How PLM can take over Excel spreadsheets?

How PLM can take over Excel spreadsheets?


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…

Best, Oleg


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  • I guess people use Excel because everybody has access to this software in any company. It is not true for PLM since PLM software are often proprietary software. If you want to do a POC (Proof of Concept) with PLM proprietary software, you need to buy licenses (doing call for tender,…) which is a very long process.
    In our case, we believe that using a LGPLv3 license will help our software beCPG PLM to grow as a product as it allows people to use the software more freely.
    To do a paralelle with your post, we provide a designer to build dynamically data model and forms :
    And we have the ability to plug some calculation to replace macro of Excel sheet. It is what we call Formulation.
    Of course, you don’t set up a PLM system as easy as an Excel Sheet (it is not magic) but you get many benefits like workflow, notification, comments, change management, powerful searches, reports…

  • beyondplm

    Philippe, thanks for your comments! Few PLM vendors are supporting Open Source licensing and making their software available for free. I knew about Aras Corp. and now I will add you to my list. The flexibility of Excel is huge and it is hard to beat. It can only come as a combination of things – simplicity, functionality and cost.

  • The flexible data model approach is absolutely the path forward – PLM’s requirement to be almost totally deterministic about implementation is one of the contributing factors in failure. The fact that there’s little room for experimentation or incorrect guessing. A flexible data model is the first step towards true Lean-style PLM philosophy, that encourages iteration of hypothesis and subsequent validation.

    A little side note, I do cringe a little when open source and PLM/ECM gets tossed around. While what Aras and Alfresco have taken steps in the right direction to improve accessibility of their solutions, claiming them as a true open source is a bit of a misnomer. Some code is open, some is closed. So there’s a mixture of open source, so-called “community” source and plain old proprietary in the mix. And that has a larger effect on overall adoption. Even in the case of LGPLv3, in the example below, circumstances require any free code that uses GPLv2 to be upgraded/changed to v3 otherwise the combination violates its own license. So there are still barriers. How many barriers are there in that Excel macro? Exactly.

    The larger issue being any software effort trying to tackle PLM is by no means trivial, and can’t really be accomplished for free. That’s why even Aras has to monetize somehow – in their case by closing certain source and then charging for maintenance / support.

  • beyondplm

    Ed, we are in full agreement – flexible data model is a right start.

    Regarding your side note – Aras is free licensing, but not actually open source. The open part is only community solutions. Aras core is regular software with free license. And of course, they need to monetize. Actually, if you missed – I posted some open source related stuff few weeks ago (PLM Open Source Future – cloud services? – So, the conclusion that “cloud services” is a good monetization model for open source.

    Best, Oleg

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  • We also see many of our customers using spreadsheets. For those who are not ready or able to throw away their spreadsheets and start from scratch, we offer a solution that makes spreadsheets behave more like a PLM or enterprise system (i.e. web based deployment, secure authentication, integration with other systems like PLM, an audit trail, easy collaboration, centralized version control etc.).

    Unlike tools such as MS Web Apps and Googledocs, the master spreadsheet is retained (behind the scenes on a secure server), which means that all macros, pull downs, charts and graphs in the master spreadsheet are preserved in the corresponding web app. Customers using this capability include P&G, Pfizer, GE, HP, Corning, Xerox, TRW, John Deere, and many more.

    More info can be found here:

    It’s by no means a cure for all the issues which arise from using spreadsheets in product development, but it does neatly solve some of them.

  • beyondplm

    Seb, thanks for your comment and sharing links. Indeed, very interesting experience.

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