DON'T GET TRAPPED BY THE NET
Roger Tempest

The late Sir James Goldsmith once said, ‘By the time you see a bandwagon, it’s too late’. He was talking in financial terms, and meant that if a bandwagon appears you should let it go by and look somewhere else. In PDM terms, the trouble with bandwagons is that they may well run you over. PDM vendors are working hard to build Internet links and web browsers into their products, and if you are planning a large implementation they will advocate that this is the way to go. But if this bandwagon rolls too far then the day may come when you won’t be able to buy a PDM system that is not Web-oriented.

Are vendors concentrating on the Internet because they see it as the best way to provide PDM functionality to users, or because they feel that if their product doesn’t have the Internet ‘badge’ then users will see it as old-fashioned? And are users looking at the data in their company and saying ‘Well, this really is out of control. I can’t face the struggle to organise it, and can’t justify the man hours needed to reprocess it for PDM. So let’s go for a user-friendly system with state-of-the-art browser and Net technology.’

The Internet (for which also read Intranet and Extranet) will be a part of many large-scale PDM implementations in the future, but you should question whether it really is right for your company. To separate out the pro’s and con’s of Internet front-ends and access you must go back to first principles. The aim of a PDM system is to gain control, which then allows you to manage. PDM systems have tools which assist in management by presenting several related items of information to the user together, and enabling the user to perform a range of different actions to progress the development of the product.

PDM systems are designed to control and manage data, whereas the Internet has evolved as a way of accessing data that is out of control. Much of the hard work in a ‘traditional’ PDM implementation is to get data under control so that it can be brought onto the PDM system. Until you have seen the benefits in the management and organisation of a business when its data is managed by a lean, comprehensive and well set up computer system (and this applies equally to CAD, MRPII and supply chain systems as to EDM/PDM) then you will not truly understand what PDM is for.

Many companies are full of people working earnestly for hours each week on well-intentioned but non-value-adding tasks, in the belief that they are assisting the progress of their company. They are wasting time, wasting effort, and causing more disorganisation the harder they work. The process re-engineering phase which precedes PDM will highlight these tasks and lead to re-organisation that will eliminate some of them. PDM implementation makes others unnecessary by removing data duplication and improving its availability. The next generation of engineering and manufacturing company will have everyone working in a well-informed, non-timewasting, value-adding way (thanks to PDM) but it will only do so because it has put in the hard work mentioned above.

With an Internet-style approach the data could be left as it is. Provided that channels are set up to make computer links possible, then you could browse your way through the chaff to home in on the small amount of data you actually need. However, Internet interfaces are designed to show you one piece of information at a time, and even with the benefit of hot links require you to search your way to the next.

In addition, the system administration of an Internet-style PDM system will be more difficult. Designers will interrogate the system to see the latest marketing specification, and production engineers and suppliers will be able to dial in and see the latest status of the designs. But who ensures that what they see is up to date? And how do you ensure that they don’t browse their way to the right drawing in the wrong location (and find a 3D model which they think is correct but which has had features removed for analysis)? Either you’ll need a team of system administrators working constantly to maintain data integrity, or you’ll have to eliminate the ‘wrong’ options until only one browsing option is possible. The Internet-style system then tends towards a conventional PDM structure.

The Internet does have a part to play in wide-area PDM because it is a huge and readily-available computer connection system. If you can tolerate slow response and occasional breaks in transmission it is an easy and cheap way of sending or accessing data across the world. However, its role in your PDM system needs careful consideration.

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Copyright (c) 1998 John Stark