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


The complexity of Part Management in PDM

July 11, 2014

part-management-pdm-complexity

How to manage Parts? It sounds like a trivial and simple question. Every manufacturing companies and engineering organization is facing this problem. However, it is not as simple as you might think so. The information about Parts (aka Items) is often scattered between CAD drawings, multiple Excel files, PDM and ERP systems. One of the biggest problem is to how to manage revisions and changes for Parts. I captured this problem in some of my previous writings. Future CAD-PLM and Assembly Version Management; Why versioning is complicated in PDM?; PLM, ERP and Managing of Effectivity; Revisions in CAD/PLM/ERP: Old Problems or New Challenges?

Recent GrabCAD blog – Part Revisions: Deal or No Deal made me think again about why is so complex to manage parts in every PDM environment. The following passage explains what means Part has no revision:

Documentation can be revised, but the part itself should not. If a part changes, the revised part is issued a new part number. In the case of PMI, where the "documentation" portion is integral to the part, revisions are more esoteric. Allowable PMI revisions in that case depend on whether the documentation portion is being updated or the part model is being physically changed.

The following passage explains one of my 5 Don’ts in BOM management – Don’t use the same ID for Part Numbers and Drawing Numbers:

In many cases, the documentation is a fully dimensioned engineering drawing, though these days it might also be Product Manufacturing Information (PMI), if you’re riding the technology wave. In the case of a drawing, the documentation also carries an identifying number. While it may be tempting to make the part and drawing numbers the same, such an approach aims to misbehave. For example, a drawing is often changed for very different reasons than the part it describes, often in a fashion that has no impact on design. In addition, drawings may describe multiple parts. In other words, drawing and part life cycles are unique, so the identification number for each must also be unique.

Now, let me go back to the original question. Why is so complex to manage parts in PDM? Here are two main reasons:

1- Complexity of two lifecycles – CAD and Items

CAD documents and Part lifecycle is fundamentally different. PDM system manage CAD files revisions and dependencies between files. Parts (Items) requires Part Numbers and Effectivity to control FFF (Form, Fit and Function) also known as interchangeability rules. Revision can be applied, but it won’t be used to identify a part.

2- Disagreement about where is "master" of part information and cross system integration

Part information is scattered between PDM, ERP and supply chain management systems. Organizations are having hard time to agree WHO is controlling Part creation process. When changes happens or new parts is created, information must be synchronized between multiple systems. It raises the complexity of overall integration and data management.

What is my conclusion? Complexity of two lifecycle management is a key problem in part management in PDM. It is hard to combine part lifecycle including interchangeability rules and effectivity with proper management of CAD documents. The user workflows are getting complex and engineers are having hard time to use the system. While the reality of manufacturing is that both documents and parts need to managed in an appropriate way, PDM vendors facing real challenges to get efficient Part Management processes in place. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


PDM weakest link

July 8, 2014

cad-file-transfer

You’re only as strong as your weakest link. The article Are You Still Using FTP for CAD File Transfer? on Engineering.com by Scott Wertel caught my attention few days ago. The article compares FTP, cloud file sharing and cloud based PDM. Read the article and draw your opinion. I found something common between all these approaches – you need to transfer files between desktop or LAN server and some other (usually remote) locations – FTP, virtual cloud drive or similar storage used by cloud PDM. Here is my favorite passage:

Let’s look at a product development scenario. A designer has finished the preliminary design of a brand new widget. He is in a small design shop, so he keeps the files on his personal computer. He wants a rapid prototype of the design made so he emails the file to a service bureau. As the bureau is working up a quote for the prototype, the designer notices a few things and makes some tweaks. The file size is too big now, so he uploads it to his company’s FTP site and emails a notification to the bureau. But, because the project is still in development and no files have been released, the designer doesn’t change the revision on the file. It’s the same filename on the FTP site as was emailed previously to the service bureau. Now the bureau has two files downloaded to their system. Both with the same filename and both contain relatively the same time stamp caused by saving the email attachment at about the same time they downloaded the file from the FTP site. Rather than being able to quickly quote the part and begin shooting laser beams, they have to spend the time to reconcile the files, also taking up the designer’s time.

So, in my view, the need to send files between local computer and remote location is the weakest link to make that work efficient. Both PDM and any other file sharing service will face this challenge. And, forget the cloud and internet for a minute) it was the same challenge back in every PDM system developed in the past. PDM developers used different techniques to optimize file transfer, but the problem remains the same – slow connection and large files.

The move to the cloud, actually, doesn’t change much. The connection is still slow (relatively) and files are still big (or even getting bigger). As I discussed few days ago in my How to move CAD files to the cloud post, a special technology needed that will break CAD files synchronization process and make the process transparent. At the same time, user should be able to work on the same file to satisfy the scenario described in the beginning of this post. Whoever will be able to accomplish so, will take a huge advantage of knowledge about CAD files and improved user experience. Read more here – CAD companies and cloud storage strategy.

What is my conclusion? The weakest link of PDM is the ability to sync large multi-file design between local discs and cloud (server) storage. It was the problem back to PDM development in 1990s and it remains the problem today. Until now, cloud doesn’t change much, since most of cloud PDM and file-share vendors are taking CAD files with existing boundaries. To break these boundaries and develop technology to move file efficiently while allowing to user to work on the same files at the same time, can be a deal breaker and huge step to fix the weakest link. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


What PLM Architects and Developers Need to Know about NoSQL?

July 7, 2014

plm-no-sql-guide

People keep asking me questions about NoSQL. The buzzword "NoSQL" isn’t new. However, I found it still confusing, especially for developers mostly focusing on enterprise and business applications. For the last decade, database technology went from single decision to much higher level of diversity. Back in 1990s, the decision of PDM/PLM developers was more or less like following – "If something looks like document, use Excel and Office. Otherwise, use RDBMS". Not anymore. My quick summary of NoSQL was here – What PLM vendors need to know about NoSQL databases. You can go more deep in my presentation – PLM and Data Management in 21st century. If you feel more "geeky", and considering maybe summer development projects, I can recommend you the following book – 7 Database in 7 weeks.

John De Goes blog post The Rise (and Fall?) of NoSQL made me think how to explain the need of NoSQL for PLM implementers, architects and developers. In a nutshell, here is the way I’d explain that – NoSQL databases allow you to save variety of specific data in a much simple way, compared to SQL structured information. So, use right tool for the right job – key/value; document; graph, etc.

So, NoSQL is accelerating development of cloud and mobile apps. It became much faster since some specific NoSQL databases tuned for particular type of non-structured data:

With NoSQL: (1) Developers can stuff any kind of data into their database, not just flat, uniform, tabular data. When building apps, most developers actually use objects, which have nesting and allow non-uniform structure, and which can be stored natively in NoSQL databases. NoSQL databases fit the data model that developers already use to build applications. (2) Developers don’t have to spend months building a rigid data model that has to be carefully thought through, revised at massive cost, and deployed and maintained by a separate database team within ops.

However, everything comes with price. The important insight of the article is to point on how data can be reused for reporting and other purposes. The following passage summarizes the most visible part of what is missing in NoSQL:

It’s quite simple: analytics tooling for NoSQL databases is almost non-existent. Apps stuff a lot of data into these databases, but legacy analytics tooling based on relational technology can’t make any sense of it (because it’s not uniform, tabular data). So what usually happens is that companies extract, transform, normalize, and flatten their NoSQL data into an RDBMS, where they can slice and dice data and build reports.

PDM and PLM products are evolving these days from early stage of handling "records of metadata" about files towards something much more complicated – large amount of data, unstructured information, video, media, processes, mobile platforms, analytics. CAD/PLM vendors are pushing towards even more complicated cloud deployment. The last one is even more interesting. The need to rely on customer RDBMS and IT alignment is getting lest restrictive. So, the opportunity to choose right database technology (aka the right tool for a job) is getting more interesting.

What is my conclusion? Database technologies universe is much more complicated compared to what we had 10-15 years ago. You need to dig inside into data management needs, choose right technology or tool to be efficient. One size doesn’t fit all. If you want to develop an efficient application, you will find yourself using multiple data management technologies to handle data efficiently. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Future CAD file management trajectories

July 1, 2014

cad-file-management

CAD data is a core and one of the most fundamental parts of every manufacturing design. It all starts and dies from how your product looks and feels. In the past, 3D CAD was most focused on mechanical elements of design. Today, CAD systems are meshing into a complex conglomerate of data about shape, assembly, simulation and many other aspects of product design. Thinking even more broadly, CAD files are representing a significant part of engineering and product knowledge.

Despite overall significance, many manufacturing companies and engineering organization are missing the point of CAD files management. It is not unusual to hear that 60-70% of companies manage CAD files on shared network drives. Engineering.com article – The Risks of Manually Managing CAD Files speaks about what is a danger of keeping your CAD files not managed. The following passage makes it very clear:

Perhaps the most common way to manage CAD files is on a shared drive with a directory structure and file naming conventions. That can work in some situations, but it carries significant risks and limitations. "It was easy when it was just me, but when we added a second person it was difficult to have the same file structure," recalls Andy Homyk, the lead mechanical engineer at medical device company HemoSonics. "It was hard to get updates from his computer onto mine and ensure I had the right revision."

These manual approaches are better than nothing, but in all but the simplest scenarios lead to errors. As complexity and number of engineers increase, unmanaged approaches fall apart. Relying on individuals to consistently follow manual rules eventually leads to problems. This approach frequently results in the errors discussed earlier, specifically overwriting each other’s work, using the wrong version of a file, multiple people working on the same file, and lost productivity.

Article references e-Book written by Jim Brown of Tech-Clarity with more detailed discussion about how to choose write level of available CAD file management solution – from keeping CAD files on shared drives and up to full PDM system. Jim mentioned possible solution in between, which is CAD file sharing on the cloud. The article and e-book made me think about potential trajectories of future CAD file management solutions.

1- Cloud File Systems.

Quite a few companies these days are trying to virtualize file system and make transparent between on-premise and cloud storage. If it turns into reliable, fast and cost effective solution, engineers can just use this cloud file system to save files. I can see a good opportunity for cloud file systems to support revision history. So, it is almost PDM and these companies can start eating PDM lunch.

2- PDM with cloud file storage

The complexity of CAD data can make option #1 not very reliable. In that case, we can see a next turn in the evolution of existing PDM system – turn them to the cloud via IaaS and / or cloud hosting. Technologically, these solutions can be very similar to any existing PDM system. It might require some tuning to work with low latency and cloud file storage. But underlining idea will remain the same.

3- Engineering data platforms

This is one of the most interesting trajectory for me. Somebody would like to re-think the way engineering data (include CAD data) stored and managed in the cloud. The process of re-thinking can touch also technological aspects (databases and storage) as well as logical and functional aspects related to collaborative design and engineering and more.

What is my conclusion? One of the biggest challenges these days is how to leverage cloud system advantages on top of massive amount of CAD files. Every engineering organization is struggling to find an efficient solution to manage engineering data accumulated on desktops and network drives. Security, cost and scale – these are three most important elements every manufacturing company will be assessing to find an appropriate CAD file management solution. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


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