Autodesk and Microsoft - On the Road To PLM?

On October 7, Autodesk announced a new strategic alliance with Microsoft Corp. that are intended to eventually bring business and technical productivity improvements to manufacturers. Specifically, the companies will integrate Autodesk's engineering data management (EDM) software with Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) enterprise resource planning (ERP). Not too surprisingly, not many details were offered about exactly what form these products might take, when we might see them, or who is going to market what - they basically announced that they were going to work together.

The alliance partners are very aware that currently there is no practical and affordable way to connect Autodesk-product-generated engineering data to ERP systems. This causes problems with data inconsistency, poorly controlled engineering change processes, long delays in releasing or changing products, and too much manual data re-entry and recalculation. Through the alliance, Autodesk and Microsoft are hoping that they can satisfy and exploit mid-market CAD and ERP - a comprehensive product category at a reasonable price point that doesn't really exist today.

It's interesting that this announcement only affects the mechanical side of the house, at least for now anyway. It's not too surprising, though, because Autodesk data Vault recently became available as part of the Autodesk Inventor Series that uses Microsoft's SQL Server Database and will be the integration point. This is Autodesk's initial EDM that will be connected to Microsoft Business Solutions ERP. Autodesk said that future EDM products would be announced as they become available.

As to why Microsoft chose Autodesk, Mike Frichol, general manager of manufacturing solutions for Microsoft Business Solutions said, "We evaluated a number of software vendors and found Autodesk to be the clear choice for its market leadership, expertise in the mainstream manufacturing market and innovative technology." The alliance agreement, however, does no restrict either Microsoft or Autodesk from forming other alliances with competing vendors.

Autodesk's design and data management product and services are primarily for small and medium-sized manufacturers, especially those that cannot tolerate, much less afford, large-scale PLM installations. Beyond creating engineering data with products such as AutoCAD Mechanical and Inventor, Autodesk's intent in the alliance is to more closely tie its data management product (Vault) and its collaboration service (Streamline) to Microsoft's ERP offerings. Once this alliance gets off the ground, beyond product, don't be too surprised to see Autodesk Professional Services get involved for optimizing implementations.

This alliance seems to be part of a bigger plan to really make Autodesk a player in the PLM arena. For example, there is currently quite a movement afoot by several third-parties developing products and services for Inventor known as product configurators. These products are designed and intended for product configuration management. They basically provide change control for as-designed, as-manufactured, and as-serviced product structure databases. Generally, these products can also show relationships between data. By themselves, product configurators are not PLM, but act as a bridge between technical tools and business tools.

This alliance, along with the other emerging complementary products, may be the first steps in giving credence to Autodesk's claim that it offers a true PLM solution. This is potentially a big deal for both Autodesk and Microsoft, because they are both entering unknown territory. It's a big deal to customers who potentially have a lot to gain from this alliance. Because of the magnitude of what this alliance could become, we will keep a close watch on it and report developments as they unfold and become tangible, because it's also a big deal to us.

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--Jeffrey Rowe is Editor and Publisher of MCADCafé and MCADWeekly Review. He can be reached at Email Contact.

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