The PDM (product data management) arena is definitely changing. Even some of the industry’s renowned long-distance walks are finally turning into racetracks. Take Boeing, for example. In fairness, the task of electronically defining entire aircraft needs both vision and courage on an unprecedented scale. Nonetheless, its implementation of PDM software vendor SDRC’s Metaphase technology has been with us for so long that it is almost mentioned in the same tones as Alcock and Brown. Now, however, comes a report from its Commercial Airplane Group (BCAG) that it compressed the time taken to interface the PDM system to its existing in-house bill of materials (BoM) system, MRLS, into only two and a half weeks! Carol Pittman, Boeing’s senior manager of PDM products says that building a point-to-point interface in-house would hitherto have taken at least nine months. And there is no doubt that, to date, the problems inherent in such linking exercises have significantly reduced the downstream exploitation of many a PDM implementation across industry. The reason for Boeing’s massively increased project speed is Accelis – a new Web-based technology from SDRC for allowing data sharing among dissimilar enterprise systems. It provides a mechanism for transparently updating BoM information between two systems via a Web interface. MRLS is a critical process link, driving the system for part ordering as well as picking of parts for the assembly line. Consistency of data between the two databases is therefore vital. Now both applications can be updated by a single entry, eliminating human error and translation issues and, according to Boeing, the result is close to 100% BoM accuracy. Pittman says that since Accelis is based on Java, HTML and XML software, nothing new needed to be learned other than minimal WebSphere training. Understandably, the technique is now being piloted at other Boeing sites. Accelis is typical of a raft of Web-based solutions aimed at taking PDM out of the deepest recesses of engineering departments and turning it into a tool for the entire company and its supply chain. Product data management systems are increasingly being marketed as enterprise solutions for engineering/manufacturing organisations needing to track the entire product lifecycle. And according to most analysts, widening the traditional boundaries of PDM has become a necessity to cope with the increasingly complex and collaborative nature of today’s manufactured product evolution. Take, for example, American PDM consultancy CIMdata’s Ed Miller: “The globalisation of companies has dispersed employees, products, services and partners around the world. Additionally, product content can take on a variety of forms that take much more effort to manage than their predecessors. On top of this, Internet and Web-based technologies are making information from both inside and outside of the organisations quickly available to widely dispersed operations.” Most of the industry analysts have come up with new ‘visions’ for the next step in product lifecycle management. CIMdata’s is called cPDM (collaborative product definition management) which Miller says is provided through a combination of best-practice processes and a full suite of technologies –PDM, collaboration, visualisation, collaborative product commerce (CPC), enterprise applications integration, components supplier management (CSM) and others. Quite. What it boils down to is plenty of pressure upon both vendors and their customers to find new, innovative ways of supplying and applying PDM technology, much of which is well beyond their traditional core competence. The result is a rash of new announcements, collaborative ventures and ‘e’ flavours to suit. So let’s take just a few of the new developments. At the product origination level, H-P owned CoCreate has added new PDM adapters to the existing 3D CAD adapters in its OneSpace software. OneSpace provides a ‘virtual conference room’ that allows geographically dispersed design partners to work together in real time. At the same time, it has made an agreement with Spatial to add its IntraVision viewing and markup software which will give access to major 2D and 3D engineering product data, including drawings and models, text documents, spreadsheets and graphic images in more than 300 file formats. In a similar vein, SolidWorks has introduced 3D Meeting for real time Internet-based collaboration but only for users of its own software. In both cases, the emphasis is upon allowing stakeholders in the design chain to work together more effectively, whether they come from other parts of the same company or from suppliers and collaborating companies. Further along the product data chain, new trading agreements between technology specialists are equally pronounced. For instance, PDM developer MatrixOne has recently joined forces with both Ariba, the e-commerce platform provider, and CSM software vendor Aspect Development. MatrixOne claims its joint offering allows customers to manage both their direct and indirect goods – those it designs itself or with partners and those that it buys in, within a single application. One of the first users is contract electronics manufacturer Celestica [see panel]. David Cefai, its director of IT says that the integration of these mission-critical technologies helps to improve manufacturing costs by streamlining sourcing and supply chain selection processes – and gives real competitive advantage by reducing product costs and lead times. At the same time, another new MatrixOne development called Supplier Central allows a company’s buyers to give selected suppliers immediate, secure access to its information and processes over a Web browser at an early stage of product definition. MatrixOne’s Paul Gilmartin maintains that this is a much deeper and more useful form of supplier evaluation than that employed by conventional supply chain solutions downstream. Supplier Central is already in use at controls-maker Honeywell. Bob Ratcliff, Honeywell’s PDM director, says that it means their businesses will be able to collaborate with their strategic suppliers much earlier in the development process. “This will yield substantial long-term benefits in innovation, quality, cost and time.” MatrixOne’s actions typify the attempts of virtually every mainstream PDM supplier to get ‘out of their box’ and into mainstream business processes. Unsurprisingly, the ERP (enterprise resource planning) suppliers are not sitting back: SAP, Mapics, IFS and others have developed Web-based PDM modules within their integrated software suites. Mapics, for example, has brought out Magik, an engineering change control solution that allows all members of the development process to collaborate remotely over the Internet. David Knox, senior consultant at IFS, maintains that there are some key business advantages in reaching out from a core manufacturing control system to manage the product lifecycle rather than pushing in from a separate product database. “Most companies that I work with – even those who have had an MRP system in the past – seem to have a huge list of numbers for their parts without any real structures or sense. So any job involves recreating right back from the beginning. You can also find 15 parts in their inventory that are actually the same component. So stock levels are too high, but they have no way of controlling it. It’s scary how many places haven’t got to grips with this. “By taking information from the PDM module right the way through to a shop or purchase order – and connecting it to document management – you can tie the whole thing together. Everyone is using the same numbers and you can’t go into a separate purchasing system and buy something different. Even if you are only working with the ‘ERP bit’ whatever is in the PDM module is what you buy.” He believes that in a normal e-commerce environment, this approach really pays off. “At the interface level, most customer orders are fairly simple. Below that you may have complex structures, but what both the buyer and seller see is usually at a single level. So you get the same smooth flow – standard parts right the way through your system with everyone talking the same language and responding faster.” After all the new developments, however, it’s worth remembering that e-business is not necessarily synonymous with the Internet. In fact, BAE Systems Airbus UK has just been awarded E-business Team of the Year Award for a successful PDM implementation that doesn’t sport the Web anywhere. The award, sponsored by the UK Council for Electronic Business (UKCeB), was made for a project linking Airbus UK and its associated suppliers in a live environment of seven distributed vaults working across UK and mainland Europe. The underpinning technology includes Optegra (the PDM system which PTC inherited when it took over Computervision), Cadds5 mechanical design software (ditto) and Division Mockup, a visual analysis, simulation and collaborative tool for 3D CAD modelling. In fact the whole implementation is a model application of how to make ‘older’ technology effectively serve emerging trading and collaborative methodologies. The PDM team is made up of staff from Airbus UK, CSC (its IT suppliers) and PTC, supporting the design phases of two major programmes: the Nimrod wing and A340-600. Around 80,000 parts are distributed among seven sites. Measures are in place to align current status through date and time stamps: around 95% are fully aligned. Pete Gadd, group leader of PDM activities, says it is taken for granted that when a designer in Filton puts a part in the vault, colleagues in Broughton or suppliers can see it in under an hour, and be confident that the information is topical and accurate. Although each of the suppliers has its own vault, design changes – wherever they originate – are automatically updated and copied across. Traditionally, distributed vaults can be a nightmare to set up and maintain. Gadd’s group had to ensure that their solution was extremely robust. Airbus UK customised some standard capabilities to give better control of the information flow. To avoid queues, it introduced a ‘proxy’ or virtual server which acts as the hub for optimising communication rates to and from the distributed vaults. Gadd says that this was the make or break, also allowing Airbus UK to add new business rules governing the type of data supplied. Ownership of information and read/write status can also easily be changed within the proxy server so parts can be moved between sites and work can be smoothly reassigned. So what does it all add up to? The last word goes to Nick Ballard from industry analyst Cambashi. “… in today’s environment no single company can work in isolation. Just as global manufacturers must work with their suppliers and customers to manage the product lifecycle process so IT vendors must co-operate to provide solutions to the issues raised. It is the integration of these applications, using standard components like Java and XML with the Internet, which make them strategic to business success.”
  • Collaboration means business With $5 billion in revenues, Celestica is one of the most successful players in the notoriously tough field of electronics contract manufacturing. It diffentiates itself not just on price but on value: and a key part of this is the way it uses technology to make it simply ‘easier’ to do business with. Since it has largely grown by acquisition, its production facilities across the world contain multiple ERP and manufacturing systems. According to analyst Gartner, it ties them all together through a Web-centric ‘c-commerce’ framework, with all product and manufacturing knowledge housed in a Web-accessible, common repository from MatrixOne. Prior to this, nine out of 10 build packages received from the OEM were not manufacturable because of factors like incomplete BoMs. They took an average of seven days to correct. Now packages arrive via a Web interface, are checked for integrity within the system and the customer is notified of suggested changes. As a result, BoM set-up time has reduced from a week to one day and first-pass accuracy has improved from 10% to 95%. Customers’ engineering changes used to cost Celestica dear. It therefore collected ‘after the fact’ information on the cost of changes. Now it costs them as they come in so the customer can make informed judgements about their value. The rumour is that this single capability alone paid for the whole implementation.