Extending PDM Beyond Just Data For Manufacturing

In the beginning, like many new technologies, product data management (PDM) was over-hyped and under-supported especially with regard to its ability for handling disparate data and document types and file formats that had to be accessed and used for different purposes by different people. Today, however, PDM has matured into systems far more capable than envisioned in the early days -- and, if properly specified, scaled, and implemented, actually can perform as advertised (but not necessarily by themselves).

Beyond the many standalone PDM products available on the market today, some of the mid-range CAD vendors have finally realized the importance of PDM as they bundle or integrate PDM applications with their flagship products.

The fact remains, though, PDM is not used nearly as much or as well as it could or should be.

I would estimate that approximately 30% of mechanical product development industry as a whole employs some sort of PDM, but would estimate it higher for engineering firms and lower for manufacturing organizations. Why a lower number for manufacturers?

Speaking in very general terms, many engineering firms can get away with using PDM and CAD, whereas most manufacturers cannot. PDM and CAD are just two parts of the puzzle for manufacturers who also need CAM tools for processing material, manufacturing resource planning (MRP) tools for matching order levels of raw material to estimated final product shipment, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools that take into account the bigger corporate picture beyond manufacturing. As many manufacturers have realized, all of this stuff can get very cumbersome, especially interfacing and integrating all the parts, and expensive very quickly, so instead of jumping in full force and hoping that things work, many manufacturers have chosen, either willingly or unwillingly, to purchase CAD and CAM products and call it quits there. Additionally, problems can arise if tools get implemented only on a local, departmental level and not on a corporate-wide basis with standardized and consistent processes, procedures, and data structures.

From the beginning, the intent of any PDM system has been to capture, represent and re-use design and manufacturing data. We've moved far beyond the data stage, however, because today information and knowledge are far more valuable than mere data. So what's the big difference? Data consists of organized facts, information is patterns of data, and knowledge is patterns in information. Since they are all different and build upon each other, each successive step up gets progressively more complex and difficult to handle. However, an effective PDM system can save tons of search time for specific information and can enable the re-use of information fro project to project.

Increasingly, the gaps are filling and the lines of distinction are blurring for PDM and MRP software products because they are both especially vital for manufacturers. Who knows, they may one day meld into one for those in the manufacturing space. It's a tough job, though, to combine the two. Tough because PDM and MRP have historically performed such different functions. PDM has primarily been tasked with storing and processing design information, whereas MRP has been used to control the configuration and production of manufactured parts and assemblies, a digital "bill of materials," but actually much more sophisticated than that.

Whether used for design or manufacturing, ideally, a PDM/MRP system is less about just data, information, and knowledge, and more about sharing and exploiting them.

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