How to make PLM Simple… For Engineers?

How to make PLM Simple… For Engineers?

Back many years ago I had a customer who challenged me to develop a “single button” application. It was long time ago when I developed AutoLISP applications for AutoCAD. At the beginning, I thought is is a joke. A few hours later in the conversation, I appreciate the importance of simple approach in designing user experience in data management. It was a turning moment in my life. In the world of AutoCAD, simplicity and intuitiveness was defined by ease and power of AutoCAD command line user experience combined with 2D drafting capabilities of AutoCAD. Many applications I did back in those days demanded simple and intuitive mechanism to combine data and graphic entities.

Simplification Trends

The simplicity trend is a multifaceted response to the complexities of modern life. It roots in multiple aspects of modern life, including lifestyle, design technology and philosophy. Here are some key factors contributing to the simplicity trend:

Minimalism: Minimalism is a lifestyle philosophy that promotes the idea of living with less, focusing on what truly matters, and decluttering both physical and mental spaces.

Design aesthetics: In design, simplicity often translates to clean lines, minimal ornamentation, and functionality. This approach, has become increasingly popular in various fields, graphic design.

User experience (UX) design: In the digital world, simplicity is highly valued in UX design. Companies strive to create intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that prioritize ease of use and efficiency. This trend has been reinforced by the widespread adoption of smartphones and the need for seamless interactions across different devices and platforms.

Environmental consciousness: Simplifying consumption and reducing waste are central tenets of the sustainability movement. Many people are embracing a simpler lifestyle as a way to minimize their environmental footprint.

Mental well-being: The complexity and constant stimulation of modern life have led many people to seek simplicity as a means of reducing stress and improving mental well-being. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and digital detoxes emphasize the importance of simplifying our lives to find greater peace and contentment.

Economic factors: Economic uncertainty and changing priorities have also influenced the simplicity trend. Many individuals and families are reassessing their spending habits and focusing on essentials rather than unnecessary luxuries.

Why PLM Is Complex?

Overall, the simplicity trend reflects a desire for clarity, authenticity, and balance in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world. When it comes to CAD and PLM world, we are facing an increased level of complexity in everything. Products are getting more complex. It is not a simple mechanical device, but a complex system combining mechanical, electronics and software tools combined with cloud services. The same can be said about teams working together that need to interact and work in a different geographies, companies and teams.

For the last decade I wrote multiple articles speaking about how to simplify product lifecycle management and data management systems. How to use data management technologies and data models to create simple data management platforms. Here are some of the links you can find useful.

Simple PLM Circa 2022

Invisible Product Lifecycle Management

How to make simple PLM, but not simlper?

The real challenge of all complex PLM systems is to hide the complexity under the simple user experience while using a well known and familiar paradigm for UX and deliberately filtering what user should see and what needs to be hidden.

Similar to Google user interface simplicity and Apple user experience paradigm, CAD and PLM systems should follow the simplicity trend. The slide above is taken from my AU 2010 presentation is still relevant in my view. Although, I think industry made some successful movements in the right direction.

CAD and PDM Made Simple

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. This quote, usually attributed to Einstein, is often used as an appeal to make a subject as simple and easy as possible to appear in front of customers, though of course don’t make it so easy that it becomes pointless and meaningless.

The most successful innovation in CAD industry were always associated with simplicity and well known user behavior. The amazing visionary of Dr Samuel P. Geisberg who created parametric solid modeling by technically applying the idea of Lotus 1-2-3 electronic tables to CAD design created Pro-Engineer, which become PTC. Later, the iconic idea of John Hirschtick and his team, took Pro-E and turned it into Solidworks by applying the idea of Windows User Experience. In PDM, the example of the system that offers a great deal of simplicity was Conisio (acquired by Solidworks and known as Solidworks PDM now).

A very opinionated article by Moshe Baum who is sharing his personal experience of using different CAD and PLM tools worth reading. In somewhat harsh language, he recommends that PLM vendors will back off to intervene the engineering life by offering them complex products and user experience and leaving engineers alone with simple tools.

I think, Moshe is fundamentally right by saying that many existing PLM platforms are too complex and exposing too many pieces of unnecessarily information to engineers. Moshe was trolling me with multiple LinkedIn DMs, which I found useful to understand the dark side of engineering mind that can help to improve my vision of invisible data management and AI . Also to find how to combine it with modern user experience.

Modern User Experience, Data Science and Minimalism

There are two major trends that dominant in a modern software development. Simplicity of UX combined with the power of data management. Similar to Google Docs that introduced simple way to manage documents without files and provide access to everyone and ChatGPT that brining powerful data management and LLM to create a conversational user experience and content creation, we can expect CAD and PLM tools coming to use it. Here are a few examples – PTC Onshape (which adopted Google Doc paradigm and eliminated files for CAD design), OpenBOM (which adopted Google Spreadsheet paradigm to manage complex product structure – disclaimer, I’m co-founder) and Shapr3D (that started with the adoption of Apple iPad and Apple Pen). These are only a few examples. I’m sure we’re going to see many other examples of tools and services that are focusing on specific tasks and technological innovation in data management systems and user experience, such as AI Co-pilots helping to simplify tasks that usually very complex.

Simple, but not Simpler?

In my everyday work, I’m talking to many engineers and manufacturing companies that demand simplicity. While I love all of them, it is important not to oversimplify things. Here are a few examples of oversimplification. Modern 3D CAD systems made it really simple to create geometry without focusing on the data (eg. no file names in systems like Onshape and Autodesk Fusion360. When you see a model with all parts named Part1 or attempts to create a Bill of Materials without Part Number that can be consumed outside of CAD in a reasonable way, we always chuckle. A few minutes conversation usually solve the problem, but explains the minimalistic demands of engineers.

Another example is an obsessive believe that Excel can solve all problems and everything is needed is to allow to engineers to dump the data to Excel and files into folders. Those things are easy to start, but later on they are turning into a nightmare. A recent example of such a nightmare is what happened to Williams Formula 1 Team that was managing their entire data set using 20,000 lines Excel spreadsheet. Here is the passage the explains their experience:

The Williams car build workbook, with roughly 20,000 individual parts, was “a joke,” Vowles recently told The Race. “Impossible to navigate and impossible to update.” This colossal Excel file lacked information on how much each of those parts cost and the time it took to produce them, along with whether the parts were already on order. Prioritizing one car section over another, from manufacture through inspection, was impossible, Vowles suggested.

“When you start tracking now hundreds of thousands of components through your organization moving around, an Excel spreadsheet is useless,” Vowles told The Race. Because of the multiple states each part could be in—ordered, backordered, inspected, returned—humans are often left to work out the details. “And once you start putting that level of complexity in, which is where modern Formula 1 is, the Excel spreadsheet falls over, and humans fall over. And that’s exactly where we are.”

The consequences of this row/column chaos, and the resulting hiccups, were many. Williams missed early pre-season testing in 2019. Workers sometimes had to physically search the team’s factory for parts. The wrong parts got priority, other parts came late, and some piled up. And yet transitioning to a modern tracking system was “viciously expensive,” Fry told The Race, and making up for the painful process required “humans pushing themselves to the absolute limits and breaking.”

Making PLM Invisible For Engineers

How PLM vendors can backoff from gigantic levels of complexity and make PLM great for engineers? In my view, everything starts from the granularity in data management and user experience. Less is more. The systems should not expose data that is not needed to engineers. At the same time, brining a well know and familiar user experience, new type of user interaction (voice and chat) combined with simple data interaction and reporting (a-la spreadsheets, charts and intuitive navigation) can help a lot. One-click BOM creation for CAD design, instant sharing data with everyone who needs to see and chatbot interactive tool helping to understand the data and create a report on the fly – these are ideas that I can see materializing in the future 3-5 years.

What will happen with existing PLM systems? Those are not going to die, especially not in the large enterprise organizations. They will continue to serve as PLM systems of records while modern nimble and simple system of engagement and decision support will provide a new type of simple user experience.

What is my conclusion?

In a modern digital world, the data is a paramount. Without data, engineers and everyone else cannot operate. The challenge of combining product data complexity, process complexity in product development and manufacturing with simplicity of user experience. It is clearly number #1 priority in CAD, PDM and PLM industry. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital-thread platform with cloud-native PDM & PLM capabilities to manage product data lifecycle and connect manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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