Engineers and email workhorse

August 27, 2014

email-workhorse-plm

We love and hate email at the same time. Since early beginning (back in 1962) email remains one of the fundamental ways of electronic communication. One of the major email transformation back in 1990s was influence of internet and significant expansion of email content and functionality.

In the world of software vendors banking on collaboration, the death of email was predicted long time ago. Engineering software (CAD and PLM) vendors are part of that group. The need to transfer large CAD files was on of the most critical reasons used by companies developing PDM/PLM software against email in communication and collaboration.

Nevertheless, despite all predictions, email is alive and transforming. I’ve been reading Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet. Article explains why email will never die and provides a very good set of arguments to support that statement. Here is my favorite passage:

You can’t kill email! It’s the cockroach of the Internet, and I mean that as a compliment. This resilience is a good thing. Email is actually a tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built. In that way, email represents a different model from the closed ecosystems we see proliferating across our computers and devices. Email is a refugee from the open, interoperable, less-controlled "web we lost." It’s an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services.

Speaking about email transformation, I want to mention (again) the strategy of "unbundling" of email. The article brings few interesting examples of email unbundling – newsfeed, identification platform, direct social communication, digital package delivery service, business and work communication, etc. However, one of the key issues related to remaining popularity of email is the role email plays as a communication platform. The main point here is how to make communication smarter. Here is an interesting explanation from the same article:

This change might be accelerated by services like Gmail’s Priority Inbox, which sorts mail neatly (and automatically) into categories, or Unroll.me, which allows users to bundle incoming impersonal communications like newsletters and commercial offers into one easy custom publication. That is to say, our inboxes are getting smarter and smarter. Serious tools are being built to help us direct and manage what was once just a chronological flow, which people dammed with inadequate organization systems hoping to survive the flood. (Remember all the folders in desktop email clients!)

I found the topic of "smart communication" interesting. This is can be a refreshing idea. At the end of the day, engineers are looking how to make communication easy and smart. At the same time, the adoption of new communication tools can be hard and limited if you need to communicate across multiple organizations and individual networks. I was discussing some aspects of unbundling in the field of 3D, CAD and PLM. Email or let’s call it engineering communication platform can be another "unbundled" service.

What is my conclusion? Efficient collaboration and communication is a key. PDM/PLM vendors are trying to find a new innovative way to re-invent collaboration. Internet, cloud, social… we’ve heard many names and buzzwords for the last few years. To re-invent communication leveraging email communication platform by making your email inbox smarter can be a refreshing approach. What do you think? Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


How much cost to build PLM software?

August 21, 2014

plm-startup-cost

The new normal – we need less money to build software these days. My attention caught Andreessen Horowitz article The Happy Demise of the 10X Engineer. In a nutshell, we live in the era when infrastructure cost is going down and the cost of software engineers is going up. The following passage is important:

As the leverage of the individual software engineer increases, the barriers to becoming a code creator are falling fast. The same software foundation (open source software, development tools like Github, infrastructure as a service provided by the likes of Digital Ocean, and more) that allowed Whatsapp and Imgur to scale, means that experience and skill writing software become less important. An individual can now scale a web app to millions of users with Digital Ocean, Heroku and AWS (perhaps coordinated by Mesosphere). It no longer requires a sophisticated understanding of MySQL parameters to scale a database on Google App Engine, just as it no longer requires a knowledge of the CPU chip it’s all chugging away on.

Nowadays, the open source software foundation, Amazon (AWS) and web distribution allows you to build software and ship it initially without significant upfront expense. Another article by ReadWriteWeb – You Don’t Need To Be An Engineering Genius To Start A Billion-Dollar Company compares the cost of hardware and storage with the cost of engineers between 1998 and 2013.

infra-vs-eng-cost-plm-software

In 1985, storage was a key expense, running $100,000 per gigabyte, while a developer could expect to get paid $28,000 per year. By 2013, things had changed considerably. Now storage is cheap, costing $0.05 per GB. Developers, on the other hand, are expensive $90,000 per year.

Both articles made me think about what is the cost of building PDM and PLM software today. Does new normal rule of building web and mobile startups apply to the world of engineering and manufacturing software? The world of enterprise software is probably different from web and mobile. At the same time, changes I mentioned above in development eco-system and infrastructure cost apply to PLM world as well. So, the answer is far from yes or no. Here is more structured answer related to building of PDM/PLM software.

1. Foundation and Development Infrastructure

Web and open source eco-system created a huge software foundation stack. As a new company, you have a huge opportunity for re-use. This stack wasn’t available 10 years ago. In the past, enterprise companies didn’t tolerate open source software. The situation is completely different today. From that standpoint you can build new software with near to zero development infrastructure cost.

2. Private vs. public cloud

Public cloud is the best world for web startups. Most of them can run in production on AWS or similar public cloud hosting services and scale as usage will increasing. However, many manufacturing companies are still sitting on the fence of private vs. public cloud decision. So, you need to choose. You can either cut your potential customer audience or will be required to incur an additional cost of private cloud configurations, data centers and infrastructure.

3. Domain expertise

You need to get your hands dirty into engineering and manufacturing business. It is different from web photo sharing, messaging and mobile games. There are less people available in this field, which will obviously bump your cost up compared to some other industries.

4. Distribution and sales

To go viral is one of the most desired way to distribute web and mobile software. You go viral or die. The applicability of "viral model" for PLM is questionable. Speak to enterprise sales people and they will explain you the difference between software that needs to be sold vs. software that can be bought. Sales and marketing expenses in enterprise space can be huge.

What is my conclusion? It is easy to build technology and product. However, it is very hard to build business. The technology is getting cheaper. The best part of this trend – it allows you to experiment without significant investment to find product-market fit. PLM industry has its own domain ecosystem and specific rules. Engineers need to be familiar with use cases, existing software, tools and environment to succeed. The last one can push engineering cost of building PLM software even higher than average. The last and the most critical part is distribution and sales. Be prepared to pay huge cost for that. The good news – you don’t need to do it upfront. Enterprise software space is changing dramatically these days. So, I’d agree with Excite founder Joe Kraus and his 2005 article"There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur because it’s never been cheaper to be one". Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Existing data prevents companies to improve Part Numbers?

August 15, 2014

historical-part-numbers

Part Numbers is a fascinating topic. I’m coming back to blog about what is the best approach to manage Part Numbers. My last post about it was – Part Numbers are hard. How to think about data first? was just few weeks ago. In that article, I outlined few principles how to keep PN separate from surrounding data focusing on different aspects of parts – description, classification, configurations, suppliers, etc.

Yesterday, my attention was caught by ThomasNet article – Are Part Numbers Too Smart for Their Own Good? The article nailed down a key issue why companies are still having difficulties with management of Part Numbers. Nothing works from scratch in engineering companies. Complexity of characteristics and history of existing Part Numbers and products are making real difficulties to adopt new PN management concepts. The following passage explains the problem:

Another problem with descriptive numbering is that the description can become out of date and irrelevant over time. Individual parts can have their own life cycles; if a part has been identified according to the product, what happens if that product is discontinued but the part continues to be used in a newer product? Or what if a manufacturer changes vendors and the part number contains the name of the vendor that originally provided the piece?

Gilhooley admits that some Ultra Consultants clients have decided that switching from descriptive to auto-generated numbering would require too much organizational change. Some companies stick with old systems, and some opt for hybrid systems that perhaps retain descriptive numbers for existing parts but use auto-generated numbers for new parts.

It looks like there is no single solution or best practice to solve the problem. The "traditional" engineering approach to keep options to manage a diverse set company configuration looks like the only possible way to solve this problem in existing PLM/ERP systems.

What is my conclusion? History keeps customers from moving forward. There are two aspects of complexity in Part Numbers: 1/ complexity of definition and data classification; 2/ historical records of PN in every company including catalogs and existing products. Together, they create a block to make any changes in existing PN schema and prevent companies from migration towards new approaches. New data modeling technologies must be invented to handle existing data as well as supporting customers to migrate into modern PLM and ERP solutions. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Why now is the right time to reinvent PDM?

August 15, 2014

re0invent-pdm-now

Product Data Management (PDM) isn’t a new domain. The first PDM systems were invented 20-30 years ago with a simple objective – to manage product data. The scope of PDM was heavily debated and included design, engineering BOMs, ECO and even supply chain. However, the most widely accepted role of PDM is to manage CAD files and their revisions.

For long time, PDM was recognized as somewhat you only need to consider if a size of your engineering department is large enough. Even starting price to implement PDM solution went down significantly for the last 20 years, my hunch average PDM solution starting cost for engineering organization with 10-15 people will be about $30-50K. Cost and implementation complexity made PDM business limited to larger companies and was mostly handled by resellers with special skills and knowledge. Most of them associated with a specific CAD vendor channel.

CAD vendors recognized the need and complexity of PDM. For most of vendors the answer on PDM demand was to develop (or acquire) a dedicated PDM system bundled with their CAD software. As a result of that, most of PDM players were acquired. Most of existing (remaining) PDM vendors are either focusing on a specific geographical niche or developed additional solutions usually branded with "PLM" buzzword and strategy.

My hunch is that until last year, PDM market was somewhat stalled and focusing on replacing of outdated versions of PDM software as well as support of new CAD software releases. Then something happens… For the last months, I can see an increased interested in PDM software. I noticed few focused researches and articles in the field of PDM – Expert Guide to the Next Generation of PDM; TechClarity Expert Guide for Basic CAD management and few others.

Also I want to mention few activities by vendors focusing on basic PDM functionality. It started from more traditional OOTB approach made by PTC Windchill PDM Essentials, SolidEdge SP focusing on SharePoint platform leverage and GrabCAD Workbench using "cloud platform" as a differentiation strategy.

Consilia Vector published CAMScore report for GrabCAD Workbench where CAMS stands for Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social. In my view, these major trends are making a renaissance in the space of PDM.

As I mentioned before, because of cost and complexity, PDM software was out of reach for many smaller companies and engineering departments. DIY (Do it yourself) PDM approach combining network file share, Excel files and FTP is a solution for probably 60-70% of market. For many years, to share files using network and USB drives was "good enough solution". But the era of file sharing changed forever with coming trend of social networks, mobile and cloud. So called YAPSA (Yet Another Photo Sharing Apps) became widely available in our everyday life. The question why PDM is so complex and why we cannot manage and access CAD data similar to what we do with photos and videos brings PDM solution back to the innovation room.

What is my conclusion? Cloud, web and social technologies in consumer space reached the level of maturity. It comes to the point where new tech and awareness of cloud and social approach are going to challenge a traditional PDM space. In addition to that, looks like an existing approach to use network drives and file sharing to manage CAD files is coming to logical end. People will be looking how to copy YAPSA approach into PDM space. So, it is time for PDM to change. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


PLM workflow dream

August 8, 2014

plm-workflow-dream

Process management is a very important part of any PLM software. You can find one in every PLM system. There are so many ways to define and manage process. Few years ago I captured some of them here – PLM Processes: Flowchart vs. Rule-based? While, I believe, we can agree about importance of processes management, I found hard to find simple and powerful implementation of PLM workflow. I believe this statement holds for every enterprise system. Time ago I had a dream that PLM vendors will adopt best in class BPM (Business Process Management) tools and infrastructure. My dream didn’t come true. Instead of that, the reality is that every PLM system has some (not the best) workflow implementation.

As part of my thinking about un-bundling in PLM, I decided to come with a description of what I call PLM workflow dream – list of features for an ideal PLM workflow system.

1- Visual designer. Majority of people think visually when it comes to workflow. So, visual designer should be a tool to draw a workflow in an easiest way, put boxes with activities and connect them together. It would be very interesting to have it done in a collaborative manner – typically, you need more than 1 person to define a good workflow.

2 – Drag-n-drop activity planning. There should be a very clear way to define activities. In most of PLM systems, activities should be connected to something that happens in your system (eg. Part status change; Document release, etc.) To connect them together with flow activities is a key.

3- Visualize and test. Designer should provide a way to "lineup" worklow into simple set of events (boxes) without cumbersome lines/nodes intersection mess. No cyclic visualization, unclear sub graph connections etc. System also should provide way to test the workflow with dummy or real data.

4- Program activities easily. Each activity node should support a notion of process such as failure, alert, delegation and user action (if needed). It would be really nice to have some predefined "processing rules" such as how to react on people absence and mistakes. The interface to set these values and action should be user friendly without additional complexity.

5- Failure programming. I need to be able to program what happens in case of general workflow failure in terms of who to call and what to do.

6- Programming scripts. The ability to attach programmable scripts to every activity/note. These days, Java script is probably a standard to should be just adopted. Don’t invent yet another programming language. Testing ability should support debugging and data dump for analysis.

What is my conclusion? Well, this is my dream list. If I missed something, please don’t hesitate to add it to the list. I believe, there is a possibility to build easy to use workflow system that can be easy plugged into any PLM system. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Part Numbers are hard. How to think about data first?

July 28, 2014

part-numbers-madness

One of the topics that usually raises a lot of debates is Part Numbers. One of my first takes on the complexity of Part Numbers was here – PDM, Part Numbers and the Future of Identification. Ed Lopategui reminded me about that topic in his GrabCAD post – Intelligent Numbering: What’s the Great Part Number Debate? few days ago. He speaks about four aspects related to handling of Part Numbers – creation, readability, uniqueness and interpretation. The conclusion is complex as well as the topic itself. Here is the passage, which outlines the conclusion Ed made.

Balancing all these diverse factors is difficult, because no solution is optimal for every company. Here are some final tips to help you make prudent decisions: 1/ Understand your PDM/PLM system part number generation capabilities; 2/ Understand the limitations of any other systems that interact with your parts; 3/ Go through every activity that requires interpreting part numbers and understand what system access is available, and how the interfaces work. This will provide a good basis for your interpretation cost; 4/ Understand how easy/difficult it is for a new employee to interpret a part number.

These tips made me think again about Part Numbering, data and different data and process management tools involved into the process of Part Numbers handling. Most of approaches are focusing on systems and functionality to handle part identification and classification. What we do is trying to align our need to identify and classify parts with what multiple systems can do. The hardest part is to find Part Numbers that will make all systems involved into the process (CAD, PDM, PLM, ERP, SCM, etc.) to work smooth. Honestly it is too complex and too costly.

So, how to manage that complexity? Is there a reasonable way to resolve the complexity of Part Numbering and made everybody happy? Thinking about that I came to conclusion that companies should start thinking about data first. From the longevity standpoint, data must have much higher priority compared to any data management system. In some industries companies are obliged to keep data for decades. Thinking about that, I want to outline some principles that will help you to do so and will allow to create some standardization around parts and data identification.

1- Disconnect Part Numbers and classification from specific applications. PN should not be dependent on requirements and capabilities of data and process management systems. Data has much longer lifespan compared to applications and systems. By defining PN independently you will keep data and processes in your company clean and well organized.

2- Generate PN based on classification, business needs and processes. Develop independent service to make it happen. This service is most probably should be independent from existing data management systems and converted in some sort of URI based notation.

3- Use independent service to convert independent PN into system specific identification. You can convert for any system you have at your disposal – PDM, PLM, ERP, SCM… What is important is to be able to control the process of conversion and adapt it each time data and/or process management system changes.

What is my conclusion? Product data is one of the most expensive assets in manufacturing companies. It represents your company IP and it is a real foundation of every manufacturing business. Think about data first. It will help you to develop strategy that organize data for longer lifecycle and minimize the cost of bringing new systems and manage changes in existing systems. I think, some services should be developed to make the process of part numbering easier for manufacturing companies. As manufacturing is getting global to maintain part numbering systems becomes a huge problem. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Cloud PDM can make file check-in and check-out obsolete

July 21, 2014

cloud-pdm-checkin-out-need-1

Management of CAD files (PDM) is heavily associated with desktop workflows. Lots of CAD files live on engineering desktops and shared company network drives. Originally, one of the main PDM functionality was to vault CAD data and manage CAD files revisions. One of the most widely used scenario to support this functionality is so-called Check-in / Check-out process. CAD files are checked-in from working folders (working space) into secured File vaults located on PDM servers. In case engineers want to make a change, you need to check-out file. The same mechanism can insure released CAD files won’t be changed without approval and prior check-out. The implementation of PDM check-in/check-out process is not simple because of CAD data complexity. File relationships and dependencies need to be taken into account if you want to make an update CAD 3D design and drawings.

Cloud is changing existing working habits. For long time, engineers were tightly connected to their desks. CAD, engineering analysis, Excel spreadsheets… this is only a short list of tools that live on engineering desks. Not anymore. These days our workflows are heavily impacted by cloud software. Web email, cloud file sharing, cloud and mobile applications. We don’t need to be at our desk to do a job in many situations. Cloud is providing new complementary workflows. However, in some cases, we can see a total replacement of existing workflows.

I’ve been discussing how cloud technologies are changing CAD file sharing, CAD data management and PDM. Navigate to my previous post – What makes cloud a good alternative for PDM system?. One of the most widely debated questions is related to the ability of cloud system to handle large size of CAD files. The capacity of public cloud systems to handle large data scale is well known. Cloud storage cost is getting down. The speed of changes is significant and the numbers from my 2 years old post – Cloud PDM and 10GB emails can make me smile today.

At the same time, a very important and critical aspect of cloud technologies is synchronization of data between cloud and desktop / local networks. Web giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others are working to improve sync technologies. In few of my posts, I covered some specific examples about how companies like Box, Dropbox are providing specific techniques to improve data and file sync. But CAD data is different. Not like photos, office files and even videos. To solve the same problem for highly dependent and intertwined CAD data can be a big deal. When it done, it can be a significant leapfrog for any company in the market of cloud PDM solution.

Future CAD file management trajectories can take us from the original idea to check-in/check-out files between secured PDM vault and local working folders towards different workflows. Cloud file systems can support a new way to manage CAD files and provide access to them for design tools and other services. Long term goal can be a future without CAD files. The potential file storage transformation can raise lots of question about how CAD systems will operate without local storage? All these questions are relevant for both private and public cloud solutions.

What is my conclusion? Cloud will change PDM. I can see a potential transformation in fundamental CAD/PDM scenarios – check-in/check-out. Modern cloud PDM can take an approach of seamless and transparent data synchronization and simplify PDM. New workflows can potentially exclude engineers from time consuming and complicated file retrieval between desktops and servers. New way of work will be more simple and focus on design release and approval only. I can see this approach well aligned with future cloud design systems eliminating local file storage completely. So, future cloud PDM without check-in/check-out? What do you think? These are just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


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