Windows Explorer vs. SolidWorks Enterprise PDM

26 Jan, 2011 By: Michael LaFleche

Solid Thinking Tutorial: Two project data management systems face off over project storage, managing revisions, and tracking an engineering change order.

Editor's note: This tutorial courtesy of SolidWorks.

The battle of project data management systems is about to take place. Two heavyweight contenders are preparing to duke it out: SolidWorks Enterprise PDM and Microsoft Windows Explorer. The match rules are simple: Manage a new project, implement design changes, and ensure a secure and auditable environment for keeping track of revisions. As a bonus, the contenders will manage an engineering change order.

First, let's introduce the competitors. In the left corner, wearing red, blue, yellow, and green trunks, from Redmond, Washington, is Microsoft Windows Explorer, which has been the staple for manufacturing and engineering companies for many years. In the right corner, wearing red, blue, and yellow trunks, from Concord, Massachusetts, is SolidWorks Enterprise PDM, which builds upon Windows Explorer and is a rising star in the community.

Round 1: How Companies Store Projects

In a typical engineering and manufacturing company, individuals store files either locally or on a mapped network drive. For this match, we are going to assume the engineer is storing files on the mapped network drive on the server. Why? Because the server is backed up every night, and other design team members can access the files.

Before creating a new project, the engineer needs to assign a new project or part number to eliminate duplicate file names. Then the engineer creates a folder structure with the appropriate content, including folders for SolidWorks models, technical illustrations, and project management documents such as Gantt charts. A poll conducted in a recent webcast showed that 90% of users are managing documents using a mapped Windows drive with folders; 30% also used a PDM or ERP system; while 30% were looking at alternative solutions.

With the stage set, let's ring the bell for Round 1 and let the contenders battle it out.

Windows Explorer. Before creating the folder structure, the Windows Explorer user needs to obtain part numbers and project numbers for the job at hand. This is done through several methods. One is to obtain these part numbers from an Excel spreadsheet or an Access database. Others will use an MRP/ERP system to obtain part numbers from an item master, but many still use a manual log book of part numbers, which is stored in document control somewhere.

Windows Explorer then creates the folder structure. The user takes the project number and names a top-level folder. Appropriate subfolders for the project are also created. Using Microsoft Project, the user creates a Gantt chart, renames it to the project number, and stores that with the project. A savvy Windows Explorer user will not create all the subfolders and Gantt charts manually. There is a directory structure stored locally, as well as a sample Gantt chart, that can be modified later.

The Windows Explorer user creates the permissions for each folder to ensure correct access rights are granted to each of the subfolders.

SolidWorks Enterprise PDM. To create a new project In SolidWorks Enterprise PDM (EPDM), use the Create Project option from a template function. This is set up by the administrator to create a repeatable, yet flexible process for creating new projects. The part number and project number are obtained from the EPDM system automatically. The interface to access SolidWorks Enterprise PDM actually is Windows Explorer, with additional capabilities, including a built-in file preview window, Bill of Materials functions, and revision control functions.


The project structure is also defined from the template, and the folder names are renamed automatically to the project number that was added.

Project documents are also automatically named and inserted by the Create Project wizard. In this case, a Microsoft Project Gantt chart is created from a template, renamed, and checked into the system automatically. Fields from the Microsoft Project document are linked to the EPDM system database and can now be used for reports.

Let's tally up the scoring for Round 1:

  • For an easy-to-use interface that is centrally located, we give Windows Explorer 1 point.
  • For the same easy-to-use interface as Windows Explorer, EPDM also gets 1 point, and for automatic number generation, template-based project Gantt charts and folder setup, and built-in file preview, give EPDM 4 additional points for a total of 5 points.

Round 2: Managing Revisions and File Versions

The topic of how to store revisions of documents, especially SolidWorks documents, is typically an emotional one. In the aforementioned webcast we posed the question, "How do you currently keep track of your documents?" Responses indicated that 40% of respondents store only the changed documents; another 40% store a copy of each changed document; 10% rename files to indicate a revision change; and 20% do not use revision control at all.

There are many methods for managing revisions discreetly. We will explore one method for managing files without a project data management system like SolidWorks Enterprise PDM. The method outlined below will allow for traceability of documents with the manual Windows Explorer process. It is an apples-to-apples comparison to EPDM, which handles this for us.

To illustrate, we have a three-piece assembly in SolidWorks where one of the parts changes in thickness. The changed part would go from Rev "A" to Rev "B," and the assembly would also change.

Windows Explorer. Create a copy of the documents "the changed part and the assembly" in a separate folder named Rev "B" before making the change.

In SolidWorks, set your Search Paths to the top-level directory of your engineering area on the mapped drive. Open the copied assembly in SolidWorks. The file references should pull the new files you copied manually and grab the other files that were not copied from the other directory. (This is because the search paths were set.) To check this in SolidWorks, go to the File menu; you can see the references under Find References.

Use SolidWorks Custom File Properties (data about your data) to describe the revision change (Revision B). In the changed part and in the assembly, change the custom file properties from Rev "A" to Rev "B." The file names stay intact and the drawing title blocks are updated. Make your changes and save the documents.

SolidWorks Enterprise PDM.
SolidWorks EPDM automates the process. First, "Check Out" the Assembly. When the assembly is Checked Out, it will ask if you want to check out any referenced documents. Choose the part that needs to change in thickness. By checking a document out, it gives the user the privileges to make the change and check them back in when they are done.

When the change is complete, "Check In" the documents, and EPDM understands to change the version of the files that changed automatically. It also copies the old files in the background so they can be accessed in the future if necessary. Controls can be put in place so an approval needs to happen before anything goes from Rev "A" to Rev "B."

Let's tally up the scoring for Round 2:

  • We did get some good tips and tricks for handling revisions without a secure PDM system, so we give Windows Explorer 2 points.
  • EPDM gets points for automatic revision control, which provides auditing capabilities as well as the ability to hide previous revision. EPDM gets 4 points for secure access and less room for error.

Round 3: Tracking an Engineering Change Order

Some companies have a process of approval that needs to take place before any design changes can actually occur. This is usually called an ECN (engineering change notice) or an ECO (engineering change order). Some companies need both change requests and the change itself to be approved. SolidWorks Enterprise PDM has a process for handling this automatically. However, if you do not use a PDM system, you can employ policies such as creating a paper traveler that gets routed through appropriate departments for approvals, or establishing a weekly meeting to review requests to make changes. Some companies user other systems that are capable of handling changes, such as an ERP/MRP system.

Windows Explorer. For an ECO request to begin in Windows Explorer, one would fill out an ECO form, either on paper or electronically in Microsoft Word. This would then be distributed via e-mail, or printed and filed to review ad hoc or in a structured weekly meeting. Once approvals to move forward are received, the engineer would then perform the same process outlined in round two to make a change to the engineering documentation.

SolidWorks Enterprise PDM. In the EPDM process, a user can right-click on the item that needs a change and choose to change its State to Create ECO. This will execute a dialog box to ask the user which documents the ECO effects (the assembly knows what parts make it up, so this list is presented to the user). Microsoft Word will start with an ECO form repopulated with the relevant information. An e-mail is sent to managers who need to approve the ECO automatically. Once the signatures have all been obtained (usually through e-mail), the file becomes writable and an engineer can check out the assembly and part that needs to be changed and follow the process outlined in round 2.

Let's tally up the scoring for Round 3:

  • This is pretty much a manual process, so Windows Explorer gets no points.
  • EPDM promotes the entire ECO process, including creation of the document, ensuring the affected documents are collected and access controls are modified, plus automatic e-mails and approvals are collected, so EPDM gets 4 points.


Our three-round bout between Windows Explorer and SolidWorks Enterprise PDM is over. While Windows Explorer was not knocked out, EPDM floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Although it's still standing, Windows Explorer simply cannot get in as many punches in the same amount of time, and EPDM wins by TKO.

About the Author: Michael LaFleche

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