The current hot topic of debate within design engineering, product development, and manufacturing organizations involves whether to implement a product data management (PDM) or a product lifecycle management (PLM) solution.

The current hot topic of debate within design engineering, product development, and manufacturing organizations involves whether to implement a product data management (PDM) or a product lifecycle management (PLM) solution. This choice is often framed in the context of an either/or proposition, as in “you can have PDM or PLM, but you cannot have both.” The truth of the matter is that PDM is an enabling technology for managing product design data and that PLM is a strategic, process-focused approach that leverages PDM, other technologies, and consulting services to manage product lifecycles from inception to retirement.

Determining which approach is most suitable to your particular situation requires an understanding of why PDM is necessary, how the very nature of your organization should influence your decision on a solution, and what steps need to be taken before considering PLM.

The catalyst for the growing need for data management solutions is the recent acceleration in the migration from 2D to 3D CAD as the primary product development platform.? A SolidWorks Corporation survey of machining, sheet metal, molding, prototype, and design shops revealed that 2005 was the first year in which these service providers received more 3D files than 2D files to complete their work.? The use of 3D files increased from 38 percent in 2003 to 41 percent in 2004 and 51 percent in 2005.? Today, 3D solid models have supplanted 2D CAD drawings as the most widely used format received by manufacturing service suppliers.

Keeping track of 2D design data is fairly straightforward because 2D files are separate, distinct entities that can be managed by simply using computer file folders (e.g., Windows Explorer).? The move to 3D CAD creates a wealth of benefits and opportunities as well as data management challenges.? Because engineers are more prolific with 3D systems, they generate a greater volume of data. Plus, 3D files contain references, associations, and interrelationships that link them to other files — such as parts, drawings, BOMs, multiple configurations, and assemblies — that need to be managed, preserved, and safeguarded.? This is especially important when numerous revisions are made, when different engineers work within an assembly, or when more than one person collaborates on a part. In short, every 3D system by its very nature creates the need for managing the increased volume and complexity of 3D CAD data to prevent file overwriting, lost file associations, and costly errors.

Different manufacturers, different needs
While a PDM system is a must for all manufacturers using a 3D CAD tool, the application of PLM methodologies is a question that relates to the very nature of the manufacturing organization itself. The primary difference between PDM and PLM involves design process automation versus process reengineering.? PDM is a tool for managing product design data in order to automate product development, gaining efficiencies within existing processes.? PLM is a process reengineering strategy aimed at leveraging design data and other technologies, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, to manage product lifecycles, remake processes, and increase output, with the productivity improvements emanating from across the enterprise rather than from a single department or a specific process.

Assessing your organization’s size, structure, effectiveness, and goals are important considerations before determining whether to pursue a PLM strategy.? Are you managing product design data efficiently?? Are there opportunities for process reengineering?? Is your enterprise large enough to benefit from PLM?? Do the potential benefits of PLM outweigh the cost?? Do you feel more comfortable walking, using PDM tools to manage 3D product design data effectively, before running full-tilt into PLM?

PDM for the mainstream
Although some large, global corporations have had success with PLM implementations, the vast majority of mainstream manufacturers are simply not ready for PLM and will benefit more quickly and substantially from a PDM system.? These manufacturers have either recently migrated from 2D to 3D CAD, are in the process of migrating to 3D, or plan to make the transition to 3D at some point in the future. When you consider the overall hierarchy of information technology needs, you have to be able to find, configure, and manage product design data, capabilities available through PDM solutions, before you can use the data for PLM purposes.? In other words, you cannot optimize how you use design data if you cannot find it.

The more pressing need for small- and medium-sized manufacturers that constitute the mainstream is using 3D CAD data and PDM solutions to improve fundamental product design and engineering processes that support automated manufacturing.? As a practical matter, improving productivity at each stage of the existing development process is a more realistic and attainable goal for mainstream manufacturers.

Acquiring a PDM solution to manage product design data is a more pragmatic investment for most companies, and a variety of different PDM solutions are available to meet different needs.? With SolidWorks software, for example, an individual user can get by with the built-in SolidWorks Explorer, engineering workgroups can use PDMWorks? software, and larger organizations can utilize the recently-announced PDMWorks Enterprise application.? PDM solutions are scalable so make sure you consider the size of your organization before making a decision.

PLM for the future
Many of the manufacturers that have successfully implemented PLM are global enterprises with multiple locations, large organizations, and replicable product data. For these companies, using PLM to optimize processes across markets and countries has been fruitful. Some PLM successes are related to reusing design data, product components, tooling, logistics, and scheduling to produce a new product more quickly and cost-effectively.? Developing a new car model using a chassis and tooling from a previous car design is an example of leveraging PLM. Other manufacturers have used PLM to support “design to configure” product development. Implementing PLM to obtain these types of results required significant resources for technology, process reengineering, and consulting services.

Even though today’s PLM solutions are beyond the reach of many mainstream manufacturers, PLM may have a broader market at some point in the future. Nobody can argue against the need for process optimization.? The question today is at what level is PLM effective and at what cost. The mainstream market is still digesting and adapting to the move to 3D CAD technology, which integrated PDM solutions can facilitate. PLM will continue to have its strongest pull in large vertical industries, such as automotive and aerospace. Whether PLM can be adapted to the needs of small- and medium-sized manufacturers, the mainstream , is a question only the market and the future can answer.

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