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Many small and medium-sized companies keep bills of materials (BOMs) on computer-based spreadsheets. Purchasing departments use these spreadsheets to cost prototypes and production runs, as well as to order components. When items change, the spreadsheets need to be updated manually, and if the purchasing department doesn't keep asking engineering for updates, the wrong parts at the wrong prices can be ordered from the wrong suppliers.

BOMs contain a great deal of ongoing, and often changing, information about a product during its development. To make it easier to update and share this information, companies can set up PDM (product data management) systems-but these are generally expensive programs that require a fairly long time to implement.

Another alternative came along in June 2001-a new Internet service called , which gives design and manufacturing organizations a webbased workspace to create and manage BOMs for a subscription fee of $100 per month. Subscribers gain access to a relational database to manage whole-product BOMs with their complex sets of relationships between part names, part numbers, manufacturers, vendors, prices, lead times, CAD files, and other product-related data. The site gives users three "worlds" in its own terminology-the BOM itself, which can be viewed for whole products, with individual parts nested within their assemblies or shown individually; a supplier world, where vendor pricing can be compared, and suppliers can collaborate on the parts they build; and a workspace world in which information can be entered and changed.

"We view the bill of materials as the nexus of product data, the key to data going from design to manufacturing," says Michael Topolovac, president and CEO of "A manufacturing company wants a central location where all members of a product team can view and work on the product structure. With, all the relevant information can live in a hosted web space, with no duplication. Basically, it's PDM without the challenges."

Using is very straightforward. A user logs in and can view the data in a single, logical database. Firewalls between data spaces protect security, along with SSL encryption that protects data transmitted over the Internet. The company performs nightly tape backups to insure reliability. In the future, plans to introduce additional software modules to enable product change management and RFQ automation for customers dealing with potential suppliers.

The site has been operating live for less than two months, but pilot program engineers in small to mid-sized companies find that works well for them. "It's very, very cost effective," says Hans Hartmann, vice president of Operations for Westwave Communications, a telecommunications start-up in Santa Rosa, CA, and one of's pilot users. Westwave makes an access switch that includes electronics. While focusing mostly on software, the company does develop hardware, using two third-party design consultants.

"We implemented in two days," Hartmann says, "and we're basically using it as a PDM system for BOMs, parts, production and prototype costs. It helps us collaborate with our design consultants, and when we get far enough down the line, the contract manufacturers with whom we work will be able to access it."

Although he agrees that can't perform the design change tracking functions of PDM, he says, "We needed to control our information quickly and this worked right away. We don't have to invest in computer resources to house the information, and the time to productivity with is very quick. We're looking forward to the planned new features."

Hartmann also points out that has a fail-safe mechanism in these days of "dot com worries. With this service, you can download all the information to your own computer with a single button."

Bret Lobree, an engineer with Metallic Power, Carlsbad, CA, designs zinc/air fuel cells for uninterruptible power supplies. He signed on to recently and says, "The plan is to be able to have the bill of materials connected to vendors so that it's convenient for them to see the parts they're going to build."

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This article is part of a continuing series of monthly pieces on "E-Services and the design engineer," sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Design News will continue to report on the latest developments on the web and how new web-based products and services make life easier for engineers. Please share with us your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster. Direct information to National Editor Paul E. Teague at [email protected] or fax him at 617-55-4402.

Metallic Power kept its BOMs on Excel spreadsheets before joining Lobree notes, "A 'flat file' like a spreadsheet isn't related to anything else that happens in engineering. If we update the BOM because we've changed something, there's no automatic way to inform purchasing-but purchases are based on the BOM. The new service lets us update as necessary, and all purchasing has to do is check the website."

Currently inputting data on projects-in-work, Metallic Power has over 1,500 items listed. "We can see parts and items associated with them at the click of a button, as well as the costs. This beats taking the time and spending the money to set up a PDM system in-house. We also may continue to want to have web-based communication with our supply chain hosted by someone else, and makes that easy. In the not very far future, we'll implement an ERP system, and has mechanisms to let us move our information into that." also lets Lobree upload models from SolidWorks-currently the only CAD program with which works, although Topolovac foresees a future when the site will be able to work with all major CAD systems. "I can create assembly relations on six or seven levels within," Lobree says. "I can also browse the BOM in the form of a Windows feature tree that's both expandable and collapsible-and also has items that aren't included in the SolidWorks model, such as adhesives and assembly instructions, that can be imported from into SolidWorks."

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