The PDM/PLM Divide

PLMAbyssA great void continues to expand in the application of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and even progressively simpler Product Data Management (PDM) technology solutions. A chasm exists between the large enterprises successfully engineering complex information infrastructure into manufacturing juggernauts, and the small design firms merely surviving with the digital equivalent of brute force. It’s literally becoming an abyss, a bottomless pit, baby; two-and-a-half miles straight down. When it comes to PDM or PLM, two flavors of solutions have dominated for an age: the big complex monstrosity, or the anti-solution, which usually means cobbling all things together with whatever came with Microsoft Office. The next step in PDM/PLM technology evolution must strive to fill that void, and find a meaningful compromise between the inequity of large and small, balancing robustness with agility.

On one side of the divide we have the PDM/PLM systems we know today. Many companies have been successful with these technologies, others not so much. These are solutions tailored by specialists, often dedicated teams of business analysts, engineers, solution architects, developers and a consultant or five. Together they leverage top-down process re-engineering, map customized data models, design complex technical infrastructure, and orchestrate the solution into a carefully calibrated symphony of elaborate enterprise systems. From the outside, it might seem about as awesome and mysterious as a bio-luminescent spaceship the size Chicago sitting on the bottom of the ocean. But it comes with a price. Cycle times are long. Implementation is arduous. Ownership costs are high. The most impressive implementations cost tens if not hundreds of millions. Exceptions are few. It might seem like madness, but at scale the benefits can be many times that. But that’s the thing, you need scale.

Which brings us to the other side of the great divide, where everything in the paragraph above seems distant, impossibly complex, and ultimately unaffordable. What’s the alternative? Any solution you can possibly imagine, as long as it can be crammed into Microsoft Excel. Like a bunch of grease monkeys just banging pipes together; one big bludgeoning tool to whack everything into submission. In comparison to a well-oiled industrial PLM machine, the low-tech alternative seems very much like barbarism. But hey, at least it’s practical and accessible. Well, hell, son. You better get a line down to us. We’re in moderately poor shape down here.

Up until now, the choice has been simple. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the PLM source and manufacturing nirvana. The door to your left leads back to Excel, and continued information barbarism. Take Bill of Material (BOM) management as the well-beaten example horse. BOMs either end up in a complex multi-BOM configuration strung across disparate systems and data models, or they’re just dumb spreadsheets on a shared drive disconnected from their parent CAD files, which also happen to be on a shared drive. What’s in-between? Nothing.

In the past, we’ve talked about rightsizing, and how it has gone wrong. Existing PDM/PLM vendors, fully cognizant of the great divide, assumed rightsizing was the solution. By selling lightweight pre-configured version of their existing software architectures, the technology would be more accessible. But those solutions, for the most part, were neither efficient nor flexible.   They were in many ways the worst of both worlds.

The new wave of PDM/PLM technology must take a different path. Oleg Shilovitsky paints a clear picture in his blog Future CAD file management trajectories:

“One of the biggest challenges these days is how to leverage cloud system advantages on top of massive amount of CAD files. Every engineering organization is struggling to find an efficient solution to manage engineering data accumulated on desktops and network drives. Security, cost and scale – these are three most important elements every manufacturing company will be assessing to find an appropriate CAD file management solution.”

A tremendous opportunity exists to fill the great divide once and for all. Cloud technology is no doubt the catalyst to the turning of the tide. New solutions must compete with the accessibility and ubiquity of Excel but play nice in what’s to become a rather large universe of similarly constructed technologies. Together, they will form a scalable platform for tomorrow’s data management – from the ground up.