Whatever types of products you manufacture or industries you serve, your design data is almost certainly created in digital form using 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. Originally invented to help draftspeople draw lines more efficiently, CAD has evolved to become the cornerstone of almost all design data produced for manufacturing.

The benefits of CAD and digital design automation tools are well documented – CAD helps you design better products faster, with fewer errors, scrap and rework. 3D design data is easier to understand, easier to modify, and easier to verify for fit and function. For non-technical users such as sales and marketing, and for decision-makers such as executives and customers, 3D design data removes ambiguity and visually explains how a product will look and how it will work.

If a picture paints a thousand words, 3D CAD paints millions.

However, the less glamorous side of 3D CAD is not often discussed – the enormous volume of data that it produces. Remarkably, in most cases, it’s not even mentioned at all (especially by the CAD vendors). Companies with hundreds of products may have thousands, sometimes millions of parts, assemblies and drawings. Some of those companies have been using 3D CAD for decades without any formal or automated method of managing all those data files, relying on manual methods, standard folder structures on shared network drives, historical procedures and tribal knowledge.

Managing drawings this way, of course, is how it was done in the past. Before CAD, drawings were approved by a physical signature on a print and stored in a drawing cabinet under lock and key. If you needed a copy of a drawing, you had to ask for the cabinet keys and create a blueprint of the master copy under the watchful gaze of the drawing office manager. This uncontrolled copy of the master drawing could then be walked down to the shop floor or mailed to external job shops, where further copies were made for whoever needed them.

Screenshot of a release management system that tracks the progress of a product design as it goes through the approval process.

Companies with hundreds of products may have thousands, sometimes millions of parts, assemblies and drawings.

CAD technology has significantly advanced product development, but in many companies, the same process that was used to manage paper drawings has simply been replicated, albeit digitally using files. There now might be less physical clutter, but the organizational chaos hasn’t gone away.

The risks of managing data by manual means are great – and it only takes a few costly mistakes, project overruns, or product recalls to ruin your company’s reputation.

The proliferation of different 3D design tools across companies, both large and small, has resulted in a veritable explosion of data. For every project, a design team may generate thousands of files for each part, assembly and drawing, not to mention all the other project-related documents. As designs go from concept to production, they naturally become more complex. Ideas that were developed quickly for a product concept are not detailed enough or don’t consider all possible manufacturing requirements, so they must be modified or redesigned. More iterations and variations are produced, more disciplines are involved and numerous interdependencies are created.

Keeping track of the mountains of data produced by your design teams and your CAD system can soon become overwhelming. A simple project containing just 10 assemblies, 40 parts and a drawing for each, produces 100 individual files on your hard drive for every version and revision of the design. Before you know it, those 100 files become thousands. The margin for error increases exponentially at an alarming rate.

Because CAD files are saved on some form of digital storage media – either a local hard drive, a shared network drive or (if transferring data) an email server or USB drive – the odds of files being overwritten, lost, stolen or corrupted are stacked against you. Engineers and other project stakeholders waste countless hours searching for data, looking for the correct and most up-to-date version of a design. With more data silos spread across different media in different locations, it’s too easy for teams to accidentally work on copies of the wrong version of a design without even realizing it.

Trying to manage so many copies of so many files leads to unreleased or incorrect versions of designs finding their way to sales, manufacturing, external suppliers, or your competition, with disastrous results.

Computers are good at automating mundane tasks, so it makes perfect sense that each CAD vendor would create their own software tools to help manage their proprietary data files. Unfortunately, Product Data Management (PDM) software has always been treated as an afterthought – the vendors build the CAD system first, then worry about managing the files later.

PDM software does indeed provide many benefits – reducing the number of errors and frustrations detailed above – however it comes with a hefty price tag. There is the initial outlay, ongoing maintenance payments, training and consultancy fees to get you up and running, plus the dedicated servers and IT infrastructure requirements that are not included as part of the original quote.

Picture of data servers needed to run file-based Product Data Management systems. Companies using PDM systems need to make a significant investment in IT infrastructure.

Keeping track of mountains of product design data can result in a significant investment in IT infrastructure.

Cost and time to implement are probably the main reasons why so many companies decide they would rather struggle without it. All too often, CAD is sold without PDM to keep a quote within a customer’s budget. The customer then has to learn the hard way that it’s impossible to run a successful business without data management.

Without question, CAD files are the life-blood of product development. So managing these files effectively and controlling who has access to them, who can modify them, how they are shared, and how data is moved from one stage of development to the next, should be a company’s number one priority.

Collaborating With Internal Design Teams

Photo of a product designer looking at a 3D CAD model of a machine part. Data management is vital for product development teams to keep track of multiple iterations of product designs, which often include complex assemblies and hundreds or even thousands of parts.

Data management is vital for product development teams to keep track of multiple iterations of product designs, which often include complex assemblies and hundreds or even thousands of parts.

Despite what most CAD vendors say in their marketing materials, CAD was never built with collaboration in mind. The fundamental issue preventing collaboration with CAD data is that only one person can edit a file at any one time. If an application does let more than one person open the same file at the same time, it usually makes a copy of the file on-the-fly so that any changes do not affect anyone else. This, however, defeats the purpose of collaboration – as each person is working on different copies of different files.

The reason why files are locked when opened by an application is to prevent:

  • File Corruption – If you were to have more than one application trying to write to the same file at the same time, there would be data structure conflicts that could not be resolved – and the chances that the file would become corrupt are very high. Once a file becomes corrupt, both the CAD system and the operating system are unable to decipher which data is correct, and can’t untangle any malformed data structures. The file is then flagged as corrupt and unusable.

  • Lost Work – If more than one application has the same file open at the same time for editing, you are at the mercy of the “last save wins.” The hours you may have spent carefully modifying a part or an assembly are wasted because somebody else, editing it at the same time, saved their work after you saved yours. The next time you open that file, everything looks completely different and all of your hard work is lost forever.

  • Conflicts – If multiple people are working on the same file at the same time, even on a copy of the file, it is highly likely that one or more of those people could make changes that create a design conflict. Despite working on different aspects of the design or different design ideas, a conflict could have a domino effect on other areas of the project. These conflicts are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve and require lots of meetings and design rework.

When there is only one designer on a project, managing all the generated CAD files using a set of folder structures on a hard drive may be manageable with due diligence. However, that is not a realistic scenario. The only way to effectively keep lead times short while innovating the next great product idea is to employ teams of designers, contractors and external suppliers while keeping sales, marketing, management and customers in the loop as well. This is when collaborating using files becomes a problem.

To avoid any such conflicts, individual design tasks can be assigned to different engineers working on the same project in an attempt to prevent anybody from working on the same files at the same time. However, all the changes made to each file must somehow be integrated into a master top-level assembly. That means that at some point – probably several times a day – somebody must open the top-level assembly to check that all the subassemblies and parts are behaving as expected and attempt to resolve any conflicts that arise.

If a file is saved before a design change is complete – such as when a designer goes home for the evening and intends to finish it the next day – the incomplete model geometry could affect other parts of the assembly. Finding where things have gone wrong and who/what is to blame is not an easy task and it could be a complete waste of time and effort, especially if it resolves itself when the design changes are finished.

Without any formal data management software, it’s impossible not to tread on each other’s toes, overwrite somebody else’s work, or completely break everything.

It’s also impossible to know if somebody is editing a file, who that person is, or if all the files are saved and up-to-date. This means that any person who needs to access those files could be viewing incorrect data and all sorts of problems could ensue.

Collaborating With External Design Teams and Partners

Exchanging product data with remote employees, contractors, suppliers, customers, or any other third party companies (i.e. overseas manufacturers), compounds these issues even further. If a company is simply manufacturing the end result, the only thing you need to do is make sure they have the correct version of the files to work with. If a contract designer or a remote employee needs to make edits to the files, all the problems listed above also apply, only they become worse.

Outsourcing reduces overheads, but it also increases risk. There are many stakeholders at every stage of a project who need access to the latest design data. Unless there is an alignment of processes and applications, there’s a real potential for misunderstanding and loss of control. Managing the distribution of data across many different sites and making it available when needed is difficult, especially when data is siloed or there are multiple definitions of the same data stored in multiple locations and you only want certain data to travel outside of your firewall.

Any person or entity that does not have access to your company network must receive the data files by some other means. Common methods include email attachments, FTP sites and file-sharing services such as Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive.

Let’s examine the pros and cons of each method of sharing data:

Sharing Design Files by Email

For convenience, nothing beats email. It provides a quick and easy way to document your requirements in as much detail as needed and attach as many files as you wish, creating a permanent record of every conversation.

  • Security – Many email services now provide end-to-end encryption, so it’s a lot more secure than it used to be. However, even with these improved security protocols, once an email and attachment has reached the intended recipient, the information is unencrypted. You have no idea if their security protocols match your security protocols – they may not use firewalls or even password-protect their computers, so anybody could be accessing their systems and copying their emails.

  • Multiple, Uncontrolled Copies – Once you attach a file to an email (Copy #1) and send it, you have no idea where that file is going or how many copies are being made. When your message lands in the recipient’s inbox (Copy #2), they must download the attachment to their computer’s hard drive (Copy #3). They may need to forward it to a colleague (Copy #4) or send the file to the shop floor (Copy #5). They may want to work on it over the weekend, so they copy it to a USB stick (Copy #6) and then copy it to their personal PC at home (Copy #7). They may subcontract some of their work or manufacturing processes, so they attach the file to an email (Copy #8) and send it... ad infinitum. Multiplying copies not only increase your security risk, but also the chances of manufacturing the wrong parts. Once several versions of a design have been sent to the same supplier, it becomes more difficult to keep track of which file is the latest.

  • Attachment Size Limits – This varies for each email server and company’s admin settings. Some are as low as 4MB, some as high as 25MB, but when you receive an automated email back from your supplier stating that your email was rejected due to file-size limits, that’s more work for you. You must either break the attachment down into smaller ZIP files or ask your supplier if there are other ways you can send the files.

Screenshot of an engineer's email telling the manufacturer that they have some last-minute changes to a product design. The more versions of your design that you send to an external partner, the higher the chances are of creating confusion over which version of the design is the latest version.

CONFUSING FILE COPIES - The more versions of your design that you send to an external partner, the more likely there will be confusion over which version is the latest and most up-to-date.

Sharing Design Files Through FTP Sites

Antiquated, but still in use today, the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol usually accessed via a cryptic Internet Protocol (IP) address with a supplied username and password. Security can be improved if the FTPS or SFTP protocols are used to encrypt network traffic. Some key things to consider when using FTP sites:

  • Security – Each user must have their own unique username and password combination. Using a generic username and password may be convenient, but it prevents you from being able to deny access to specific people. A manual method of managing usernames, passwords, folder permissions and due diligence is required to ensure that only the right people can access the right folders.

  • Multiple, Uncontrolled Copies – Just as bad as email. The recipient must download a copy of the file to their local hard drive and follow the same processes.

  • Difficult to Use – A certain level of computer literacy is required.

Using File-Sharing Services

File-sharing services, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, are very popular and enable users with paid subscriptions to send files of any size very easily. Files can either be copied into a special folder on your hard drive that automatically syncs with the service in the cloud, or you can upload files using a web browser. The recipient only needs to click a link to download the file locally.

  • Security – File-sharing services have extra security when data is stored on their servers and when data is being transmitted. You can also add password protection. However, how do you send that link and password? Over unencrypted email? In addition, a survey from Osterman Research found that 69% of employees regularly use their own personal file-sharing account to store and send sensitive company data. Of the respondents that had since left a business, 6% admitted to sharing that data with their new employer or others!

  • Multiple, Uncontrolled Copies – Once the end-user has the file, they can do anything they want with it as per email and FTP.

With any method of transmitting data files, there are concerns around security, mistakes and uncontrolled copies. File type and file version can also be an issue. If the recipient is not on the same version of the same software as you, then they will not be able to open the files. You must, therefore, make sure that the files you send are compatible with whatever system they use. If they only need to view the files, they will need to download and install compatible viewing software.

Once an external party has your files and they are able to open them and work on them, you can do nothing but wait until they have made their edits and have sent the changed files back to you (using one of the same methods outlined above).

It is also impossible to know what changes are being made, if any. Since your partners are not local to you, you cannot just walk over, look over their shoulder and ask questions. This requires regularly scheduled design reviews, which often can be disruptive and time-intensive. When deadline day arrives, their final edits may not be what you were expecting. This is wasted time that is difficult to quantify.

Exchanging CAD files using manual methods is not scalable for large design teams or even modest teams with multiple locations.

Each team has their own processes and rarely communicates with each other, leading to duplicate data, information silos and islands of automation. When several copies of the same part are spread across different systems at different locations and a change is required, it’s virtually impossible to know which file is the master copy and who should be making the change. Changes are often made to one copy, but not to others. Mistakes are easily made.

The importance of early collaboration with everyone in the supply chain cannot be stressed enough. Getting early feedback at every stage of the design helps you to manage and reduce product-related costs, manufacturing defects, recalls, complaints and risk.

All of the above issues underline the need for good working practices and secure data management. The level of automation, management and security that is provided by the data management solution you choose depends upon which route you take.

Your Guide to PDM & Data Management

How is your company organizing all its design data – and minimizing the odds of engineers accidentally overwriting each other’s work? Do your product development teams or external partners ever experience confusion over which version of the design is really the latest version?

Onshape’s latest eBook,“The Engineering Leader’s Guide to Data Management & PDM” will help you evaluate your current processes and determine if it makes sense to compare alternative solutions.

Download your copy today!