PDM: Not Just for the Big Boys Anymore

May 7, 2001

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Product data management software (PDM), championed for years by large companies, has recently dropped in price, making it available for the first time to many small and mid-sized firms. In addition to its affordability, PDM also has a slew of new functions to consider.

Product data management (PDM) has, until recently, been utilized exclusively by larger manufacturers, an imbalance of implementation due, for the most part, to its traditionally prohibitive cost. While continually retooling the software that has been used by these larger firms, PDM vendors have developed its capabilities to greater and greater degrees and, in the process, brought the cost of their packages lower and lower. There are currently PDM solutions being offered by vendors that are inexpensive enough to be put to use in small and mid-sized companies. In addition to its affordability, the state of PDM technology is at a high point in its development, with a new crop of features that were previously unavailable and a market full of vendors to choose from. So many, in fact, that the market borders on being congested.

Companies typically look to PDM for a variety of reasons, their only commonality being to increase the effectiveness of their operations. For some companies, this means coordinating manufacturing and service facilities in distant locations. There is PDM software available that not only aids companies in this respect by allowing employees to input data from disparate job sites using laptops, but also by managing the data throughout the entire product life cycle. From its initial conceptual stage through design and production, up to operation, the software provides remote access to product data through a relatively simple web interface. This process has eventually come to encompass computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), simulation, analysis, and enterprise-resource planning systems (ERP).

Some PDM platforms enable their users to improve their bill-of-material (BOM) procedures by consolidating their production data into a single system, allowing these companies to respond with greater speed in meeting customer requests that affect production. Other firms use PDM platforms to interface with purchasers and establish real-time communication across the company. Still others utilize the technology to decrease the engineering change cycle time. As one can see, PDM wears many hats. For a company to get the most out of their software, they need to first decide upon the set of capabilities that best suits them and then put together a software package with that specific vision in mind.

With a proliferation of startup vendors rushing to the PDM market with supposedly unique solutions to companies' production challenges, well-established PDM vendors are starting to feel the squeeze. Adding to the market's confusion is the fact that the functionalities of some types of software are starting to butt up against one another and, in some cases, even overlap each other, leading to an ever-more tangled web of product choices for prospective users to become stuck in. Some of PDM software's traditional territory, such as engineering change and document management, has even been wandered into by the latest ERP vendors.

Perhaps to give customers some means of distinguishing their products, a handful of PDM vendors have begun equipping their software with a diverse range of third-party components such as, user-interface packages, view and markup tools, workflow engines, document vaults and configuration management entities. As PDM evolves, a trend that is becoming more apparent is the move towards more of an overall software integrator, combining and blending other platforms into a cohesive PDM solution. As a result, PDM's impact is not relegated simply to one or two departments within a company, but is rather spread across the entire enterprise.

Another trait becoming more and more available within PDM software is the inclusion of a relatively simple Web browser that brings together a vast hive of automated activities into one easy-to-view format. Since most companies have internally developed web connections for their PDM systems, they are putting pressure on vendors to produce software with browser technology.

As for what PDM has to offer the design department, a new wave of PDM tools has been created for the express purpose of integrating multiple data sources from different CAD systems into one concise 3D model. This would provide engineers a more encompassing view of how a product's individual components fit together into a whole. PDM vendors are now incorporating virtual product mock-up technology into the software to offer users an integrated design management program, allowing them to import data from an assortment of sources, regardless of vendor or file format. The uses of virtual product mock-up technology extends beyond the design department. Quality engineers can use the mock-up models to gauge specifications while technical writers can use the models as the basis for their descriptions and illustrations. Even graphic stylists can make use of the technology to evaluate the mocked-up product's style of design in relation to their company's overall image and corporate identity.

PDM has already proven itself useful to a multitude of company types, regardless of their industrial niche. Now the move to ensure availability across the board, no matter the company size, is a reality.

Source: PDM moves to the Mainstream
Ed Miller
Mechanical Engineering, April 2001
http://www.memagazine.org/contents/current/features/pdm/pdm.html

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