PLM and One Big Spreadsheet

Everybody in the engineering and manufacturing loves MS Excel. I had chance to write about it multiple times before. You can take a look on few of my previous talks about MS Excel and PLM- Why do I like my PLM Spreadsheets? and PLM Excel Spreadsheets: From Odes to Woes. The reaction of customers on using spreadsheets in PLM is always positive. In my view, there are few aspects why Excel is welcome in the engineering communities- flexibility, granularity and ownership. You can always define what you want, format it in the way you want and what is the most important piece – own it! Nobody will take your Excel file. You can keep it everywhere, you can access it anytime, and you can do with this everything. There is no special licenses, no training needed. However, the biggest disadvantage of such a way is NO collaboration. Yes, you can send your Excels back and forth via email, but this is not what I’d call collaboration in the modern world.

Real Time Collaboration and Spreadsheets
Google and Microsoft are two companies that understand the power of spreadsheets very well. These days both companies are working to take Excel and spreadsheets to the next level of collaboration. You can see recent announcement of last version of Google docs is presenting ability to work collaboratively on Google Docs. Together with new features that closing some of the gaps with MS Excel, you can see Google Spreadsheets as a decent tool to take care of PLM data.

In parallel, coming announcement of Microsoft SharePoint 2010 later this week will introduce new set of the functionality a-la Excel related to data handling in the spreadsheet and collaboration. Microsoft Excel Services is a very interesting technology started in SharePoint 2007 and getting many enhancements in the new version of SharePoint

PLM Big Spreadsheet
I see spreadsheet as a way to innovate in PLM. In the end, if this is the best way to collaborate between people in design, engineering and manufacturing, we can take it as a lowest possible denominator in our PLM applications. I found multiple time during meeting with customers, the capabilities of PDM/PLM products compared with capabilities of Excel or spreadsheets. Think about mapping all PLM data you have to a single big spreadsheet and give it to users.

What is my conclusion? In my view, PLM needs to shift strategies in achievement of sophisticated features. Low gear… The next PLM sophistication can come from the side of simplicity. Make all requirements, documents, BOMs, manufacturing plans available in Excel-like format and give it to customers. This will be One Big PLM Spreedsheet. I think it will be cool. What is your take on this?

Just my thoughts…
Best, Oleg



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  • Oleg, the spreadsheet is great for individuals because it is a familiar, easy and powerful tool for keeping track of numerical data in a structured format. However, the challenge that Microsoft, Google and open source spreadsheet solution providers will continue to have is that when sharing spreadsheets either by email or in a shared workspaces it is very difficult to keep the information up to date. Typically, only the individual who entered the information into the spreadsheet knows how fresh or stale the information really is. Unless values in spreadsheets are dynamically linked to CRM, ERP, PLM and other enterprise systems, spreadsheet information becomes quickly outdated. Since most spreadsheets lack any links or only link to other local non-centralized sources of information, shared spreadsheets end up serving more as static reports than as real-time views of business or financial processes.

    Having easier sharing and even simultaneous accessing of spreadsheets will make spreadsheet information more accessible. Whether spreadsheet information is sufficiently up-to-date to be useful in a real-time product development environment will depend on the degree of dynamic linking and frequent updating by multiple individuals guided by effective policies and processes.
    Mark Levitt, Director, Market Analysis, PTC

  • Both interesting points of view. I happen to use SharePoint on a regular basis, and frequently like to change the view to the spreadsheet view (edit in datasheet) and you can also create and edit lists from an Excel table in SharePoint. My point is the idea is certainly not without example and Mark eludes to a spreadsheet with connected or disconnected data. Certainly a model PLM companies could adopt.

    Michael Craffey, Razorleaf Corporation

  • Brian Frederickson

    Agreed. This is actually something my colleagues and I have discussed: what if a PLM vendor (preferably our PLM vendor 😉 offered a Google integration that connected the power of Google Talk, groups, Docs, etc. with live PLM data. It would be very compelling.

  • Mark, Thank you for your comment! I agree absolutely. Individual spreadsheets easy becomes a mess in the organization. I wrote about it in my – Do We Need Chief Excel Officer To Manage BOM? post – Nevertheless, a typical user is in love from excel. The SharePoint initiative around Excel Services is promising in my view. Are you guys thinking about that as part of ProductPoint? Best, Oleg

  • Michael, Thanks for your insight! You are right, I’m also very interesting in MS experiments with Excel services in SharePoint. However, I think, the issue of data ownership needs to be raised and discussed. This is something that can prevent PLM vendors from collaboration in this space. Just my thoughts… best, Oleg

  • David Opsahl

    Interesting. We use SharePoint internally, as well as using it for a development platform. A couple of comments.

    With regards to data currency, which I agree is a key point, from an internal use perspective we’ve found the notifications mechanism of SP have addressed many of those concerns.

    For instance, we have an Excel workbook that is our forward-looking business model. Whenever any financial element is revised (i.e. bookings, collections, etc.) alerts or RSS feeds (we use both) let you know that the data has changed, and we require notes in the comments section on who has changed what, and why. We could do a comparison, so this suffices.

    The things that make this work are: libraries are correctly set up with permissions, versioning, and check-in/out; data architecture is defined and understood (i.e. what data is the “master” and what is not, how is it structured, etc.); and finally – local copies are not valid. So for a small company like ours, this has all but eliminated the “rogue” and “stale” data problems.

    On the development side, with the BCS features of SP2010 we’ve already come to understand how you can use External Lists to present the data from its source via services, in which case its always current, such that Excel services can make that data available the same way one can currently map data into a spreadsheet by connecting to SQL as shown in the video.

    We’ve not yet looked at the simultaneous editing features in Office2010, but I believe that the problems Mark mentions, which are certainly legitimate and widespread today, are solvable at the ease-of-use and cost points (from an integration and licensing perspective) to make them capable of large-scale adoption.

    Google offerings may deliver similar functionality, but I don’t use them so can’t speak to it.

  • Is it really a spreadsheet or is it really more of just a list? What you are really talking about are lists.

    There are more lists maintained in Excel than anything else. Certainly Excel is the most common product and project management solution used today. At one customer site I just visited they used Excel for ECOs and yellow sticky notes posted on the wall for issue tracking. Both are examples of the power of a list. In the Excel ECO case the user completes the standard header and defines a list of things that need to be addressed in order to process the ECO and as people approve they add themselves and comments to the approval list for the ECO. In the case of the yellow sticky notes that track design issues the team has the ultimate flexibility in organizing the list, they just move the notes on the wall. OH and it was a BIG wall. And guess what they had no issue with data duplication.

    Every project team you look at, no matter what they develop, manages a list (this ties directly to you most recent post about “Do We Need PLM To Manage Change” – No people manage change with a list). The list approach is very powerful but has many down falls. Many of the comments address the issue of duplication of the file and items being out of date. But I’d like to address why they are out of date. They are out of date because every item on the list turns into an email discussion if not multiple email discussions and the item on the list has no connection with these discussions. The other reason for this is the item on the list is disconnected with the deliverable it is about. If I have a quality issue on Part_A that must be resolved then it is simple to see how this turns into email traffic. It is also simple to see how the CAD person working on the model might like to see this issue within their CAD file and even associate the issue with the features that are the source of the problem.

    Checkout this example page of a list for a SolidWorks part file and this example of a list for a PowerPoint presentation These lists are available via the WEB, the respective application and file and Outlook. As well people participating can email to the list and to the specific issues being tracked. In the case of SolidWorks part the team is clearing issues that stand in the way of release. The same is true for the PowerPoint presentation. But in the PowerPoint presentation the team also maintains a list of FAQs that are available to the team using the presentation. As well anyone on the team that is using the presentation can ask questions to the community of users and as people answer the answers are presented back through the presentation.

    Imagine a case where a purchasing person issues a PO for the SolidWorks part above and this PO has problems. Well in most cases this results in a list. Imagine having a page like the pages above that track the issues associated with the PO and imagine if this page had a link to the page for the SolidWorks file. Imagine if you could find these pages using search.

  • Brian, Thanks for your comments! The integration with Google is fascinating. However, I’d see some limits in Google Spreadsheet technologies because of sizing and their “cloud-location”. At the same time, I see a growing amount of people that consider Google as a viable option. Best, Oleg

  • David, Thank you for your insight and explanations related to your SharePoint experience. I believe, SharePoint lists and Excel services can provide a very compelling solution for manufacturing companies. Despite the fact, SharePoint can be more complicated that average company might think about, the solution can be granular and flexible enough. Office 2010 and SP 2010 will be the next step in this journey. The “external lists” are interesting in particular with their ability to federate data. Best, Oleg

  • Chris, I don’t see a big different between spreadsheets and lists. How do you see it? Is it about virtual lists of physical spreadsheet files? samples of SolidWorks and Powerpoint pages reminded SharePoint lists. Actually, Sharepoint is using “a list” concept intensively in various places. SharePoint Excel services take it to the next level by providing an ability to connect pieces of external information. Lots of hands-wiring, but results are very similar. Thanks for your comments and thoughts indeed! Best, Oleg

  • George

    I have spent the last 5 years trying to get this message across, and still I struggle to even scratch the surface of most people’s minds !

    For once and for all; EXCEL never has been and never will be PLM, Access is NOT PLM, Sharepoint is ANYTHING but PLM, Oracle is not PLM and niehter is CATIA or Sloidworks !

    PLM is NOT a tool ! PLM is an engineering culture supported by process and methodes ! You can (and many companies do) have PLM on just paper.

    People, please try to poke a head out of the window of your IT world and take a deep breath. PLM belongs to engineers, project managers, purchasers and QA guys. It is anything but the property of some geek who thinks he can change the world with some sexy VBA marcos.

  • George, I agree with you. PLM is about how industrial companies design, manufacture, support, utilize, etc. Nevertheless, commercial companies are coming with “marketing messages”. They (companies) are about “tools” for PLM. This is okay too. However, PLM (solution) and PLM (tool) are two different things. And this is requires explaining. Thank you for this explanation. It is definitely important. Best, Oleg