CAD files – the root cause of PDM nightmares

CAD files – the root cause of PDM nightmares


The data is ultimately important. Ask any engineer in a manufacturing company and he will answer you that he needs data at his fingertips, searchable, accessible, available on mobile devices, etc. etc… However, if you come to the same manufacturing company and ask who wants to be responsible for engineering data management, you have a chance to end up with zero candidates on the list.

Synergy Software blog brings an interesting list of top 10 PDM nightmares. Check it out. The article is nice and it provides a list of problems every engineering and manufacturing organization in the world is facing these days – finding documents, secure access, having one version of truth, manage complex CAD relationships, ability to view CAD data by people outside of engineering organization.

However, as I was reading the article, it made me think that many of “nightmares” outlined there have a single root cause – CAD files. The CAD file management is a complex problem – all PDM systems developed for the last 20 years were trying to provide “a better way to manage CAD files”. It reminded me one of my old articles – The Future of CAD without Files. Historically all CAD systems were developed to use files to store data. But file storage paradigm is complicated and very much incompatible with data management. The conflict between data and files is the one PDM systems are fighting the last two decades.

One of the long time proponents of CAD file elimination is Dassault Systemes. Originally introduced as V6 platform, it provided a way to manage CATIA data using ENOVIA PLM system. Dassault Systemes strategy to eliminate CATIA files was very innovative back 10 years ago and led to controversy and disputes in the industry. The “modern” version of DS platform – 3DEXPERIENCE is focusing on “Zero-file” strategy and data driven approach. Read more about it in my article here.

With the raise of cloud storage, an obvious demand of users was to leverage new cloud technologies to improve the way CAD data can be stored, managed and accessed. The idea of cloud PDM was around for the last few years. One of the examples of cloud PDM is GrabCAD Workbench leveraging cloud storage and simplifying access to data. Workbench is integrated with multiple CAD systems. Workbench brings lot of benefits but ultimately doesn’t solve a fundamental problem check-in/out process is painful and prone to technological and human mistakes.

A better integration between CAD and cloud storage platform can solve a problem with check-in/out of files and reduce amount of mistakes. Navigate to the following article – Fusion360 – an integrated CAD/CAM solution. The idea of Fusion is to create tight integration between CAD system installed on your computer and cloud data platform (Autodesk A360). The following passage explains that process:

First of all, we need to understand the process while we are in online mode. Fusion 360 always works with local CAD files, which are copied automatically from A360 to the local cache and synced with the cloud when saved. If the user has not cleared it yet, this local cache remains intact even if Fusion 360 has been closed. This allows users to access these CAD files in order to keep working on them and even create new files in offline mode. These new and updated files are automatically updated and/or overwritten the next time the user has an internet connection (within two weeks).

Synchronization process explained above improve the process of data synchronization, but still leaves CAD files and the need to manage them in two places – local desktops and cloud storage.So, how to eliminate CAD files and to move into data-driven paradigm? So much loved and demanded “single point of truth” can be implemented much easier if CAD files will be eliminated and replaced by a single version of software and single storage of data.

Onshape blog by Jon Hirschtick – Are you sick of asking where’s the latest version? brings a perspective on a potential life after CAD files. Onshape is a full-cloud system that using cloud storage and allowing to everyone to share the same version of application and data. There is no multiple files, there is no painful check-in/out processes. Here is my favorite passage from Jon’s blog:

Because CAD data in Onshape is never copied as files, but rather is stored in one central database in the cloud, it updates in real time as your team members edit. With Onshape, it’s easy to find the latest version because there’s only one place to look for it. And there’s no need for any PDM system servers, installs, licenses or backups — all of Onshape’s version control is built-in. Multi-site users and mobile users work effortlessly from anywhere in the world.

What is my conclusion? CAD and PDM industry is in the transition to eliminate CAD files and traditional PDM systems. The replacement is data-driven cloud systems providing single point of truth for both application and data. However, the transition will not happen overnight. Existing product licenses, legacy data, habits and many other factors will influence the speed of industry transition. However, the only way to eliminate PDM nightmare is to remove CAD files from the equation of engineering data management. Just my thoughts…


Want to learn more about PLM? Check out my new PLM Book website.

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of openBoM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups and supply chain.

Picture credit 3D Perspective blog 


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  • Ryan

    Maybe I don’t fully understand the DS process of “zero-file” but how is taking a standalone CAD file that includes the recipe to build 3D topology different from a database that reads a recipe to build 3D topology.
    To me this zero-file process has just moved where ingredients reside- in the file or database. The recipe is still the same. Now instead of having a loaf of bread I can take with me or share I have to “bake” the loaf (rebuild model from the database) every time I want to eat (view or share).
    When it come to local cache of files from A360 that is identical to most PDM systems as well. The benefit is what? Saving to the cloud instead of the company “archive”. The only benefit I see for those accessing the data is access. Functionality and workflows don’t change. Even for things like Onshape.
    The decisions to lock a design down for release still has to happen. If not, then how do you control who is looking at what version/revision? If everything is always showing the current design how do I view all the previous versions? I may want to see what design iterations failed or I need older design for legal reasons, etc. Current version is not always the viewpoint I want to look at.

  • beyondplm

    Ryan, thanks for sharing this insight and questions.

    What can make a difference is data consistency and granularity of data and operations. In most of PDM applications today, file/check-in/out is representing a dataset and operations. If granularity of data access is changing, then a different set of scenarios can be supported.

    So, the ultimate difference in the scenarios you questioned above can make a granularity less then “file”. The second is data locks and processing. So, ,if Fusion360/A360 can only do file-based cache, then the difference can be in the way updates are made. If A360 is PDM in the cloud, it won’t change much except of global access as you rightfully mentioned. However, if systems like Onshape and 3DS can go more granular than file, we can see future benefits.

    Check my older blog – you can find some additional ideas there –

    DS didn’t published anything specific technical about 3DS zero files, besides telling it stored in ENOVIA PLM, so I cannot comment on this.

    Hope you can get an info from my blogs. Feel free to reach me out oleg [at] beyondplm [dot] com.

    Best, Oleg

  • Loïc Mouchard

    CAD files are a nightmare for PDM “only” for the fields that are managed (and stored) in both the CAD file and in the PDM system. Functions are overlapping and sometime are working differently.
    -> a better implementation would define the functionality of each of both type of application (for example, do not store the CAD assembly file in your PDM system, but only the geometry of the parts).

    One more remark: the zero-file strategy from DS only works when you only have DS products, and do not exchange with partners, doesn’t it?

    An other point. As consultant, I could see (more than expected) “broken” meta-data because of smalls changes in the database done over the time. Nobody notice the problem until you need the data. While storing the geometries as file, you in a way prevent yourself from such unexpected effects.


  • beyondplm

    Loic, you’re right – DS zero file works when you have DS products.

    I think the border between geometry and assembly files is blurred if you think about PDM architectures. Some CAD systems optimize file load without touching part files. In the past it created many problems to PDM systems that tried to separate them. That’s why CAD files are very complex to manage.

    Best, Oleg

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