In the outside world, you can find some striking examples of good and bad PDM (Product Data Management) systems.

Take, for instance, the “World’s Largest File Cabinet”.

You won’t find it promoted in the official state tourism brochures, but Vermont is home to the rusty 40-foot-high tower of stacked file cabinets welded together. The low-key art installation lives on a weed-covered vacant lot a few miles away from the University of Vermont, and Tripadvisor currently ranks it  #18 of 50 things to do in the city of Burlington. I’m a huge fan of quirky roadside attractions and made a recent pilgrimage to the site during a family roadtrip. My teenage son humored me by posing for a goofy photo-op parodying the tourists pretending to “hold up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

Standing by the World's Tallest File CabinetThe World’s Tallest File Cabinet in Burlington, Vermont.

During my short visit (there is not much to do here besides take Instagram pics), I was surprised that there was no engraved brass plaque explaining the history or social significance of the welded file cabinets. Like all public art, this installation can mean whatever is in the mind of the viewer.

So… What does the World’s Largest File Cabinet represent? Is it a:

  • Tribute to the struggling office supply industry in the digital age?

  • Memorial to the soul-sucking nature of white-collar office work?

  • Call-to-action for Americans to recycle their belongings and keep them out of the landfills?

  • Excuse for an eccentric artist to practice his or her blowtorch skills?

It turns out that Burlington architect and artist Bren Alvarez meant for her piece to be the Leaning Tower of Bureaucracy. Her 2002 art piece was a statement mocking the local government for taking forever to build a proposed road project that was first discussed in 1965. (Ironically, nearly two decades later in 2020, the file cabinets needed to be moved 100 feet to make room for that same road project!)

PDM (Product Data Management) Software Chaos

In the spirit of art being in the eye of the beholder, the World’s Largest File Cabinet reminds me of the struggles that product designers and engineers have with PDM (Product Data Management) software

According to the State of Product Development and Hardware Design 2020, an independent industry survey of nearly 1,000 manufacturing professionals worldwide, data management issues are one of the biggest obstacles slowing teams down.


  • 83 percent of respondents reported they have trouble accessing the correct design data when they need it.

  • 82 percent of respondents reported they have trouble locating the correct design data when they need it.

For users of legacy file-based CAD and add-on PDM systems, the core reason for these problems might be surprising. The fact is that the challenges of managing digital CAD files are very similar to the issues managing paper design files.

The required process of checking in and checking out CAD files from a PDM software system is just like pulling the designs out of a file cabinet. Once a colleague grabs a file (digital or paper), no one else on the team can work on it until it is returned to the vault/drawer.

And if you’re not using any kind of PDM software solution for data management, the old-school file cabinet analogy becomes even stronger. What kind of naming conventions do you have for your files? Is it possible that different documents from the same project are being stored in multiple folders? When you make copies of drawings, how do you know which one is the latest version?

To eliminate this confusion, many forward-thinking companies, like watch-maker Withings and fiber optics developer Amphenol,have switched from on-premise product development tools to cloud-native ones. Working in the same secure cloud workspace, everyone on the design team is always looking at the most up-to-date design, a “single source of truth.”

As an example, let’s shift our cabinet conversation from metal to wood and see how one manufacturer is transforming their product development process with Onshape, PTC’s cloud-based CAD and data management platform.

Striving for a Paperless Factory Floor

Premier Custom-Built strives to combine the rich woodworking heritage of Pennsylvania Dutch Country with the latest cloud CAD and data management tools.

At Premier Custom-Built, a Pennsylvania-based cabinet and furniture manufacturer for the luxury market, no two cabinet designs are alike. Everything is made to order, and built twice – first in digital form and then in the physical form that gets installed in kitchens, living rooms, and even yachts.

One of Premier’s long-term goals is to eliminate the amount of paper documents used on the manufacturing floor. Although the company designs and builds its own specialized machinery, and uses the latest technology across its multiple facilities, there is still a dependency on old-fashioned 3-ring binders (known as “the book”) to reference product information.

Eventually, all the product specs in those binders will live inside the Onshape CAD models, says Premier software engineer Chad Stoltzfus.

“With Onshape, we can take data from the CAD model and turn that into data for the shop,” he says. “Essentially, the definition of our product can exist not in paperwork and the model, but solely in the model.”

“One of the things we frequently talk about at Premier is this idea of having a single source of truth,” Stoltzfus adds. “And that's the logic behind using a cloud-based platform. What we are aiming to do is make our product models the single source of truth.”

A Better PDM Software Solution

The World's Tallest File Cabinet stands as a unique monument that reflects the challenges and chaos within CAD data management. Just as this curious piece of art can mean different things to different viewers, so too does it serve asÆ.[,l a striking analogy for the struggles that product designers and engineers face when managing their digital design files.

In an age where efficiency and collaboration are ever important, adopting modern PDM systems and embracing the cloud can help us avoid the chaos and missteps often associated with outdated data management techniques. It's time to ensure that our digital designs are better organized, allowing us to move forward with clarity and confidence while developing innovative products.

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