The Landscape of PDMs

April 16, 2022


There are many ways hardware teams can manage data associated with their products. A PDM (Product Data Management) system is a standardized way engineers manage their design files and documentation. The ubiquity of PDMs in engineers' everyday workflow is often a topic of daily discussion in hardware organizations. In this post, we will dive into the landscape of PDM: why PDM is important, PDM solutions in the market today, and areas where they can improve.

The importance of PDMs

One of PDM's biggest value adds is helping a hardware team manage product data during their design process. The most important product data are design files; often dozens of part and assembly files compose a single product. The most complex products can include thousands of design files. Hence it is difficult to ensure that only one person is making changes to a file at a given time and not overwriting another person's changes simultaneously. To solve this, PDM establishes file ownership and version control. With a PDM, design files are “checked out” from the larger design database by a single person. This person becomes the temporary owner of the file and is solely able to make changes until he/she decides to “check in” the design back to the database. The check out and check in process prevents engineers from overwriting each other’s work with simultaneous changes. 

The many design files in a product are also difficult to name in a way that promotes easy organization. When engineers create a new part or assembly, a PDM can automatically set the file name according to a part number scheme. If that part is revised, the part name automatically changes to reflect that a revision (or number of revisions) is made.

Second, a PDM supports downstream functions (outside of initial product development) of a hardware business that relies on product data. BOM (Bill of Materials) files are essential to evaluate the cost and complexity of building a design. But creating and updating a BOM by hand is tedious. Each time a design changes, someone has to go into the spreadsheet to update the information. Mistakes can easily be made. With PDM, BOMs are created from an assembly in one click and automatically updated with design changes. 

Making sure designs are not changed after the schedule permits is another challenge. Fabricating parts and moving them through a supply chain requires several weeks or months. These lead times are used to create the development schedule and the deadline for parts to receive final approval. Engineers often describe the final approval of a design that is shared with downstream functions as a “release”. Since designers tweak designs until the last possible minute, it requires constant oversight to adhere to released statuses. 

PDM formalizes release status so hardware teams can always tell which designs have been released and should not be edited. But certain scenarios (such as feedback from a supplier) encourages designs to be changed after the release date. These changes must be carefully considered because they often have large cost and schedule implications. While every team has a different process to approve a late design change, this is known in the industry as an ECO (engineering change order). An ECO is a checklist where several people, usually from different functions of the business, approve a design change. In a PDM system, an ECO can be designed to kick off automatically when a design change is proposed post release.

Quick summary on the importance of PDMs

In summary, PDM simplifies design file management for hardware teams during the: 

1. Initial design process (file ownership, revision control, part numbering) 

2. After the initial design process (BOM management, release approvals, ECOs)

These capabilities reduce the time spent on design file management and increase product development speed. In addition, there are emerging trends with PDM solutions that are in the market today. Certain PDMs incorporate more PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) features and are cloud-based. These trends create the landscape of the PDM market we see today.

The PDM solutions in the market today can be categorized as legacy solutions or recent entrants. 

Legacy PDMs tools and their shortcomings

Legacy solutions, such as SolidWorks PDM, Windchill, and Teamcenter, offer core PDM features and certain PLM features. These PLM features are primarily beneficial to a company’s supply chain and manufacturing teams. For example, all three of these legacy solutions offer component management and manufacturing planning features. All three also started as on-prem only solutions but now offer on-prem and cloud-based options. 

While this move to offer cloud is positive, there are downsides. The PDMs mentioned will each cost a thirty person organization over $60,000 per year. Most legacy solutions cost significantly more than that too. Thirty licenses of SolidWorks PDM Enterprise costs $240,000 annually. Once purchased, it can take an organization a full year to set up the PDM and overcome the learning curve. This onboard period can deter engineering efforts. In summary, legacy solutions meet certain needs and are moving to the cloud, but have a large TCO (total cost of ownership), setup time, and learning curve.

Recent entrants to the PDM market and their limitations

Simply moving to the cloud isn’t enough to fundamentally change hardware engineering workflows for the better…

Recent entrants in PDM such as Upchain (acquired by Autodesk in 2021) and Teamcenter X were designed as cloud-based solutions. These solutions offer increased accessibility to designs and rendering in the browser. They also offer various access levels to reduce an organization’s TCO. For example, an Upchain Participant can view files on Upchain but not upload; their seat costs less than an Upchain Professional who can do both. Recent entrants to the PDM market provide value beyond the legacy options. They are cloud-first solutions with lower TCO. However, they do not fundamentally improve the design workflow of fast-moving hardware teams.

How PDM can be improved

While current PDMs meet several basic needs of hardware teams, they do not improve the workflow of fast-moving hardware teams. 

The Bild team has experience working at some of the largest hardware companies. We've also spoken with over 100 hardware teams about pain points in their process. While most hardware teams want to move faster, they are limited by the amount of time they can spend on engineering. Instead of doing important development work, teams with a PDM still end up spending a lot of time managing files, writing emails, and sitting in inefficient meetings. Today’s PDMs don’t help solve these challenges. 

It’s not easy accessing design data through traditional PDM systems—file storage structures often bury relevant information in hard-to-find places.

Unfortunately, in many cases they are part of the problem. Traditional PDM features over-complicate file storage so design files and documentation files are often siloed to separate locations. As a result, it’s difficult to view and access designs quickly alongside relevant documentation. Design feedback is hard to capture in detail and is disconnected from design files. Instead of being integrated with files, design feedback has to be transferred on email, chat, or in meetings. It’s hard to maintain a process to review and approve designs while moving quickly. Ongoing work is difficult to track because there’s no project management tool that works well for hardware teams. We are excited by a future where a modern cloud PDM solves these exact challenges and enables a better workflow for hardware teams. 

Enter Bild.