How PDMs stack up

Oct. 21, 2004
Thinking of PDM systems as having low, middle, and high-end capability helps select the most appropriate.

Jerry Waxler
Director of Technical Communications.
Synergis Software
Quakertown, Pa.

Flexible midlevel PDM systems such as Synergis Adept support multiple 2D and 3D CAD platforms right out of the box.

One aspect of security deals with creating groups of users and assigning them access to special sets of documents.

Once groups or teams are created, it's easy for managers to grant permission for editing, viewing, checking and moving documents.

Engineering departments are the center of manufacturing organizations. At ever-increasing speeds, they must design products, upgrade and fix problems, and send jobs out for bid. Of course, engineering drawings and models are the focus of each activity. To improve productivity, it is critical to manage documents as effectively as possible. Manual methods have predominated, but when people handle paper, they are prone to losing documents, making mistakes in the BOM, and selecting wrong versions.

CAD systems generate mountains of information so a computer system should help manage the mountains. But which software is most appropriate? Dozens of document-management systems are available. How can a manager reduce the number of candidates to the few that make the most sense? One way sorts them into tiers.

In a nutshell, systems bundled with CAD programs occupy the low end, followed by midlevel systems from vendors not associated with a particular CAD system, and high-end systems can do anything at a cost. A closer look at the three levels show how systems stack up against each other.

PDM systems bundled with CAD software are affordable but have significant drawbacks. For instance, most do not handle file formats from other CAD vendors.

Low-end systems meet the minimal demands of the CAD environment, such as storing, retrieving, and organizing CAD drawings. Although designers may be satisfied with such systems, they do not address the organization's greater business needs. For example, they have little interdepartmental capability, so captured data often stays in its own isolated island. This reduces collaboration and forces technical staffs to do clerical work when outsiders want document copies.

Worse yet, such systems usually require each user to own a license of the CAD software. That means only engineers gain value from the document-management software. These systems typically do not include viewers, so unless a department has the originating software, teams can't view documents. Also, low-end software has no APIs for extended customization.

High-end systems, on the other extreme, offer a single source to manage all data required to manufacture parts and products. Unfortunately, high cost is a defining characteristic of these systems, and seat cost is only the beginning. Because of their enormous potential capability and flexibility, they come out of the box looking more like programmer toolkits than applications, and they require extensive programming just to get them up and running. An annual support contract alone could cost as much as the entire price of buying and implementing midlevel PDM.

The software can be so complex that training becomes disruptive and time consuming. And despite the high price, these systems are often so focused on the enterprise, they don't work as well as they should with different CAD programs. Finally, placing an entire infrastructure in the hands of a single vendor puts a company at the mercy of the vendor's policies and business health.

Midlevel document-management systems are intended for the rapid work-in-progress environment of design and engineering departments, so they contain features such as sign in and out, approval, redlining, and viewing. They work well with many CAD systems. In fact, software in this range is often more tightly integrated with engineering software than high-end systems.

Midlevel systems, include built-in viewers like their more expensive counterparts, however midlevel systems are more integrated with their supported CAD platforms. This is critical because it means users can view and, in most cases, redline a variety of document formats from one convenient interface without owning a license for the native software.

The reduced cost of user licenses is one way midrange systems trim costs. While high-end systems require expensive programming and other implementation services, midlevel systems have extensive out-of-the-box capabilities, and are easy to learn making departments more productive from day one. In addition, midlevel PDMs are less expensive to implement and manage, so they don't need day-to-day oversight by IT departments. The return on investment can be demonstrated in terms of months versus years.

While the main job of midlevel PDM is to manage documents, it also assists with collaboration, both within and outside the department. The systems can be extended beyond their out-of-the-box capability through custom programming.

Midlevel systems provide a central repository for data sharing and collaborating on designs. For example, they manage transmittals, give sales teams controlled access to as-built documents, and transfer information between engineering departments and back-office systems.

The PDM industry is moving so fast that what departments knew about it 2 to 5 years ago no longer applies. Affordable PDMs that did not meet a department's needs several years ago may seem like different products today. Midlevel systems can become the hub of interoperability and help make an organization more efficient and competitive.






Often created by CAD manufacturers to support their product line
Created by independent developers to support rapid work-in-progress environments of design and engineering departments, not CAD software specific
Feature-rich document management, focused on enterprise-wide communication
Simple to learn and use
Cost effective

Supports multiple CAD formats from various vendors; strong integration
Well suited to product development and engineering department.
Highly functional out of the box; offers much more capability than low-end PDM
Supports remote collaboration
Can be customized to communicate with other business systems and to publish finished documents for wider circulation
Affordable; costs much less than high-end
Easy to implement, learn, and use

Extensive capabilities
Manages a wide spectrum of data and document challenges
Limited capabilities
Creates another island of data
Usually requires a license of CAD software to run.
Typically does not support multiple CAD software formats.
Each component must be researched, selected, and implemented on its own merits.
Time consuming to implement, learn, and administer
Check before you assume it is sufficiently integrated with your CAD system
Requires high level of IT/corporate support

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