PDM and Manufacturing

4 Apr, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

It's not just about data anymore

When you think of PDM, what first comes to mind? For many early adopters of the technology, it stood for pretty damn messy, and indeed it was. Like many new technologies, PDM (product data management) was overhyped and undersupported, especially with regard to its ability to handle disparate data and document types and file formats that were accessed and used for different purposes by different people.

Today, however, PDM has matured into systems far more capable than envisioned in the early days -- and, if properly specified, scaled and implemented, it performs as advertised.

Beyond the myriad standalone PDM products available on the market today, some midrange CAD vendors have finally realized the importance of PDM and are now integrating PDM applications into their flagship products, such as PDMWorks that is part of SolidWorks and Vault, part of Autodesk Inventor.

Who Uses PDM?

Even with functional improvements and greater availability, the fact remains that PDM is not used nearly as much or as well as it should be. As testimony to this, a couple of years ago, John McEleney, CEO of SolidWorks, said, “We did some investigation and found that roughly 30% of our customers are using some sort of PDM, which, of course, means that 70% are not. When I think about the 70% of our users not managing their data, it scares the hell out of me.”

I concur with McEleney’s 30% estimate as an average for the mechanical product development industry that currently uses PDM, but I estimate the number higher for consulting engineering firms and lower for manufacturing organizations. It is scary, indeed. But, why the lower number for manufacturers?

Speaking in very general terms, many engineering firms can get away with using PDM and CAD, whereas most manufacturers cannot. PDM and CAD are just two parts of the puzzle for manufacturers, who also need CAM tools for processing material, MRP (manufacturing resource planning) tools for matching order levels of raw materials to estimated final product shipment and ERP (enterprise resource planning) tools that take into account the bigger corporate picture beyond manufacturing. As many manufacturers have realized, all these programs can get very cumbersome, especially when trying to integrate them, and expensive very quickly. So instead of jumping in full force and hoping that things work, many manufacturers have chosen, either willingly or unwillingly, to purchase CAD and CAM products and stop there. Additionally, companies can have problems if tools are implemented on a local, departmental level or pilot basis and not on a corporatewide basis with standardized and consistent processes, procedures and data structures.

Far Beyond Data

From the beginning, the intent of any PDM system has been to capture, represent and reuse design and manufacturing data. We’ve moved far beyond the data stage, however, because today information and knowledge are far more valuable than mere data. What’s the big difference? Data consists of organized facts, information is patterns in data and knowledge is patterns in information. Because they are all different and build on each other, each successive step up becomes progressively more complex and difficult to handle. However, an effective PDM system can save tons of search time for specific information and can enable information reuse from project to project.

Increasingly, the gaps are filling and the lines of distinction are blurring for PDM and MRP software products because both are vital for manufacturers. Who knows, they might one day meld into one product for the manufacturing space. It would be a tall order to combine the two because PDM and MRP have historically performed such different functions: PDM primarily stores and processes design information, whereas MRP controls the configuration and production of manufactured parts and assemblies -- a sophisticated, digital bill of materials.

Whether used for design or manufacturing, ideally a PDM/MRP system is less about data, information and knowledge, and more about sharing and exploiting them via collaboration. But, that’s the topic for a future column.

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