According to “The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2019,” an independent industry survey of 850 product design and manufacturing professionals, more than 8 out of 10 respondents acknowledge that they have a version control problem. There is confusion over which version of a design is really the latest version, a scenario that leads to costly manufacturing errors.

Graphic slide noting that 86 percent of engineers responding to a recent industry survey say they have problems managing different versions of a product design.

Using a Product Data Management (PDM) system has been a popular and successful way to prevent these kinds of mistakes, but how does one even begin to explore this approach?

Implementing a PDM strategy is not only time-consuming for project managers, but for every other stakeholder who needs to find the necessary resources to see the project through. As everyone is overloaded with other ongoing projects, understanding how a specific PDM solution impacts your business and your processes is more important than checking off a laundry list of PDM capabilities.

One of the biggest and most costly mistakes made while implementing a PDM system is trying to map current business processes to an off-the-shelf data management solution. This approach will likely lead to disappointment or a hefty consultant’s bill for a long drawn-out implementation with custom forms and macros.

Just because a specific process has always been used, doesn’t mean that it should continue to be used with a new tool. Many data management tools have workflows that will address most of the design processes you currently employ, and some will do things differently. It’s best to regard this as an opportunity to brush off the cobwebs and re-engineer your business processes if a particular workflow makes more sense.

Here are some of the minimum requirements you should look for in any Product Data Management system:

1. Installation, Setup and Maintenance

For companies with dedicated IT resources and CAD administrators, installation and maintenance of a PDM system is not a major issue beyond downtime and extra related costs. For smaller companies, however, it is often the CAD expert who also becomes the unofficial CAD administrator.

The PDM software itself does not take too long to install. But in most cases, the provisioning of multiple dedicated servers and installation and configuration of the SQL database (which usually comes as an extra cost) takes a certain level of patience and expertise. When the next annual release happens, it is pertinent to create multiple instances or sandbox environments that mirror your production setup. That way you can test that everything works as it should in a controlled environment before deploying new software to production. This will require extra hardware, time and IT resources, but it's a necessary and worthwhile exercise.

If you are working across multiple sites, you need to assess what capabilities are available for data replication – making exact copies of file servers – so that each site has a local copy of the data. Replication can usually be scheduled to run overnight or on-the-fly, but consider the network bandwidth required to move large datasets and the costs of running and maintaining extra servers.

Ongoing user and project management often falls to the CAD administrator, too. When occasional users such as sales, marketing, manufacturing, and guest users (such as contractors and customers) need access to your data, explore how flexible your software and vendor are for additional licensing and remote access options. Ask what processes need to be followed in order to give people access to the data they need as quickly as possible.

When evaluating a PDM system, discuss the options available for installation and maintenance to see how much work is involved. If it is not possible to configure the PDM system yourself, your vendor will be happy to supply a consultant for an additional cost as part of your implementation package.

2. Security

It is important for any organization adopting a PDM system to evaluate their security requirements and try to predict who will need access to their data and what type of access will be required.

A minimum security requirement is that each user should have their own unique username and password and must login to the PDM system before they can access any company data (even the temporary files on their hard drive that were part of a previous session). This is in addition to any computer accounts and passwords. For users requiring remote access, a data management system should have additional security features like 2-Factor Authentication (2FA) available as standard.

Once authenticated, each user should not be able to access all data – only the projects, folders or individual files they have been given permission to view or edit. More granular user and group management would enable access to be controlled by role (or job function), team, project, folder and individual item. These security permissions should be able to be controlled by the system administrator or by the project manager.

 A data management system should have additional security features such as 2-Factor Authentication (2FA) available as standard.

It is your IT department’s responsibility to ensure that no security measures can be circumvented. Your overall security plan should include password-protecting servers and shared network drives, administering firewalls, locking down USB ports to prevent file copying and physically securing server rooms.

When employees leave or move onto other projects, find out how easy it is to remove their access to your data and if it’s possible to collect or delete any files (on their hard drives or other storage media) that may be left over from previous PDM sessions and file check-outs. The PDM system should have an easy-to-use interface for administration of user accounts, as well as audit trails that show who accessed what and when. It should be easy for an administrator to reassign document ownership and access control on the fly.

3. Engineering Document Control

If you are considering a data management system from a different vendor than your CAD system, test their capability to handle all the different types of files you typically create as part of a project. The check-in and check-out procedure can vary between different systems and the efficiency of this process is highly dependent on how the backend servers are setup and the local client software or CAD add-ins are configured. Moving large datasets across a network during a check in/out process can take time, especially between different sites, so this should also be considered.

Other, non-CAD files are also critical to the development and documentation of a project. These can be PDF files, images, videos, or any other file-based item including Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets and email correspondence. A PDM system should be able to handle these items as part of the product release process and keep a detailed, documented audit trail of every item from concept through to manufacture. Standard parts, fasteners and other approved supplier parts should be managed from a central repository to make them easy to find and easy to share between multiple projects, design teams or locations to prevent duplication.

4. Search

PDM’s ability to index large amounts of data, including metadata, make it ideal for finding the right part or document quickly. Unless the search tools are granular enough, you may end up with long lists of similar parts or duplicates. Check what options are available, and how specific you can be with your search criteria. Can you search based on any metadata and can you combine multiple criteria? Can you search files that have been checked-out or new files that have not been checked in yet? Other search types that are common to PDM systems are reverse links (also known as “where used” reports) that display all of the drawings linked to an assembly that meet specified criteria or all of the assemblies where a revision of a specific part is consumed.

5. Version Control

As products go through each stage of a design process, certain milestones or recognized development stages are versioned in order to document progress or to inform others that a product is ready for review. A designer working on a project may make many modifications and design iterations in the course of determining the most efficient and cost-effective design. Once the designer is happy with the current state, checking-in the design should automatically create a version.

A version draws a line in the sand and stores the design at that moment-in-time in the database. This provides a permanent record of a version of the design that can be retrieved, reviewed and used as the baseline for further design edits or new product lines. For example, a product containing a complex linkage or mechanism may have been developed through any number of conceptual design ideas. Each idea is then considered based on its individual merits and the design that gets the consensus of approval will become the basis of the product moving forward. In order to document each of the ideas and to ensure that everyone is looking at the version that was put forward by the designer, version control is very important.

Make sure that a version stored in the PDM database can be easily searched, retrieved and is immutable, or in other words, cannot be changed or deleted by the user or the CAD administrator. Removing or altering an existing version could have a severe impact if it is used in other projects. Between each version, or check-out/check-in, a designer may make multiple changes to a design or create new parts. How easy is it to track those changes?

6. Revision Control and Approval Workflows

Revisions are used to denote designs that have been reviewed and approved through a formal release procedure and may be candidates for production – depending upon the state at which that revision is in. Revision control relies upon preconfigured approval workflows and revision schemes in order to route documents to the right people for sign-off and to apply the correct revision number.

When evaluating this important part of any data management solution, assess whether it can replicate your revision schemes and approval workflows. In many cases, an exact match may not be possible and your processes may need to be adjusted to suit. Redesigning and optimizing your engineering business processes is often key to a successful deployment of any PDM system – especially those processes that existed before PDM or before CAD.

To enable this redesign and optimization, most PDM systems provide workflow design tools. With workflows, almost any business process can be modeled visually and automated to follow strict rules and various paths of approval depending on different criteria. A set of documents can be routed through different people, groups and departments (either in parallel or in serial) in order to receive all the signatures required for release.

Exceptions, such as the rejection of a document change, should be dealt with through custom paths or even sub-workflow processes. Automation is key to workflows – for example, the ability to automate the definition of an attribute (such as release state) as the workflow reaches a specific stage.

Most PDM systems will provide a visual, easy-to-use interface that enables an administrator to design the required workflows. An API (Application Programing Interface) should be available to enable some level of customization above and beyond the out-of-the-box functionality provided by the workflow designer.

To initiate a workflow, a user should submit an object for approval. If the object is an assembly, the system should be able to up-issue any subassembly or part that requires it. It should also be able to revision control individual part or assembly configurations (variations of a standard item) and add items from other documents or projects as part of the approval process.

Notifications of pending approvals should be sent to managers via email with embedded links to find approval submissions easily. Before signing-off a design, a manager must be able to easily interrogate the design in detail without having to go looking for data.

Access to this information on a mobile device should also be considered for managers and executives on the go. A project manager or CAD administrator should be able to see which documents are pending approval, how long they have been in that state, and who the approvers are. This is vital to keep projects on track and to prevent any bottlenecks caused by approvers being absent from the business.

7. Automatic Part Numbering

Part numbers should be unique across the company for inventory and other purposes. If the PDM system has the option of generating automatic part numbers, it should be customizable out-of-the-box to suit most companies’ needs and be able to check that numbers don’t already exist to prevent duplication in the database.

If your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system generates the master part codes, there must be a mechanism (through an API or other method) to extract that data and apply it to any new parts at check-in.

8. “Where Used” Reports

Standardizing and reusing common parts across multiple product lines is a great way to reduce inventory, design time and overall costs. If a part needs replacing or updating due to a failure in service or change of supplier, a “where used” report should be able to detail the exact use of any part or assembly. The report should include your current products, products you no longer sell but still support and all your in-process designs. This is critical for analyzing the impact of any proposed change and the traceability of each design.

In combination with an advanced search tool, a “where used” report can help companies to rationalize inventory and reuse existing parts as much as possible. If a part can be reused in a new design, a detailed “where used” report can inform the designer that it is a common part. The company can save costs by not having to issue new part numbers, source suppliers and allocate new inventory space.

9. Effective Collaboration

A good data management system should be able to facilitate collaboration between internal and external teams and make the process as painless as possible.

When multiple designers are working on the same project, their CAD system may prevent them from being able to edit the same files at the same time, but they can still reference the last checked-in version. A suitable CAD add-in should therefore be able to alert a user who has referenced a part that is being edited by somebody else, that the design has changed and needs updating. Ideally, each user should have complete visibility into the changes that are being made so that there are no surprises when a new version appears. They should also have the option to update or freeze the design.

Sharing data to the right people at the right time should be straightforward and either controlled by the designer, project manager or CAD administrator. A unique identifier for each participant in the project, usually an email address, should be enough to assign permissions to another person who can then access the data without any further hurdles. A system should also allow companies to just as easily revoke access to data in the case of employees leaving the company or contractors moving on to another project.

10. Engineering Change Orders (ECOs)

Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) should not come as a big surprise to engineers – they’re inevitable. No design is perfect the first time and improvements are always required, whether they be design improvements or changes required for manufacturing. Issues found during the initial design are corrected as part of the natural design process, while ECOs are generally requested after a product has been released for manufacturing. At this time, all ECOs are carefully vetted in design reviews to ensure that it makes sense to implement them.

An ECO is effectively rework. When changes are made to one area of a product, invariably other areas are affected, too. While PDM systems can help manage all the data, the work required to implement an ECO may multiply tenfold as you chase interdependencies and tolerance stackups around a design. Workflows generally manage the ECO process, assigning permissions and notifying users who will then check-out the files to make the changes. File locking prevents others from working on design data while an ECO is completed, so if multiple ECOs need to be carried out, the PDM system may force a serial workflow and create a design bottleneck. Check if and how the PDM system permits multiple ECOs to be affected at the same time. Once complete, changes should be able to be compared, reviewed, approved and seamlessly integrated into the main design.

11. Bill of Materials

A Bill of Materials (BOM) is one of the most important pieces of information required for product design. When CAD files are checked into a PDM system and all metadata is extracted, a BOM becomes available for all users with permissions. Because the BOM is a vital source of data, it should be accessible and viewable by all project stakeholders without requiring a PDM license or special software. Users with edit permissions should be able to modify a BOM, edit part metadata and add bulk items such as such as paint, grease and sealants to the parts list.

A Bill of Materials should always reflect the currently selected configuration (if the PDM system supports configurations). This means that as an assembly configuration is selected, the BOM is updated to reflect that configuration.

12. Integration With Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software automates data transmission within a company, covering procurement, production, sales, human resources, accounting and other critical business information. Integrating PDM with ERP enables users to create production BOMs in an automated and process-safe way without having to copy numbers from their CAD system and manually enter them into their master ERP system. Part properties such as material, weight and volume should transfer seamlessly to the ERP system, giving the designer a comprehensive overview of all important product information, such as stock levels, suppliers, prices, etc.

13. Real-Time Analytics

Every company wants to identify inefficiencies and reduce costs. To achieve this, you need a data management system that is able to offer complete transparency across the entire product development process. Design is one area of a business that has very little in the way of hard facts, making it difficult to uncover issues and find ways to address them.

A good data management solution should be able to generate reports that enable you to analyze key performance indicators related to your entire design process. Reports that detail how much time and resources were used on a project, how much time a user spent on each project, who has access to a design and when did they last review it, are just some of the details that will help you to evaluate and re-engineer your business processes.

Role-based custom dashboards displaying analytics related to the progress of the product development process should be easy to define in the PDM system.

14. Automated Backups and Disaster Recovery

The PDM database and all the files on the file server must be backed up on a regular basis, no matter how safe you think your IT and PDM systems are. Backups should be done at least once a day, if not more often. Backups are there for the sole purpose of disaster recovery. You need to be ready to deal with missing or corrupt files, hardware failures, computer viruses, ransomware, or even a fire in the server room. Performing regular backups is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

It is estimated that up to 30% of a company’s CAD files become corrupt or go missing over their lifetime, so when data is lost and you need to revert to a backup, that is when you discover how good your disaster recovery strategy really is. Automated backup procedures are not part of a PDM system, so this is up to your IT department. Backing up a file-based PDM vault can be quite complex, labor intensive and expensive. Not only do you have to backup the disks used to store the actual CAD files, but also the SQL database that keeps track of those files. To make sure the two stay in sync, backups must be run at the same time, usually during off-hours when nobody is accessing or making changes to the PDM data or the CAD files. Otherwise, the backup may be incomplete or become corrupted. This becomes trickier if your CAD data is replicated across multiple sites worldwide.

Remember that backups are only worthwhile if they are made regularly, each backup is replicated and every copy is integrity-tested and stored in a safe place (preferably offsite). If a backup procedure is scheduled to run once a day during the evening and you lose some files, at least you can restore them from the most recent backup – losing “only” one day’s worth of work. That could be one day’s worth of work for the entire team, not to mention the time it would take to get the systems back up and running and restoring the data from the backup. In reality, your disaster recovery plan could easily cost you several days.

Your Guide to Data Management and PDM

Picture of the cover of the new Onshape eBook about how product development teams can manage their product designs.

Exhausted yet? We’ve only gone over half of the critical factors when exploring a PDM solution and will continue the list in another blog next week. Don’t want to wait that long? Onshape’s eBook, “The Engineering Leader’s Guide to Data Management & PDM,” will help you evaluate your current processes and help you compare and contrast alternative solutions. Download your free copy here.