There are many discussions these days around the need for better communication and collaboration between different departments within a company and other companies. Manufacturing has grown to become a complex network with many relationships between companies. It includes design contractors, contract manufacturers, and suppliers. As products are getting complex, it often requires the communication of multiple engineers and departments working on different systems of a product – mechanical, electronics, software, etc. As we go downstream the problems are just growing. This is especially true in manufacturing, where disparate design, engineering, and production teams need to work closely together to create products that meet customer demands. But how can this be done effectively? Are CAD software and product lifecycle management (PLM) tools “as is” today really helpful to solve these problems?
In my blog today, I want to discuss the strong and weak points of CAD/PLM software as well as point out some trends that are happening in the industry today.
Collaborative Systems and Company Realities
Collaboration was always a big word for CAD and PLM vendors. For the last 20+ years in the PLM industry, I’ve seen tons of collaborative effort and applications. But the word “collaboration” was always very vague without actually specific meaning. Here is my collaboration of companies’ intents in collaboration:
- Design collaboration to allow engineers to work together on the same design
- Process collaboration for design, engineering, manufacturing release process
- Sharing data upstream and downstream
Although the ideas and needs of collaborative efforts are simple and clear, the reality of design, engineering, and manufacturing companies is to use multiple systems across different disciplines, which makes collaboration a really hard thing to accomplish. Let’s talk about some of them.
CAD Design, Files, and Geometry Barriers
The foundation of all design processes is CAD systems. They are around for the last four decades, but 99% of products are dead focus on geometry formats and file-based operations. CAD systems were born on the desktop, developed by multiple vendors using invented geometrical kernels and storing data in files in different file management systems.
To solve the problem of collaboration, computer-aided design(CAD) systems need to bring product data management tools to break the barrier of data (or file) access. Also, in the case of the usage of multiple systems, CAD software brings the problem of geometry incompatibility when passing design between multiple systems.
Moving from file-based systems to online services and a database-driven approach will create a new collaborative environment without barriers.
Data Sharing and Silos
Design and CAD software is just the beginning of the process. Things are getting really bad and difficult when companies need to pass the information between departments and other companies. Combining multiple formats, using document management, and sharing and sending data in Excel are examples of bad collaboration methods. Unfortunately, until very recently, it was no good way to solve these issues. These are two system constraints preventing efficient collaboration:
- Document barriers
- Single tenant systems
Breaking the document envelopes and starting to manage data in a granular way is the way to solve the problem. Taking data out of documents is one of the biggest barriers to digital transformation and improved collaboration.
Single-tenant systems are the second one. Take two PLM systems today and put them together. You can even host them in the cloud (eg. AWS), but the problem is still the same. Each system is technically an envelope with no easy access.
Multi-tenant systems and web services are the way go to turn from old-fashion system architectures to modern collaboration tools. The industry is moving to the cloud and we are going to see a migration of companies to new tools in the next 2-3 years.
Collaboration and Business Models
Although products and technologies are important, without proper business models, it is very hard to get systems to work. Even so, CAD and PLM vendors might not admit that their core business models for the last 15-20 years were focused on “data locking”. To lock data in their systems and make it impossible to hard to access. Then to upsell applications to existing customers and grow their business. Nothing wrong with that and PLM vendors built big brands using this approach.
The major shift is coming because of moving from ‘application focus’ to ‘data focus’. By focusing on data, companies can monetize data sharing instead data ownership and it will become a big opportunity to figure out new ways for systems monetization.
What is my conclusion?
Collaboration is a big word in the lexicon of engineering and manufacturing software companies. But CAD software and product lifecycle management are still lagging in the adoption of new technologies and services. The technologies are here, the question are the companies ready? It is a topic for another big discussion. Stay tuned.
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital cloud-native PDM & PLM platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.