PLM, BOM, Excel – How To Make It Right?

The following blog article caught my attention last week – “Four recommendations for better Excel BOMs” in Arena Solutions blog by Jennifer Bomze. I found it interesting. Arena Solution is a PLM outfit that started about ten years ago as a company named After few years, was re-branded and expanded to provide PLM on demand solution. I remember I was impressed by what Arena was doing with their web-based Bill Of Material product. I was following Arena activities over the past few years. They grew up in their functional PLM scope. However, my hunch is that the main competition is going between PLM offering and plain Microsoft Excel product.

PLM vs. Excel: Apple-to-Apple?
I had chance to write about PLM and Excel multiple times in the past. You can track my previous articles on my blog. Few of them are here:
Do we need chief excel officer to manage BOM?
Why Do I like my PLM Excel Spreadsheet?
PLM Excel Spreadsheet: From odes to woes.

Of course, Excel cannot be compared to PLM. Nevertheless, I guess, MS Excel is successfully outperforming PLM systems from the simplicity, implementation cost and data openness. So, even if you will never see PLM vendors comparing their product portfolios with Excel, they are struggling with Excel competition.

How To Make Excel In a Right Way?
Despite the fact Excel cannot replace broad set of PLM system functionality, I can see PLM companies are thinking more and more into “Excel-friendship” direction. To confirm this you can see multiple expanded MS Office and Microsoft SharePoint offerings coming from TeamCenter and Windchill. However, current proposal by Arena make it even more interesting. You can take a look on the full article here. In short, what Arena proposes – 4 recommendations how to use Excel if you decided NOT to purchase PLM system, for the moment:

  1. Be consistent. Use the same columns in the same order in every Excel bill of materials. Use a standard format for part numbers, manufacturer names, file titles and other types of data.
  2. Use standard templates. Get in the habit of hiding (not deleting) columns that aren’t needed in a particular BOM and creating separate spreadsheets for doing analyses that require additional columns. Give each column a single purpose, and label every piece of data in your Excel BOM spreadsheet.
  3. Have part numbering and part naming conventions – and a single location to store them. Develop and document a standard way to number and name ALL parts, and then manage those part numbers and names in a single location, like an item master or master parts list.
  4. Minimize repeated data. Include only as much data as is needed for each BOM to perform its core function of capturing the relationships between parts and assemblies. Store additional part data in the item master instead of multiple Excel BOMs, so updates only need to be made in one place.

In addition to that, Arena proposed free Excel templates to manage Bill of Materials.

PLM Excel Trojan Horse?
I can see where Excel PLM templates may be going in the future. By helping customers to optimize their Excels, PLM creates the foundation of a future PLM expansion. Of course, there is a danger in helping customer to keep going with Excel. However, there is a chance for being able to connect Excel data to Arena PLM and to import excel-based data into Arena PLM. It seems to me a step in the right direction.

What is my conclusion today? I think, MS Excel is a big deal for PLM companies. Customers are voting for Excels. PLM vendors may understand that their previous “Export To Excel” strategy was wrong, and they need to change it now. The competition with Excel will be growing as much as PLM vendors will be trying to expand their solutions to be used by more people in companies. So, give away some Excel templates can be a very good idea.

Just my thoughts…
Best, Oleg

PS. Freebie. Arena Solution didn’t pay me to write this post.


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  • Cam Bickel


    Looking at the Arena site I think the message is that much better value is obtained by a true BOM management system over Excel. Unless I am missing something the “templates” are nothing more than a set of column headings.

    I would say that any company with a non-trivial product line needs a real system with true data relationships. Using Excel is like going back to putting the BOM on the face of assembly drawings. That technique was obsolete decades ago. The data integrity problems and redundant and wasted effort of the Excel approach should make a low end PLM or manufacturing package easy to justify. Trying to make a fancy version of the Excel approach is reinventing the wheel.


  • Cam, Thank you for your comment! I think, usage of PLM system is obvious… in theory. In practice, it can be expensive and cumbersome. Especially when you are targeting smaller customers, like Arena does. So, people are picking up Excel as a solution to solve a problem today. This is especially true for today’s economy. Who can take care about 5-years strategic PLM roadmap? I think, current Arena’s take on Excel templates (yes, it is only about attributes) is good tactical steps. Just my thoughts… Oleg

  • Excel is the most widely used PLM or Product and Project management solution used in the world. Still today teams manage their BOM and task lists in Excel. The simple list approach cannot be ignored. Arena replaces the Excel list with respect to BOM management. Vuuch replaces the Excel approach for Project and Task Execution.

    Take a look at our new Excel import feature where you take your Project Excel file and create Vuuch pages and Activities with a simple import. Check out this post for an overview The demo is a bit out of date as it was done before we released. The released functionality allows you to map the columns on import.

    I break the development process into two states. Before items are managed and after. You can also think of this as “work management” and “control”. What I mean is teams do two things, they manage work or do work and they manage/control/release items of their product. In traditional PLM solutions these two world are disconnected. Something I see as very interesting is the idea of connecting these two worlds which is something I have written about and call “People Centric PLM”. In Vuuch we have the idea of a Part and in Arena they have the idea of a Part (They call this an Item). What if the Vuuch Part knew about the Arena Part? Now issues and tasks associated to a Part would display in either system. Why is this cool? Well assume a Part is released and you need to change it. Well to implement the change a team typically manages a set of tasks, issues and discussions in an Excel file… connecting Vuuch and the BOM management solution the team would manage the work to implement the change in Vuuch but all this data would be available through either solution.

  • Although I have not seen much of a demo out of these guys I beleive PLMPLUS is also trying to address the Excel BOM solution.

  • Chris, Thanks for your thoughts!
    I agree, Excel is everywhere, and I can figure out looooooong list of vendors trying to displace Mr. Excel from his pedestal. The ability to map columns is interesting… How do you see this process happen? Who is doing it in a real world?
    With regards to the two stages of a development process, this problem addressed by PLM solutions as “design to manufacturing”. There is a large variety of options in the way PLM is doing so. The core idea is to track Bills on both design side and engineering/manufacturing side. Although, I don’t see a consensus between people implementing multiple BOM solutions, the problem is well known, in my view, and there lots of tools that developed by vendors and during implementations that keep track of changes between design structures and engineering/manufacturing. I have also seen such implementations as part of “ECO” solutions made by customers.
    Best, Oleg

  • Chris, I had no chance to see plmplus demo. I know, Guy Alroy is reading my blog too. Maybe he will comment on this… Best, Oleg

  • Cam Bickel

    I’m sorry, I just can’t see using Excel in any non-trivial situation. Having said that, I use Excel extensively for analysis and data import/export. The Excel is a means to an end and is always discarded. The persistent data is in the PLM database where integrity can be enforced.

    Where are all these users using Excel only? Do they not have any sort of ERP either? Before we had PLM we used the MRP BOM as the master. Even that was better than Excel.


  • Cam, I think, people are using Excel any time when existing apps are not satisfied their needs (functional, price, etc.). Even, if a company has ERP or PLM solution, you can often find a significant portion of Excel stuff used for multiple “side projects”. One of the most typical is to use a kind of MRP/BOM master and use Excel for engineering/design Bill of Materials. Another one is to use Excel as a master visualization tool for Bill of Materials. Thanks for commenting! Oleg