Digital Transformation, Engineers, and BOM Excel Paradox

Digital Transformation, Engineers, and BOM Excel Paradox

Although many manufacturers still rely heavily on document-based Bill of Materials (BOM) Excel files, the days of these archaic systems and processes are numbered. While managing BOMs using Excel and spreadsheet files is widely popular, they also come with a host of disadvantages that can negatively impact a manufacturer’s operations. There is a consensus about how damaging Excel data management is for data and change management. However, engineers have such amazing “love and hate” relationships with Excel-based BOMs that it can potentially damage the digital transformation activities of companies and their move towards future connected business.

In this blog post, I will share my thoughts about key reasons why engineers are not ready to abandon their beloved Excels and offer some ideas on how to make the next move to modern cloud-based PLM systems. Also, I will suggest the main reasons why moving to a more modern system is essential for today’s manufacturing industry.

Why Spreadsheets Are Fine For Engineers?

I’ve made interesting research by posting a poll in the SOLIDWORKS group on LinkedIn asking about what are the best practices to manage BOM structure and share data with contractors and suppliers. I’ve got interesting results. Check this out.

Engineers are overwhelmingly voting for keeping their Excel / Email best practices. How come you can ask? While I’m hearing so many voices about how painful and inefficient Excel is, engineers are voting to keep Excel. After speaking to some of these engineers, I understand where is the catch. Here is the thing…

The existing data management practices in manufacturing companies are extremely fragmented. It is true for small and very large companies. Engineering IT is usually concerned about keeping CAD/PDM silo and until now was mostly focused on how to control files (design) lifecycle. The piles of information is sitting in these CAD files, but engineers mostly think about how to focus their activities on how to get data out to files (Excels, STEP, Zips) and send them to consumers – usually, a person or organization that stands “next in the line” to get the information.

How Excel Is Damaging PLM Adoption and Digital Transformation

The problem is getting bigger these days. Manufacturing companies are realizing the opportunity and survival path to digitally transform their business. However, existing digital transformation projects are failing and one of the main reasons is because companies have a hard time changing their data management best practices, thinking about information flows and digital thread instead of sending Excel files from one silo to another.

The responsibility of engineers is how to get the data out, but the same engineers are not thinking holistically about downstream processes. So, as a result, sending Excel to other silos (eg. production planning – aka ERP) is natural. Engineers are not responsible for having a single source of truth or to take care of how the data will be managed in other departments and organizations. It is usually not the engineers’ responsibility to think about how the information is transformed later in the downstream processes.

Why ditching Excel is essential for the manufacturing future?

Digital transformation is a journey. Companies have to rethink their data management practices and start thinking about how to connect pieces of information together. This is where an old product lifecycle management ends and a digital thread begins. Legacy data management practices were siloed and assumed one big monolithic PLM system taking care of everything (but mostly CAD files and related application modules). Whenever PLM failed, Excel was the “second best choice” and engineers adopted it by large numbers solving the immediate problems of siloed data transfers.

A modern technological approach and new data management practices are creating a new product lifecycle management (PLM) that is switching from a monolithic to a digital PLM services approach. In such a way companies can use services to manage data and connect these services with other digital manufacturing services responsible for downstream processes. So, the entire PLM solutions will transform from siloed product lifecycle management where CAD (computer-aided design) systems are very much disconnected from other business processes to a connected process where everyone is getting access to up-to-date information in real-time connecting the production process with engineering BOM and using a product structure as a foundation for a digital thread that can be used by the engineering department, contract manufacturers, engineering Bill of Materials, manufacturing BOM, product costing, sales Bill of Materials and other siloes of the product development process from the design process to final product and maintenance services.

What is my conclusion?

The manufacturing industry is slowly making progress with the introduction of modern digital platforms. It includes a growing interest in adopting new product lifecycle management SaaS platforms and also very much interested in how to create a digital thread of information instead of siloed Excel and other point-to-point integrations. A modern PLM system is coming today with a variety of services to solve problems of product data management, supply chain management, and other related disciplines covering an entire product development process and spanning across the entire product value chain. Unfortunately, engineers often represent a very conservative group of users to start digital innovation in manufacturing businesses in anything related to data management. As much as engineers played a transformative role in bringing innovative tools into the first phase of a product’s lifecycle – design, the same engineers are becoming a roadblock. There are two ways to help engineers and by doing so to bring manufacturing companies to the next level of their data management best practices. The first step is to solve the problem of engineering productivity in data management. It includes offering “pain killers” to help engineers to capture the information in the most efficient way. It must be easy to help engineers to overcome their existing Excel habits. The second step is to offer a digital thread solution for digital process and data analytics helping to improve product development, manufacturing, and maintenance operations across multiple silos of manufacturing business. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital cloud-native PDM and PLM platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networksMy opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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