Why Do I Like My PLM Excel Spreadsheet?

I think I will not surprise you with the statement: “the biggest market share in PDM/PLM belongs to Microsoft Excel”. If you disagree, please let me know. So, I wanted to share some thoughts about why I think that Excel is beneficial for PLM…

Below are the top five reasons why I prefer working in Excel to manage my product data and product lifecycle:

  1. Simple. Simple means simple. The idea is simple – one big table. You don’t need training. You can start right now. You realize that “simple is not as simple as you think” as your spreadsheet grows – but until you get there, you are a happy user :).
  2. Flexible. To plan how to manage product data and lifecycle in your organization, you need to spend time and effort. But if your tools are on a white board and flexible to the level of “one size fit all”, you can start right now. The flexibility of Excel allows you to grow as you go. You don’t need to have models – just put your data and search it afterwards.
  3. Absorb any type of data. Often I’d like to be able to introduce a new type of data. MS Excel is there to help you with this. You can easily create a new workbook, worksheet, add columns, delete columns, etc. The beauty of a spreadsheet is that it is all-inclusive J… when you think about vendor-related stuff…
  4. I physically own it. This is true. If you have xls(x) files, you don’t need to be concerned with how to save, copy, and transfer your data. The feeling of ownership of your work is very important and people appreciate it.
  5. Transferable.  This is comes with files. I can send them to anybody. I can control how the files are saved and maintained. So, I can transfer them inside and outside of the organization to facilitate collaboration.

…and one more –

  1. SharePoint friendly. My story nowadays is not complete without saying a few words about working together with Office files and SharePoint. SharePoint provides a new way to manage Office (Excel) files – Excel services and almost transparent conversion between SharePoint lists and Excels. Office Excel files and data are well organized and the content is easy to find.

The bottom line is that Excel spreadsheets have a lot of value in context of what we are doing in PDM/PLM. I’d love to discuss this with you.


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  • Boy you certainly tacked on sharepoint… But you didn’t validate it as you did your other points. You made a gross assumption that people want the file maintained which is counter to other points you made like “own it”, “flexible” and “transfer”. I know what you will say about transfer, sharepoint makes it available. But transfer and available are not the same thing.
    I agree excel is the most used/important plm tool… I would even extend this to say the most widely used project execution tool as well.

  • Chris. The only reason why I mentioned SharePoint is because today this is next logical step if you seriously about leveraging MS Office and Excel. I definitely didn’t mention this as the reason why I like Excel :)… -Oleg.

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  • To put this in context, when I was at Arena we did a mid-market survey of tools used for BOM mgt, and excel won in a landside with ~90% “market share”.

  • Hi Mark, Thanks! Great information. I assumed it will be hight number…. Oleg.

  • Hal McGee

    I also have a love/hate relationship with Excel. I have always used Excel in a rather structured fashion, at least in my mind, and have come to realize that not everyone else approaches Excel or its capabilities in the same way. If there was ever a product in which you could solve the same problem in multiple ways, Excel is the product.

    I have given demonstrations of work in Excel only to have the class hi-jacked on numerous occassions as I work by people asking “How did you do that?” Normally this is when I am using one of Excel’s many productivity features. The most common is holding down the control key and hitting the arrow key to move to the various sides of a large block of data. Using the shift key also allows selection. So although many people use Excel, very few actually use more than a few features and the features they learn are not the same person to person or department to department. When you have to aggregate data from a large quantity of spreadsheets this becomes problematic. When we did our Agile conversion in the late ’90’s we had to good fortune to get the data from a recent ERP upgrade. The consultant I worked with said he normally spends most of his time referreeing fights in engineering departmens as each engineer keeps his copy of the ‘tru’ BOM in Excel on his PC. Obviously this is a real serious problem for a single source of truth.

    Excel does not enforce data integrity. If I could count the number of times I have found TBA or some other acronym in a column of dates or figures it would be close to a billion at least. Also people tend to look at Excel and think, this is obvious, of course all the rows below inherit the value from above, or that all the rows in this range inherit the value in the center or the same data is all colored the same. What do you mean you don’t understand how the data is stored, “ITS OBVIOUS!!!” Unfortunately it is not obvious to code.

    Each user will add and delete columns to the point you cannot code consitently. I even see them renaming column titles. Fortunately most users don’t mess with named ranges.

    Amalgamating data from various sources is always an issue. VLOOKUP was my only friend for a long time. Now with ODBC I can get to the data but you better have a good understanding of SQL and connection strings. Still different data sources view data in different philosophical ways. OUr ERP system is date driven and ourPLM system is revision driven and this can lead to interesting problems in resolving or explaining differences.

    I love Pivot Tables but I seem to be the only one. IF you understand them they are extremely powerful but if you do not…

    I have had many discussions with Engineers over the years about multilevel BOMs in Excel. Most seem to go around two concepts. First is the BOM is always the same except when… An example is this assembly uses this part when it is a child of this assembly but a different part at this (line, bubble, reference…) when this is the parent. Ummm no that is two different BOMs. The other is the difference between a engineering BOM, manufacturing BOM, test BOM, Prototype BOM…

    Excel has a hard time showing historical evolution. I have had much more success with reports conveying this than getting this across in Excel.

    IF you have figured out how to use Outline to collapse a BOM by levels I would love to see it. I spent a few days and finally came to the conclusion Excel cannot do this.

  • Hal, Thanks a lot for sharing this extremely interesting and beneficial information. You bring me to think about all cases where I meet various Excel options customers are using to find/keep single truth about BOM/product information. These various options contain multiple excel tabs, levels, drawings thumbnails etc. My conclusion after all, the best companies crashed around MS Excel. Those companies that survived have person on duty to manage master excel and nobody except this person, knowing to to keep this Excel alive can make changes there.
    re outline option -I think the biggest problem is to manage add/remove lines. You just cannot, since this is destroys levels… Have you had chance to work with SharePoint Lists, Excel and Excel Services in your practice? -Best. Oleg.

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  • Great take on this topic. I like it because it’s a user focused statement, not a tool or technology focused statement. And I find this is the only way PLM will once again become something engineers will love to do.

  • I agree. Today, one of the big PLM problem is that PLM software lost grounds from user standpoint compared to consumer software. -Oleg

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  • Janet Williams

    Completely agree, excel is one of the best programs out there.

    Janet Williams

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  • The article is very helpful! Thank you, I’ll be sure to use your advice. Personally, I had some problems converting excel files over to PDF. Then I found this program at my work that quickly and painlessly converts my excel documents into pdf so I didn’t have to do it manually (which would end up taking aggravating hours upon hours). It provides my business a simple way to make individualized statements for our business associates, taking our invoices and seamlessly placing the information in awesome templates. Check it out here.

  • Josef, you are welcome! Excel is very popular in engineering world. So, lots of people prefer Excel. However, for a long run Excel is not efficient solution. So, to find a combination of these tools – the power of Excel with efficiency of data management tools can be beneficial. I’m experimenting with this at Inforbix- you can check this out – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl6SEg4zK-0. Best, Oleg

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