|By Attilio Colangelo, August 5, 2014|
PDM is short for "product data management." It tracks the files and data associated with design projects, and acts as a form of version control.
In this article, I compare the PDM systems for two mid-range MCAD systems, SOLIDWORKS and Solid Edge. I'll look at scenarios before and after implementing PDM for each system, and then examine what I encountered in making the transitions. My focus is on the user experience you can expect, and so I won't go into details like the technical underpinnings of PDM systems.
Now, I should point out that I am starting with a bias against PDM. Several years ago, I evaluated several systems for my engineering department, and I rejected them. I got the impression that PDM would put barriers between my CAD designers and their files. But because a lot can happen to software technology in five years, it's time for me to look at this again, fresh.
I will start with this scenario. It is a Friday afternoon, and users are saving files on their computers. The files are stored locally (on their computer) or a network drive (on a shared computer). This is referred to as an unmanaged system. When saving files, the dialog box is the familiar Save As one shown in figure 1.
|Figure 1: Solid Edge SaveAs dialog box before PDM is implemented|
CAD files are opened in the same way: through an Open dialog box, or with Windows Explorer. Let's see how this process changes after PDM is implemented.
I'll start with Solid Edge. It uses Microsoft's SharePoint as its engine, or server. The product is branded as Solid Edge SP (Solid Edge for SharePoint).
Over the weekend, the IT group set up PDM servers and configured all users' computers to use the new servers, instead of the usual save location. A server is a computer that now stores and "serves" files from a central location to all users. So, when users launch Solid Edge on Monday morning, the dialog box looks different. When starting a new file, for instance, the New Document dialog box is shown in figure 2. This is, of course, quite different than what they were looking at on Friday afternoon. Now what?
|Figure 2: New document dialog box after Solid Edge SP is installed|
At this point, things can go in one of two directions, neither generally not in the users' control. If administrative effort was put in to establish a database and structure on the servers, most of the items in this dialog box will pre-filled; in any case, the button shown in figure 3 assists in populating the required fields.
|Figure 3: New document dialog box|
On the other hand, if the server was not completely set up, then users will face challenges in filling in the data. For this review, I'll assume everything related to the server is up, running, and tuned correctly.
The most significant change since Friday afternoon is how and where users access their files. Figure 4 shows the dialog box for opening files. The most noticeable difference from before is that the file location starts with http://eng (see the "Look in:" field). This terminology is probably familiar to you from Internet Web site addresses: just as a Web site "serves" documents we are searching for on the Internet, this is now your company's way of serving CAD and other files from your "intranet" – internal Internet. Notice that figure 4 has an address title in the dialog box, which is the file's location on the server. Just as a web browser address locates organizes content from the internet, your company PDM server locates content from your "intranet."
|Figure 4: Open File dialog in Solid Edge's PDM|
Well, so far, we've taken the Friday afternoon tasks. The implementers resolved problems inherent to unmanaged files, and imported drawing files into Solid Edge SP. Did the users gain anything from the effort? Quite a lot, actually. Let's say they were working with the assembly of a trailer shown in figure 5.
|Figure 5: Assembly view of a sport trailer|
The PDM system is aware of all the parts in the assembly, and can present them in a diagram, as shown in figure 6. This gives users and managers a view of the relationships between assemblies and parts - appropriately, named "Relation Browser." It is a window into the structure of an assembly, and provides ready access to the parts. But the browser is not limited just to BOM (bills of material) structures; it also traverses projects, ECRs (engineering change requests), ECOs (engineering change orders), and workflow contents.
|Figure 6: The relation browser|
When the view gets cluttered, the individual parts can be repositioned within the window using click and drag. This comes in handy when users want to drill down multiple parts from the assembly. Figure 7 shows the drop down menu when users right-click a particular part.
|Figure 7: Right-click shortcut menu for accessing parts|
Selecting the Expand option from the menu puts the selected part at the center of its own parts universe, as shown in figure 8.
|Figure 8: Newly expanded part shown in the circle|
Rearranging items in crowded views is as intuitive as using Ctrl+mouseWheel to zoom in, and then Click+Drag to move items around. This is not surprising, because users are working in an Internet Explorer window. Look back at figure 6 to see the title bar and other IE items, so most IE shortcuts will work.
One of the most useful and accessible features I found in this PDM system is the Preview/Properties Card. (This is the very first item in the shortcut menu of figure 7). When selected, this option shows all of the properties available for the part (see figure 9). The card is "flipped" between views by clicking the title. If there are custom properties or fields defined in the setup, then these would also be accessible here.
|Figure 9: Card views of object properties|
For all the power that this new PDM possesses, there may be times when users just want to go back to simple part creation, save, and edit - without being tied into the PDM system. SP allows this through a switch to unmanaged mode. Figure 10 shows the Solid Edge application menu, and the flyout menu for the Manage selection. As the figure shows, you can toggle Solid Edge SP (the name of the PDM) on or off.
|Figure 10: Switching SP PDM mode on and off|
I hesitated to point out how easy this was because it may not be something that an administrator would see as a positive, so proceed with caution. The PDM facilitates project and file management, but I don't think it's meant to keep someone from, say, designing a go-kart at lunchtime.
I have been a longtime SOLIDWORKS user and over the years watched the company integrate additional facets of design into their CAD environment, such as simulation, routing and piping, and plastics. Thus I was interested to see their implementation of PDM, even as I was aware that PDM does not fold into the design environment the way that other functions do.
In keeping with my approach from the Solid Edge discussion, I'll begin with the pre-PDM Friday afternoon SOLIDWORKS file management tools. Figure 11 shows a familiar "Local Disk (C:)" file location at the top of the window in the address bar.
|Figure 11: SOLIDWORKS File Open dialog box|
Over the weekend, the IT group set up the PDM servers, and configured the users' computers to use these servers, instead of the usual save location. On Monday morning, instead of the familiar dialog box of figure 11, users now see their files, as shown in figure 12. We see that SOLIDWORKS PDM uses Windows Explorer as its interface in contrast to SP's browser-based interface. Both should, however, be familiar to Windows users.
|Figure 12: SOLIDWORKS PDM inside the familiar Windows Explorer wrapper|
The "SOLIDWORKS EPDM" link is conveniently (if not presumptuously) (just kidding) inside the Favorites folder. Beyond this point, however, all information is in the hands of the SOLIDWORKS PDM system, as shown by the address bar.
Figure 13 shows the dialog box when creating a part within the PDM environment. Similar to the Solid Edge scenario, this is a more substantial dialog box that requires users to enter specific information to identify the part to the PDM database.
|Figure 13: SOLIDWORKS file dialog box in PDM|
With the entry of additional data, users gain the ability to navigate, and to extract part and assembly information within Windows. Figure 14 shows a screenshot of the Windows Explorer dialog window in the PDM environment. Selecting a part/assembly brings up a preview of the item along with all of the key data associated with it
|Figure 14: SOLIDWORKS PDM Windows Explorer view|
The "Preview" pane is, however, a bit of a misnomer; it does more than preview an item. Figure 15 shows the part being queried for dimensional information, directly within the PDM-powered Windows environment. This was an unexpected feature, probably because I am used to the typical Windows static file listing. But SOLIDWORKS integrated their eDrawings program into the preview pane; nice move.
|Figure 15: Interacting with the Preview window|
As I mentioned previously, there are occasions when it makes sense to operate outside of the PDM. SOLIDWORKS EPDM offers a way of doing this (see figure 16). The tabs are similar to the non-PDM SOLIDWORKS file interface, with the Enterprise PDM tab added at the end. Always proceed with caution operating outside the PDM, although SOLIDWORKS made it possible to import parts created outside of the PDM. This is particularly useful for bringing in vendor-sourced or third-party parts and assemblies.
|Figure 16: Tab options to allow working outside of the PDM|
I should point out that there are no performance penalties, for either system, in the modeling tasks. Once part files are loaded, the PDM does not interfere with the modeling environment.
The biggest hurdle to PDM implementation in many organizations may not be technical or software related. There is no tangible payback or visibility (software is not a crane, tank, vehicle, etc., etc.). Understandably, the question becomes: where is the value?
What is the value of managed, categorized, readily searchable information and data? To answer this, I made note of every industrial public company with whom I have dealt; I looked up their market value and added them together - and then doubled that number. I still did not get even close to Google, which is the gold standard for extracting value from data management.
Both Solid Edge and SOLIDWORKS PDM have very thorough and well thought out user Interfaces. They borrow from existing familiar UI themes, which greatly reduce the user learning curve. In the area of user interface, I give a slight advantage to SOLIDWORKS as their PDM seems to be lighter, and the Windows Explorer-based interface more intuitive to new users. But as I found out, Solid Edge SP has unique features and functions that design firms would find invaluable for managing drawings and data.
Attilio Colangelo has over 25 years in design, project management and field experience in chemical, process, ceramic, advanced materials and steel industries. More…
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