The Journey of PDM Evolution: The Shift from Traditional CAD File Management Tools to Data-Centric Services

The Journey of PDM Evolution: The Shift from Traditional CAD File Management Tools to Data-Centric Services

Digital transformation is a strong trend in the development and evolution of CAD, PDM and PLM tools. I’ve been following Product Data Management (or PDM) or how it originally called back in 1990s, EDM (engineering data or document management) for many years. The last decade in PDM development demonstrated a few very interesting trends in technologies and business related to product related data and product lifecycle management. Product data is becoming critical for manufacturing businesses and it will impact future development of PDM systems.

Here are a few of my previous posts about computer aided design (CAD) and PDM software :

What happened with PDM for the last 10 years?

PDM business stalemate

How to transform old CAD-PDM integration paradigm

Best kept secret about PDM and the future of CAD file data management

Also, I recommend you to check these two articles where I specifically focusing on the PDM development in the application of two largest vendors – Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes (SOLIDWORKS). My primary focus in these two companies is because they represent the market with the biggest install base on PDM applications as of today.

How to navigate through multiple Autodesk PDM and PLM systems

How many PDM applications SOLIDWORKS customers need?

The last article I recommend you to read is about PLM data management and system architecture, which is very helpful to understand the technological perspective of PDM software evolution. CHeck this our – PLM system architecture evolution for dummies.

In the realm of product data management (PDM) he tools and methods used for managing and storing data have seen significant shifts. The evolutionary path from simple file management systems to more sophisticated, but at the same time, more simple data-centric services has been marked by technological advancements, user demand, and industry trends.

Product Data Management Architecture: An Evolutionary Path

The evolution of PDM software came a long path from the time where PDM was needed just to manage files to more sophisticated applications managing files and multiple relationships and changes. I would like to identify 3 phases in PDM system architecture:

  1. Simple CAD File Managers: The earliest systems were mere repositories where designers and architects could store and retrieve their CAD files. These were basic utilities, focusing solely on the task of file management without any added layers of intelligence or collaborative features. These applications were focusing on the independency, ability to run even on a single computer or in a simple LAN-based environment.
  2. Client-Server Applications: As the need for collaboration grew and projects became more intricate, client-server applications emerged. These enabled multiple users to access, modify, and manage files from different workstations, promoting real-time collaboration. Most of these applications were using SQL database and provided more robust data management capabilities. However, as a result, the tools became heavier and harder to operate and maintain.
  3. Cloud PDM: The most recent development in the architecture of data management is the move to the cloud. Cloud-based Product Data Management (PDM) systems provide not only storage solutions but also enhanced collaborative features, scalability, and real-time data access from anywhere in the world. Cloud PDM systems have different architecture from pure hosted traditional PDM tools to more sophisticated data management platforms and native cloud CAD applications with embedded PDM capabilities.

The Core of Data & Process Support

the functional aspects of PDM software were changing as well. At the beginning PDM systems were born to manage revisions of CAD drawings (first with 2D CAD files) and later extended to support more complex data sets and processes.

  1. CAD File Revisions: With the growth of projects and the necessity for continuous iteration, tracking and managing revisions became paramount. This ensures that all stakeholders are always on the same page. How to manage drawings and later CAD parts/ assemblies revisions? That was the main use case for PDM systems.
  2. Product Data Management: Introduction of 3D CAD systems advanced 3D design created a need to manage parts, assemblies and drawing, to control relationships between them. This was the next step and PDM where actually a produce data management term was born. Beyond just files, managing the entire lifecycle of a parts, assemblies and drawings.
  3. Release Process: The outcome of every engineering and design process is document release. To provide revision traceability and manage the process of approvals was the next step in functional evolution of product data management and PDM systems. By achieving this level, product data management systems became part of business process tools. Very often PDM tools and processes are connected to PLM, MRP or enterprise resource planning tools.

Additional Features Enhancing PDM Tools

To provide rich set of features and functions, PDM systems were developing support for different aspects of working with CAD files and supporting some essential functions to streamline and simplify engineering work. The following functional enhancements were

  1. Viewer (or 3D Viewer): For those not involved in the design but still integral to the process, viewers allow for design visualization without the need for specialized software.
  2. Collaborative Engineering: This feature encourages multiple engineers or designers to work simultaneously on a design, optimizing processes and outcomes.
  3. Derivate Files: Although, design is done using native 3D CAD tools and files, derivative files often used for data exchange and release for production, contract manufacturing work and other . They include PDF, STEP, DXF, DWG, IGES, STL and other formats.
  4. Data Sharing and Reporting: To provide tools for seamless data sharing across departments, organizations and generating different reports for project management and other people in organizations.

Keeping Up with Current Tech and Engineering Trends

Modern technologies in data management, collaboration, IT infrastructure and communications are are shaping the way PDM systems will be developed in the future. Here are some of the most important trends that i captured that in my view will impact product development process and tools that will be used to support the process:

  1. Commoditization of File Management: Back in 1990s, storing a file was a problem. Not anymore. The basic act of storing and retrieving files is no longer a selling point. There are many cloud and network storage systems that capable to do so. It’s the added features and intelligence that determine a system’s value.
  2. Data Sharing Norms: The free flow of data across systems, departments, and even organizations is becoming commonplace. The function is expected and modern data sharing capabilities coming to product data management from the outside world set a high standard for PDM tools.
  3. Support for Distributed Working Environments: Back in early days of product data management, everyone was working in the system building, sharing data was simple. With the rise of remote work, systems that support a distributed workforce are in high demand.
  4. Integration of Multi-disciplinary Design and Digital Threads: A holistic approach to design that encompasses all aspects of a product’s lifecycle. It is not only about mechanical or electrical design. Each product has mechanical, electrical, electronic and software elements. Combining them together in a design digital threadis an important function.
  5. Cloud CAD with Embedded PDM: As CAD systems themselves move to the cloud, embedded PDM systems in these platforms are becoming a norm as a basic function to manage the design and all related data. .

Pivoting Business Models in PDM

The business of PDM and product lifecycle management was changing as well. From from the status of add-in for a CAD to modern cloud SaaS software. Here are 3 essential steps in PDM business.

  1. Valuable CAD Add-in: PDM started as a crucial add-on to CAD systems in a highly competitive market.
  2. The Decline of Standalone PDM: With CAD vendors acquiring PDM systems and offering bundled solutions, the standalone PDM business has faced challenges.
  3. Cloud Renaissance: Could the future see a resurgence of PDM systems in the cloud?

Transitioning to a Data + Services Model

So, what will happen with computer aided design (CAD) and their siblings PDM. On one side, there is a growing consensus that PDM systems (or function) is un-separatable part CAD software needed to manage data. But that would be a very simple way to think about it.

The industry is leaning more towards data and services being separate yet intertwined. While CAD files remain the crux of design IP, the management of these files is now a basic function. The true value lies in the services surrounding this data. From file and data management services, process support tools to engagement services, the modern PDM system is expected to offer more than just storage solutions.

What is my conclusion?

The traditional notion of PDM is undergoing a metamorphosis. While legacy systems will persist for some time, the future is undoubtedly in the cloud. However, the PDM concept will be changing too. One size doens’t fit all and I can see how granular web services data management functions are becoming available (thanks for modern data management software and tech).

Modern services are anticipated to provide enhanced value, from basic storage functions to more sophisticated data management, collaboration tools and intelligence tools. Project managers are looking for better tools for version control and engineering processes for multi disciplinary teams. We are going to see a simple file management services combined with specialized data tool for release, support, engagement and reporting capabilities.

Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

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


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