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

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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  • Oleg,
    Send them a bill. I think it is a clever move on their part. Especially since they are focused on smaller companies that hopefully one day will move to a PLM. As you pointed out most PLM vendors offer some sort of export functionailty to Excel. Windchill still is very cumbersome in this operation from my experience. I can’t help but wonder if I am missing something when the technical resources go through numerous steps to export to Excel. Obviously the big drawback is there is no way to control the information once it migrates to Excel but again as you point out everyone like the low cost. PLM vendors should take note and do more optimization or develop alternatives to render it unecessary.

  • beyondplm

    Stephen, Thank you for this comment! With regards to the bill, you know, I like a freemium approach… Blog is absolutely free and only about information and my opinion. That’s why I wanted to state that this blog post wasn’t sponsored. With regards to the rest, the ball is on the Arena’s side :).
    My point about “export to Excel” was related to the fact, that this function was requested by all customers, and many PLM vendors were proud to mention the fact you can always export information into Excel. However, the missed opportunity, in my view, was to provide a tool that can be used instead of Excel.
    Best, Oleg

  • All enterprise solutions are, in the end, replacements for Excel :).

    I’m fond of this saying: the hallmark of a broken enterprise business process is a proliferation of excel spreadsheets.

    I think apparel PLM solutions are the closest to what you describe. Because of the wide variety of data that is tracked, many Apparel PLM solutions looks like hierarchical or nested Excel managing BOMs of seasons, products, colors, materials, measurements and so on.

    Some quality planning solutions do this as well. Dyadem, my prior employer, has a product called Stature which is insanely configurable and operates like a hierarchical spreadsheet with a lightweight data-model constraining it. It’s pretty amazing for taking the simplicity of a spreadsheet and scaling it to enterprise needs.

  • beyondplm

    Nick, thank you for sharing your experience! Yes, I agree, some of PLM solutions are closer to what Excel can provide. Agree 100%- each time, enterprise solution fails, Excel is a replacement. Best, Oleg

  • Nat

    We took a different approach to managing BOMs via Excel by creating a Sharepoint-based application that is automatically fed BOM structure from Teamcenter and uses a spreadsheet control tied to a Sharepoint list. This methodology elminates the requirement to manually reconcile the BOM while providing the cross-functional organization the ability to manage thier own attributes without file share issues. We’ve posted case studies about the solution at

  • beyondplm

    Nat, thank you for this comment! This is, indeed, an interesting approach. I had a chance to write about such a type of a technology last year in my post- Why PLM needs to learn about SharePoint 2010 composites? – Which version of SharePoint are you implementing? 2007? Best, Oleg

  • Tracy Smiley

    As an tier one EMS provider, our PLM needs differ from an OEMs and our PLM system is configured to have the the ability to quickly digest and understand all of our customers bill of materials formats; txt, csv, Excel, XML, etc … Jennifer’s comment on consistency is the only thing we request from our customers – we find with established customers there is enough complexity in interpreting the business rules in the average BOM that the parsing of the format itself. That complexity drives our decision to have developed automation in the parsing so we can consistently apply the business logic.

  • beyondplm

    Tracy, thanks for sharing your experience! Interpreting of business rules can be an interesting problem. Can you share more information about the setup of a system – are you working with multiple suppliers who share BOMs with your company? My perspective that majority of implementations is struggling on two problems – (1) BOM transfer (this is where format is a key; (2) BOM synchronization, including changes (when you need to transfer BOM from one system to another). Additional rules are related to a particular system, and I see their automation as something complicated that very often made by a specific customized set of rules configured in the system. What is your case? Best, Oleg

  • tracy smiley

    Oleg – thanks for your response. It’s actually an interesting combination of many different situations; a) customer has a set of business rules configured in their system, and they want us to audit against their own rules to make sure their process/tools are working effectively; b) customer has a set of business rules but it is not configured in their PLM system, and have asked us, as their supplier, to perform these audit rules on their behalf; c) we recognize issues with data integrity and build our own rules, based on our experience, to improve the incoming quality to a level we are comfortable with to ensure our own efficiency in executing for our customers. Our EMS (electronic manufacturing services) business, which our PLM system supports, margins are razor thin so we need to be ultra-effiicient thus we have made significant investments in configuring our PLM tool to perform the configuring I am describing as every BOM error caught downstream in our purchasing or manufacturing processes can have significant impacts on our profitability.

  • beyondplm

    Tracy, thanks for sharing that. Dependencies between a margin and rules is a very interesting case. Can you come with few examples you can share? Thanks, Oleg

  • Chris

    Oleg I expect even companies that have the most sophisticated PLM tools are still heavy Excel users. What do you think? The reason for this has to do with the type of management required over the life time of an part. What I mean by this is in the front end of the process the team is more interested in rapid change and flexibility and therefore they have not established their part in PLM, which means they are tracking their parts in Excel. I will go on to define front end of the process to be upwards of 80% or 90% of the overall design process. This means PLM is used in the last 10% to 20% of the development timeline. I will go on to say that even during manufacturing the team is still using Excel for part and change tracking. I am not saying they release in excel, of course they release in their PLM or BOM tool. But if the team is charged with implementing a set of changes and therefore they need to track what is being done against the objective then I expect the team has an excel file that is tracking each part undergoing a change. Once the work is done, excel goes away and the part is released using PLM.

    The facts are PLM tracks results. PLM has been created to manage very complex relationships, configurations and versions and therefore is not effective at tracking work or helping people relate and communicate (I remember FORD saying at COFES this year “People do not work in these tools”). If we look at the evolution of the product development market we see that the market focused on “define” tools for 20+ years (ECAD, MCAD, FEA…). These are tools that help people capture what they are thinking in a faster and more complete manner (value prop = TTM and Cost). During the tail end of the define portion of the market there was a push to collaboration which petered out with little to no value being provided. The next market phase focused on “control” based tools (PDM, PLM, BOM…), which is a market phase that has been around about 15 years with some overlap with the define phase of the market. Again collaboration has tried and failed during this market phase. The only new personal productivity tools of any significant market size that we have seen in recent years are the product documentation tools like 3DVIA Composer. But these tools have been somewhat pushed to be subservient to the PLM solutions, or a feature of PLM (to the extent this is true it is a mistake, as these tools target non PLM users and provide a massive value to individual who do this work, without being tied to PLM).

    If we look at the define segment of the market we do not see much new there. If we look at the control segment of the market we again do not see much new. So what is the next value opportunity and market segment? I expect the new segment to also target TTM and Cost. If you back away and look at what define and control tools have done you will see that they have provided great value of TTM and Cost but they have not changed how people manage work, connect to each other or relate to the parts they are designing. TTM and Cost improvement will be provided through a new segment. This new market segment is about people and how they connect and manage their work and the solutions in this market segment are called Enterprise Social Systems for Manufacturing.

  • beyondplm

    Chris, Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think, if software vendors will provide a better compared to what exist in the market today, engineers will be happy to use it. For me MS Excel is an indicator or problems. This is what Ford’s people said on COFES – “people don’t work in these tools”. Now, do we need to call it ESS (Enterprise Social Software) and not PLM? I don’t know… “Social Enterprise” can be a catchy name. PLM was about the same back in 2005… If you remember, back in 2000 we had “Enterprise Portals”. They supposed to solve all existing problems with Enterprise Software. Take a look on the following report from Delphi Group 10 years old – Your comment, actually made me think about today’s new post, so check blog later today– Best, Oleg

  • Chris

    The tools are what they are and just dropping a few extra “socail” features onto tools like PLM will not solve the problem of how people work or how people connect in the enterprise. Take the simple case where an engineer connects with a marketing guy… the marketing guy will never be a PLM user. ESS is a new enterprise solution that addresses how people work and connect.

  • beyondplm

    Do you think, the question “which comes first” is important? What I understand from multiple social tools and platforms is that they provide infra to connect people (social connection) based on the content (can be any – department, project, product, etc.). One of my posts was about – How Many Social Platforms We Need for Enterprise? – What is your view on this? Best, Oleg

  • Paul

    Just scanning the Arena post, it misses what i think is the main reason for Excel (and Access) – reporting. PLM systems are fantastic at consuming information but they have poor reporting capabilities, or they have expensive and complex reporting capabilities. An export to Access or Excel means all those ‘can you show me it this way?’ requests can be accommodated quickly and without asking IT to create a new report.

  • beyondplm

    You are right! Thank you for pointing on this. I hope you had a chance to read the following posts:
    Best, Oleg

  • Chris

    I am not sure it matters how many. That said I expect they will not have that many. But being true web solutions users will be able to take feeds from one into another. The more important question is “What makes a social platform effective / valuable in the enterprise”?

  • beyondplm

    I think, the answer on the question – “something that will make everybody use it”. Similar to the email – the value is in the ubiquitous communication. People cannot manage multiple channel to communicate. This is one of the reasons why PLM failed to spread out… Best, Oleg

  • Chris

    People certainly manage more than one channel. I bet you email, IM, maybe BBM, Facebook, Linkedin, Blog, read feeds and maybe one or two more and besides how many email addresses do you have…

  • Chris

    I have not seen anything that really connects people through content as you say. What social platforms connect people through a product or project? …And adding people to a project list or team list is not connecting people in a social way.

  • beyondplm

    On the personal level, I agree with you. In the enterprise, as I can see, people have a tendency to unified their communication channels.

  • beyondplm

    Social platforms provide you a way to bring a context (picture, video, file) to collaborate. Is it the same?