Excel spreadsheet. What a lovely topic! You can find spreadsheets in every manufacturing and engineering organization. Sometimes, I call it - #1 PLM software in the world. There are lots of good things in using Excel spreadsheets. Almost five years ago I posted – Why do I like my PLM spreadsheets? I believe, everything I said is valid – Excels are simple, flexible, can absorb any type of data, transferable via email and what is very important – gives me a feeling of physical ownership. I can put them everywhere – my local disc, USB stick. These days, I can easy put Excel spreadsheets in my Google drive and Dropbox and access them everywhere.
At the same time, we all know what level of pain Excel spreadsheets can bring in. Another 5 years old post – Excel Spreadsheets: From Odes to Woes and I can confirm that problems are still with us. Excels are getting complicated with the time, you cannot put all data in Excel, especially when it comes to 3D CAD files. The problem called “where is my last Excel” is huge. Actually, with new cloud file sharing capabilities, this problem is getting even worst. As I like to say, if your data and product lifecycle management is built on top of spreadsheets, you need to hire Chief Excel Officer to run your system.
Yesterday, my attention was caught by Wired article – How Many Spreadsheets Does It Take to Run a Fortune 500 Company? The author, Peter Schroer of Aras Corp. speaks about spreadsheets and the way specifically designed PLM system such as Aras Innovator can replace Excel spreadsheets. According to Mr. Schroer, the core problem is static data model, which makes enterprise system inflexible and complicated to match customer data management requirements. Remember the flexibility of Excel model? According to the article, Aras PLM solves the problem. The following passage from the article explains that.
The problem is that we always build enterprise software by starting with a static data model or an object model, and then we’re surprised when the resulting systems are inflexible. What if we took different approach? What if we turned the problem upside down? Instead of a static data model, we build services around a Modeling Engine that is purpose built to change dynamically. This is the approach we used for the Aras Innovator framework. It’s an architecture that combines the real-time flexibility and lean code base of a modeling engine, with massive scalability enabled by highly optimized small SQL transactions. It’s all Web-based, built to D.O.D. security standards, and runs in the data center, the cloud or a hybrid.
Flexibility of data model is an interesting aspect of PLM system. Manufacturing companies are using different ways to manage lifecycle. PLM system should be able to adjust data and change management mechanism to reflect specific customer requirements. So, dynamic data model is certainly important and it can certainly helps to design good PLM experience.
Aras’ publication made me think more about what is needed to replace spreadsheet to manage product lifecycle. So, I’d like to add two more elements to Excel replacement recipe – ease of customization and user experience. The first one is absolutely needed to match the ability of Excel to develop macros and calculation. Many PLM functions requires tuning and adjustment. Very often customers need to include their specific naming mechanism or integrate functionality with other enterprise or cloud system. User experience is the requirement that getting more controversy among enterprise software vendors. In the past, enterprise systems were cumbersome and complicated. These days users are demanding to have enterprise systems with user experience matching modern websites and social networks.
What is my conclusion? Flexible data model, easy customization and excellent user experience. This is a wining recipe for PLM system to replace spreadsheet nightmare. Unfortunately, it is easy to say, but hard to do. The complexity of PLM development and manufacturing companies make every system complicated. This is a place where future innovation will happen – to find balance between simplicity and complex functional needs. Just my thoughts…