Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Extend the Reach of Product Information to the Enterprise

21 Sep, 2010 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

SharePoint-based solutions for CAD can facilitate collaboration and accelerate development.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Manufacturing edition of the Summer 2010 issue of Cadalyst magazine. To read the AEC-specific version of this article, click here.

Product lifecycle management (PLM), at its most basic, is valuable as a structured repository for CAD data. But it's no surprise that much of the information that contributes to product development is created outside the structured system, in formats such as e-mail, instant messages, blog posts, and the like. Software developers are building solutions on Microsoft SharePoint that aim to collect this information and give it structure as well — that is, capture collaboration and correspondence, integrate it into the product data history, and make it accessible to everyone in the organization who can benefit.

"PLM is a great tool for tracking and managing transactions, but there's a lot of value in the information that is exchanged that is not very structured and that isn't managed very well by a traditional PLM system," said David Opsahl, CEO of Actify, which develops the DesignShare collaboration tool.

With DesignShare from Actify, users can mark up, measure, and perform section views on CAD data from within Microsoft SharePoint.

Another common challenge is that many people in a product-development organization, such as managers or those who check engineering work, need access to CAD data but lack CAD expertise or CAD software. SharePoint-based solutions can make this information easily accessible to all types of users across an organization.

Collaboration Engine

Simon Floyd, Microsoft's director of technology strategy, enterprise solutions, described SharePoint as a backbone for sharing any information, including documents, drawings, e-mail, and social media content (such as personal blogs, content tagging, and activity feeds) with anyone, including immediate staff, downstream users, and customers. "It is a facilitator of business processes," he said, adding, "We're working very hard for SharePoint to be a decision engine, to surface more and more information to support decisions."

According to Floyd, adoption of SharePoint has taken off in recent years because it is a relatively low-cost, feature-rich solution that's Internet-based and easy to integrate. In a world where most CAD users still share data by traditional means, such as local hard drives and networks, companies are beginning to question how they can leverage the collaborative power of SharePoint to get that CAD data into the hands of the people who need it.

"In the past 12 to 24 months," Floyd said, "we've experienced a tremendous increase in the number of businesses looking for SharePoint-based solutions, or indeed just for SharePoint itself. A significant number of large companies have SharePoint today as an enterprise solution and this is becoming true for small- and medium-sized businesses as well. We believe that the strong uptake in SharePoint is due in part to the economic reset and the fact that businesses still need solutions, but at a cost that makes it viable for everyone to use."

Is SharePoint developing a stronghold in today's business world? "I think it's here, it's happening now," said Opsahl. Kris Kasprzak, director of Solid Edge marketing at Siemens PLM Software, said, "We see more and more companies leveraging SharePoint and associated solutions for managing day-to-day operations. New capabilities offered in SharePoint 2010 are expected to generate more interest with manufacturing companies." PTC expects to quadruple sales of Windchill ProductPoint, its SharePoint-based solution, from 100 "wins" in 2009 to 400 in 2010.

PTC’s Windchill ProductPoint offers multi-CAD product data management tools for small- and medium-sized businesses in the SharePoint environment.

SharePoint 2010, introduced in May, includes more feature-rich social computing functionality; Business Insights, which integrates business reporting and analytics; project management; remote binary large object (BLOB) storage; and powerful, integrated search functionality based on the FAST professional search engine technology that Microsoft acquired in 2008.

Solutions for CAD

SharePoint can work well on its own for general collaboration. But it also can serve as the foundation for other, more specific applications — one of which is the sharing of engineering data. Microsoft SharePoint Foundation is the platform, or engine, that application developers can use to integrate SharePoint functionality into tools for specific applications. In the CAD world, tools that use SharePoint as a platform include Solid Edge Insight, DesignShare, and Windchill Product Point.

Solid Edge Insight.
Offered by Siemens PLM Software, Solid Edge Insight has a SharePoint 2010–based version due for release later this year. The Solid Edge 2D/3D CAD system was first to implement SharePoint technology almost 10 years ago and today has thousands of users, according to Siemens PLM.

Designed for use with Solid Edge data only, Insight's data-management functionality is built into each file-related command in Solid Edge. Operations such as Save automatically post data into SharePoint. "Solid Edge users don't even know they are working with managed data," said Kasprzak.

A local cache is included that stores commonly used parts, assemblies, and drawings to reduce data transfer across the network. Prior to accessing this library, out-of-date checks are performed to ensure the correct data is used. Solid Edge also delivers dashboard components for customizing SharePoint web portals, such as BOM reporting and 2D/3D viewing.

Solid Edge Insight can support companies of all sizes. It is available to work with Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2003 (both of which include SharePoint), and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server for additional capabilities. The next version of Insight, built on SharePoint 2010, will be available with Solid Edge later this year.


Hand in Hand: SharePoint Server–Based Tools
In addition to CAD-related tools that are built on the SharePoint Foundation engine, the market also offers several PLM and PDM solutions that can deliver information through SharePoint, offering the same types of functionality — such as business analytics, performance indicators, and social computing tools — found in solutions built on SharePoint Foundation. In other words, the CAD system and the SharePoint system can work together.

Aras Innovator. This PLM solution is gaining much traction in the market as a free, open source solution that can grow with a company without requiring additional licensing fees. It supports any type of manufacturing operation and has installations in aerospace, defense, food and beverage, and many other industries, said Marc Lind, senior vice-president of global marketing. Aras Innovator is a full-featured solution in itself that can be customized to meet a customer's needs, but even more functionality is provided when PLM data is delivered through the SharePoint environment. "We've got the PLM data and structure, and SharePoint has the business intelligence capabilities," Lind explained. A version is available based on SharePoint 2010 Enterprise, but Innovator can work with SharePoint 2007 as well, Lind said.

Dassault Systemes ENOVIA. Microsoft SharePoint can work together with the ENOVIA PLM solution. This functionality is enabled through a services offering from Dassault Systemes.

Teamcenter Community Collaboration. When you pair SharePoint with Teamcenter, the comprehensive, multi-CAD PLM system from Siemens PLM Software, you gain what the company calls "a unique visual issues functionality" that enables engineering and nonengineering team members to access and store product information, manage visual issues, and leverage the power of social networking. Using JT, the CAD-neutral PLM language, Teamcenter Community targets companies that have a geographically dispersed product-development team, that need to interface with multiple suppliers, or that manage complex product designs. Teamcenter 8 was released last year; version 8.3 is due in late September.


Windchill ProductPoint. PTC's Windchill ProductPoint is a PDM solution for small- to medium-sized product-development companies, offering CAD file vaulting, sharing, visualization, and mark-up as well as structured CAD data management, embedded visualization, reporting, and parts libraries. ProductPoint 2.0 integrates directly with multiple MCAD solutions, including Pro/ENGINEER and AutoCAD, and is planned to support SolidWorks and Autodesk Inventor. It is scheduled to ship in Q4 2010 and is being released on top of SharePoint Foundation 2010. The product line also includes:

  • Windchill PPMLink. A new program portfolio management solution that couples stage-gate methods with capabilities to aggregate program and product-related metrics, improving visibility and decision-making.
  • Windchill SocialLink. This new solution utilizes social computing capabilities to bring the collective wisdom of communities to bear on product development challenges.
  • Windchill Web Parts for SharePoint. Critical information from Windchill and other enterprise systems is consolidated for presentation in the SharePoint 2010 environment.

PTC is receiving the Microsoft ISV Industry Partner of the Year award for its work with SharePoint, reportedly the only PLM software provider to do so.

DesignShare. Actify, developer of the SpinFire line of CAD data–publishing products, also offers DesignShare, a solution that works with native SharePoint to enable 2D/3D view, measure, and mark-up. It also works with the software already in place in an engineering organization, including any CAD, PLM, or engineering resource planning (ERP) tools.

DesignShare works best in companies that produce moderately to highly complex products, said CEO Opsahl. All current customers are producers of hard goods, including automotive, industrial machinery, aerospace and defense designs, and consumer durables, and earn $100 million to upwards of $1 billion in revenue.

"DesignShare allows you to really establish a way to connect product data to documents," Opsahl said. "A lot of the high-cost problems that occur in manufacturing are due to mistakes that result from incorrect or incomplete information because people couldn't find the information or because change activity didn't ripple through to [where the data] lives — for example, a shop floor set-up sheet created in Office that can quickly become out of date."

A new version of DesignShare will be released this fall based on SharePoint 2010. It will build on the system's ability to connect the latest product data to documents where that data is published, and it will unveil a new file viewer based in Silverlight "that is extremely small and lightweight and works extremely well in a web environment," Opsahl said.


Leveraging SharePoint, Autodesk Style
Rumors are circulating that a SharePoint-related development is brewing at Autodesk, but the company maintains that its existing Vault solution, used in a SharePoint environment, is the answer to meeting data-sharing objectives for its customers.

Vault is tightly integrated with Autodesk CAD applications but can be used to control data generated from any number of other industry solutions as well. Data stored in Autodesk Vault can be published to SharePoint for sharing across an organization. Vault users can jump to SharePoint easily, according to Autodesk.  

Brian Roepke, Autodesk's director of data management products, said that while other companies are developing SharePoint-based CAD solutions aimed at small- to medium-sized businesses, "We've already had this solution that's already really well suited for this simpler, lower-cost deployment." Many Autodesk customers use a variety of the company's software products, and each one would require its own SharePoint integration, Roepke said. "So we keep things very focused on Vault, we cover as many Autodesk applications as possible, then we tie it to Share-Point for that sharing of information throughout the larger organization project team."

Roepke continued, "Something else we're able to do that SharePoint doesn't do today, but that is in very high demand by our customers, is share data among users in different locations. SharePoint has no solution to support data synchronization or replication between sites, but Vault does." In addition, Roepke said, Vault is better suited to dealing with large design files, even across multiple locations. "But as we use the two solutions together, it tells a much better story for both the designer and the extended team. … SharePoint is a very important part of our customers' ecosystems, and we very much coexist."

And as for SolidWorks? Time will tell.


What's Ahead

We'll likely see SharePoint-based applications going mobile in the next 12 to 18 months. Opsahl explained that Actify is actively looking at how to port DesignShare to mobile platforms. "Because we are so closely tied with Microsoft, we're looking at how we could run on Microsoft mobile devices. Microsoft is putting up graphics platforms that run on a variety of devices that are very efficient and very fast. We'll be able to leverage this platform [when it becomes available]."

Microsoft's Floyd said the key take-away messages for companies considering SharePoint-based solutions for managing CAD data are to understand the opportunity for collaboration on work in progress, and realize the domain-centric potential of the integrated experience with a CAD application.

Opsahl summed it up: "If a company wants to be competitive in manufacturing and they're not looking at [SharePoint integration], they need to be looking at something else that does what SharePoint does or they're going to find themselves competitively pressured because their competition will be able to do better work for less cost."

The value of SharePoint-based collaboration recently hit home for Tord Dennis, product marketing manager for community collaboration at Siemens PLM Software. In a presentation at the company's user conference in late June, Dennis was promoting the value of social media in PLM. As an example, he explained that Siemens PLM uses SharePoint internally, and that he used his personal My Site page to post his thoughts about collaboration — initially, he said, to address recurring questions from coworkers and save himself time. So he was surprised to find that those coworkers were leaving comments in response to his posts, building on the topic he started. SharePoint, he said, "helps me learn from my colleagues as well as helps my colleagues learn from me."



About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

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