d developed and let manufacturing develop a BOM. This sometimes led to problems because manufacturing engineers could tweak the BOM and part design to suit manufacturing needs.
To ensure that BOMs are generated as a part is designed, companies that use an ERP system in their manufacturing sector may choose to implement a PDM system for their mechanical engineers and then to marry those two systems so they can communicate with each other, Bourke said. Medium-size to large companies may find it vital to implement these two systems along with a method of integrating them, Bourke said.
“The more complex the product development process, the more the case can be made for PDM and ERP implementation,” he said.
“And having the PDM integrated with the ERP system sort of avoids the whole throw-the-design-prints-over-the-wall-and-let-maufacturing-do-what-it-wants thing,” he added. “ERP systems use a bill of material after a design is released and available to manufacturing. When the part is under development, it makes more sense to keep it in the PDM-arena.”
Engineers want to know where the part is, what it’s made of, and what it costs.
Company/Moves to PDM
One reason Varian Semiconductor Equipment in Gloucester, Mass., shopping for a new PDM system recently was to ensure that bills of material were generated in the PDM system and then transferred to the ERP system, said Jim Sutton, manager of IT engineering services at Varian. His company makes the processing equipment used to manufacture semiconductors. For instance, it makes what are called mini accelerators, which take ions of boron or another substance and accelerate them so they, in effect, spray-paint a wafer. The wafer is then passed to other machines and eventually becomes a semiconductor, Sutton said.
The company uses an ERP system from SAP in Walldorf, Germany, but managers found one problem with the technology: Engineers don’t use it. “They hate it,” Sutton said.
He maintains that such systems—which are set up to be accessible to employees in a range of departments and thus use an easy-to-understand interface—are, on the surface, too simplistic to appeal to the engineering mentality. The systems are also oriented toward administrators. Engineers aren’t used to parts being called items. They think of them as assemblies or subassemblies, Sutton said.
“We have 500 engineers, but not a one of them uses SAP,” Sutton said. “They know parts and they know part numbers, and they want things to be very logical. One common theme among engineers is that most of them hate ERP systems. That’s just the way they are.
“PDM is a play area, a sandbox, for engineers to work in,” he added. “The screen is in engineering language. They don’t care about the effective date. They want to know where the part is, what it’s made of, and what it costs.”
But Varian was strapped by an unusually high number of changes to part numbers, BOMs, and part routings. The company brought in an outside consultant, Price Waterhouse, to help it re-engineer its system in an effort to reduce engineering change orders. The consulting company found that engineers weren’t signing off on engineering changes; they were simply making the changes, which confused matters and made part-tracking exceedingly difficult.
“The key was to give engineers an easy window into SAP,” Sutton said. Integrating the PDM and ERP system would cut change orders because the manufacturing side would have easier access to designs. It would also mean that change orders could be more easily tracked to determine why there were so many.
Until last January, when Varian began implementing an upgraded PDM system for integration purposes, engineers used a legacy PDM system that wasn’t integrated with the ERP system. The PDM system contained about 30,000 parts because Varian saves every iteration of each part. In the semiconductor business, you never know when Intel will call and say it wants a particular iteration of a part or wants a copy of a machine produced four years ago, Sutton said. For this reason, Varian maintains the original BOM structure of each part as well as complete models of the machines it makes.
Formerly, a few Varian employees manually loaded CAD designs from the PDM system into the ERP system.
“We were loading them manually, but were we introducing error? We had no way of knowing,” Sutton said.
The answer, of course, was integration. Varian’s managers felt that CAD and BOM files should be created individually, maintained within the PDM system and, when ready, pushed to the ERP system for the manufacturing and financial side to view.
In January, Varian began installing a new PDM system. Executives chose Axalant Solutions, from Eigner + Partner in Karlsruhe, Germany. Implementation should be complete next month. When the company was shopping for systems, Varian required that it be compatible with the company’s CAD system, Pro/Engineer, from PTC in Waltham, Mass. The new software also had to work with SAP’s system, of course, and it needed to include BOM management capabilities.
One consideration with the new system is the knowledge that engineers don’t like to share their designs with nonengineers until they deem those designs perfect, Sutton said. For that reason, only finished designs are sent to the ERP system, so it doesn’t contain every preliminary design. If too many part designs, simulations, and virtual prototypes are maintained in the ERP system, they soon become indistinguishable to the person trying to find one thing, Sutton said. If someone seeks a particular iteration, that can be found in the PDM system.
In this way, the ERP system acts as an administrative tracking technology at Varian, while the PDM system is strictly for use by engineers.
“The ERP people now like it that PDM stuff is only dumped into ERP when it’s ready,” Sutton said. “But we store things in SAP because it’s the financial system that runs the business. ERP is a nice, safe environment for everything.”
Of course, when a computer system runs a business one consideration is paramount, he added.
“Now that everything’s in one system, it’s important that it doesn’t go down. Before, if one went down, you’d lose 14 percent of the computer users at the company. Now it’s 100 percent of users.”
Varian chose an out-of-the-box PDM system to make installation as quick as possible, Sutton said. That means the PDM system was already available as a product and didn’t have to be heavily customized to the company’s needs.
The move toward such easy-to-implement systems is relatively new, Bourke said.
“The trend is more toward these solutions that make it easy for people to implement them,” he said. “You have to be careful not to pose it as nirvana or as the be-all and end-all so that people say, ‘Well, I can just drop it in over the weekend.’ ” Implementation is still lengthy and sometimes frustrating. Varian, for instance, began installing its system in January and expects to have it completely installed nine months later.
Because Bourke has a background in ERP, he can see that the growth of the PDM industry mirrors that of ERP in its early days.
“We went through the hype and the disillusionment with MRPII and with ERP and, to some degree, PDM vendors are learning the same thing,” Bourke said. “You’ve got to be careful of overhyping its capability.”
For instance, vendors selling a one-size-fits-all package have to stress that a company can’t buy the product on Friday and have it up and running Monday.
In a marketplace that includes many PDM systems (among them the iMan system from UGS, Windchill from PTC, and Enovia from IBM), Bourke has some advice for companies that are considering installing or upgrading their PDM systems: Know exactly what you need and make the vendors spell out how their systems will fit these needs.
It’s alphabet soup out there, he warned. IBM uses the term “product lifecycle management” to describe Enovia, while PTC sticks with “collaborative product commerce.” UGS also uses PLM to describe its offering’s capabilities. And, although the terminology can be confusing, all the jargon means pretty much the same thing: the ability to share design and BOM information with suppliers and with other engineers— whether those people are next door or in another country—via a network.
“Most firms in this industry have their own definitions and must be prepared to wrestle with the differences,” Bourke said. “But just make sure you have your own definition of what you need and have the vendors present against that.