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How PDM opens windows on design improvements

Article-How PDM opens windows on design improvements

How PDM opens windows on design improvements

There is a story about how a manufacturer of overhead cranes had 9,000 designs filed for the same runner wheel. Why? Engineers found designing the same wheel over again easier than digging an existing drawing out of the archives.

Granted, this manufacturer was using a paper-based storage and retrieval system at the time. Engineers had to go down to the document room and pull blueprints out of flat files. However, many companies with mature CAD installations are faced with the electronic version of a paper chase. Product data management (PDM) systems have evolved to provide design engineers the ability to uncover work that has already been done and focus their efforts on those tasks that really need doing.

A robust PDM system guides the engineer to good design data that otherwise might be overlooked and unnecessarily recreated. For instance, the designer might request that the PDM system locate and retrieve all designs for door handles under three lbs made of plastic. He or she could then select desired components from each and incorporate them into a brand new design, saving much--if not most--of the time required to develop that design from scratch.

At Zenith Electronics Co., Glen View, IL, PDM provided a way to bring together information from a menagerie of sources and in similarly diverse formats. This was made possible through the implementation of the Matrix object-oriented PDM package from Adra Systems Inc., Chelmsford, MA. Greg Corwin, Zenith Electronics' manager of information technology, says information from 2-D and 3-D CAD, FEA, tests and measurements, word processors, and spreadsheets all constitute product data and all are made accessible through Matrix. "In the short term, PDM is bringing order and consistency to engineering data,'' Corwin says. "In the long run, it will be a key component of an IS infrastructure at Zenith.''

For some companies, PDM is not only a way to leverage past data, it is a strategic tool for improving future product and processes. Once engineering data are on-line, there are no end of uses they can be put to throughout the business.

At Andersen Windows Inc., Bayport, MN, PDM was a major factor in the company's selection of a new CAD architecture. Andersen considers its Optegra electronic product definition system from Computervision, Bedford, MA, a natural extension of its CADDS 5 design environment. "PDM is essential to Andersen's goal of getting all design data on-line or near-line," says Merlyn Leslie, CAE support manager. "This pays-off by getting products to market faster and providing useful information throughout the company."

For all the advantages it brings to design, CAD has not made finding product data any easier. If anything, the ability to generate designs more quickly has exacerbated the problem of managing data. There is more data around.

"In the last four years, our staff of 35 engineers has produced 18,000 drawings," relates Dave Easton, manager of information systems at Fleetwood Systems, Inc., Romeoville, IL. Fortunately for this manufacturer of customized materials handling equipment, these drawings are not just sitting around in a database collecting the electronic equivalent of cobwebs. Fleetwood's designs reside in the AutoManager (AM) WorkFlow electronic document management system from Cyco International, Atlanta, GA, where they contribute to the company's bottom line long after their original purposes have been served.

Making designs do double duty and then some is one reason to implement PDM. Another is to keep projects moving forward and the engineers assigned to them working in synch.

This benefit has been realized at Stress-Tek, Inc., Kent, WA, a manufacturer ofon-board payload weighing systems for heavy-duty trucks. The company acquired the DEED package from Bionic Knight Software Inc., Raleigh, NC, to give current product data greater visibility among its designers. "PDM allows us to keep track of what designs we are using," says Ron Patricelli, director of engineering and service for Stress-Tek. "We control component types and sources and prevent our engineers from duplicating each others' efforts."

PDM defined. Once PDM is in place, engineers can take advantage of the inherent organization of the system to get things done more efficiently while improving other business practices. Yet types of PDM systems vary almost as widely as the applications engineers use them for. This has led to some confusion over what, exactly, a PDM system is.

Some companies pull a page from the dual-use play book and use their enterprise-wide manufacturing resource planning (MRP) systems for managing product data. According to many engineers, this rarely proves satisfactory: a tool for cutting widgit purchase orders is not particularly adept at facilitating access to CAD data.

On the other end of the spectrum, some companies expect designers to make do with the native file management features of their CAD systems. But product data incorporates more than the vector geometry CAD file management systems tend to restrict themselves to.

According to Wayne George, senior corporate communications manager at Computervision, the concept of electronic product definition recognizes that the same piece of information has value throughout a company, but for different purposes. "As an engineering tool, PDM must present users with a way to store, access, and leverage design data," George says. "However, it should also tie into management information systems, such as MRP and accounting software, whose users also need product information to make sure the company is buying the right number of the right kind of widgets."

For the purposes of this article, PDM systems are those software tools specialized for handling all the data engineers need to design products. They enable engineers to make use of information they and their colleagues have created previously. In addition, engineering PDM systems improve communication and coordination between designers and the rest of the business.

Haven't I seen that before? There are many reasons to implement PDM. One of the most compelling is acquiring the ability to re-use engineering data. This enables engineers to spend their time working on new designs and design improvements rather than running over the same old ground.

At first glance, re-using engineering data might not seem like such a priority at a company that specializes in custom design. However, Fleetwood's Easton points out that when every customer installation poses unique design challenges, finding ways to avoid replicated effort is even more imperative: "The nature of our business involves custom engineering, so we want to cut down our design time by using pre-engineered components as much as possible."

Fleetwood builds sophisticated, conveyor-type equipment for major can and container companies, such as Crown Cork & Seal, American Can Corp., and Reynolds Metals. These companies all employ step-to-step manufacturing pro-cesses, but the similarities end there. Each process has a different end product and different throughput rates. Fleetwood also makes equipment for can-filling operations, the designs of which vary widely depending on what is destined for store shelves.

Four years ago, Fleetwood purchased the AutoManager (AM) WorkFlow document management software from Cyco International, Atlanta, GA, to enable its engineers to focus on the aspects of each customer's installation that made it unique. While the overall configuration of a conveyor system is custom arranged, on sub-assembly and component levels it shares much in common with all such systems. "We need for our engineers to be able to locate existing drawings of components so they can be incorporated into new designs," Easton says.

Fleetwood selected AM-WorkFlow for several reasons, not the least of which was its compatibility with the company's existing Novell network. Furthermore, it works with AutoCAD, the company's design tool. Most of Fleetwood's engineering is done at its 125,000-sq ft Romeoville facility, although some of the company's 400 employees are spread throughout offices in Florida and the U.K. All authorized users with access to the network have access to engineering data.

"Users fill out query forms on the main screen, citing search parameters for a particular type of document," Easton explains. AM-WorkFlow's form-based format means users do not have to learn a query language to search the database. The software allows users to scroll through documents that meet defined parameters and to launch directly into AutoCAD if they need to make some changes. AM-WorkFlow also provides inherent red-lining, document check-in/check-out, and print-server functions.

Critical mass. An interesting aspect of Fleetwood's PDM deployment is the decision to start the system from scratch. No so-called "legacy data"--engineering data whose existence predates the PDM system--was imported into AM-WorkFlow. According to Easton, this decision is based on the calculation that the time required to sift through each existing file, gauge its value, and enter it into the system if appropriate would not be worth its improved accessibility.

Much of this calculation is based on the fact that Fleetwood possesses a relatively large staff of prolific designers. As indicated previously, the company's engineers each create over 120 drawings per year, on average. Thus, it did not take long for the PDM system to become well stocked with re-usable engineering data. Not every company in the design business has the staff to produce such work.

A PDM system is only as useful as the data it manages. One of the "hidden costs" of PDM deployment is that it often takes a while to accumulate enough of the right kinds of engineering data to start seeing a return on investment. Therefore, many engineering companies seek to transfer legacy data to the new system in order to make it productive as soon as possible.

Stress-Tek, with a staff of eight engineers, was mindful of this when it sought to implement PDM. About two years ago, the company selected the DEED package in order to enable designers to acquire more control over their data. Prior to the purchase of DEED, Stress-Tek engineers had to venture into the company's MRP system to look for product data. DEED gives them more control over their data with an easier-to-use system.

Stress-Tek's Patricelli says the company is actively designing new models of its Vulcan line of on-board weighing systems. The latest systems incorporate electronics: meters and transponders that interface with load sensors. Nevertheless, whether they are designed for front-loading dump trucks, log-hauling tractor-trailers, or general trucking semis, the weighing systems are derived from strain-gauge technology and share components in common.

The ability to use component designs from prior projects in new ones is a real boon to companies with smallish engineering staffs. PDM makes this possible. However, smaller PDM installations, while fairly easy to get up and running as a purely software/hardware integration problem, pose to application managers the challenge of getting enough drawings catalogued to make them a valuable resource.

Stress-Tek does not produce CAD drawings on the scale of a Fleetwood. So building a PDM system exclusively with fresh data would push the point where the system contained enough data to be useful too far into the future to make it an attractive option. Patricelli says an important reason for selecting the DEED package was that it was able to import engineering data from the company's individual seats of AutoCAD and the corporate MRP system. Thus, Stress-Tek was able to pump-prime its PDM system to make it a useful engineering tool almost immediately.

"Much of the data we currently have in DEED is legacy data," Patricelli says. Before PDM, engineers at the company maintained their own records on their own hard drives. This resulted in the accumulation of what Patricelli terms "fragmented databases" over the years. DEED enabled system administrators to integrate these discrete collections of files as a single resource, accessible to all authorized users. And this resource continues to expand as Stress-Tek's engineers add more original drawings to it. PDM systems become more valuable as engineers do what they do: produce CAD data and store it.

"Engineering wanted a simple, integrated system for finding re-usable designs," Patricelli says. Much useful data was tied up in the MRP system, which, though good for procurement and billing activities, is not oriented for storing and retrieving product data. "PDM enables engineers to own their data, which helps them gain control of their projects."

According to Zenith Electronics' Corwin, his company had a specific requirement for handling legacy data. "We absolutely would not have bothered with PDM if we did not have the ability to bring existing data into the system," Corwin relates, adding that Matrix's object-oriented database made importing data from a variety of sources easier than would have been possible with a relational-type system. "We transferred 11,000 CAD files into Matrix over a weekend.

At Andersen Windows, legacy data was also a trove of engineering data too valuable to discard. In this case, the data resided in the company's obsolescent Calma system from Computervision. Andersen's Leslie says when the time came to upgrade its CAD system, fitting existing data into the new environment was a prime consideration.

The company chose Computervision's CADDS 5 CAD/CAM solution for solid modeling and the Optegra electronic product definition software for handling product design data. The integrated design/PDM environment runs on a network of 80 Hewlett-Packard workstations and a Model H50 server. The conversion of Andersen's Calma legacy data over to Optegra was made easier by the fact both systems came from the same vendor.

The conversion meant Andersen's engineers did not have to give up their existing resources to enjoy the increased functionality of an up-to-date PDM system. Furthermore, the conversion was occasion for Andersen to expand the range of product data accessible via workstations. "We also have older legacy data that predate Calma," Leslie explains. "Optegra allows us to manage scanned-in paper-based files, transformed into an electronic format."

The goal at Andersen is to get all product data on the network either resident on the server or digitized on compact disks. Leslie says a paperless product development process can save the company millions of dollars annually and enhances ISO 9000 certification efforts.

An embarrassment of riches. Once a company's product data treasury is open for business, application developers often find many promising opportunities for investing the information. Leslie says Andersen plans to add Macs and PCs to the network to enable other departments besides engineering to benefit from engineering data. Integrating Mac client software with Optegra, for example, will provide links between Andersen's project planning and PDM systems.

At Stress-Tek, the plan is for PDM to enable a paperless source control system. Patricelli says information contained in DEED will save time and money by keeping records of approved sources of components and materials with each stored drawing. Thus, engineers searching for an existing drawing in the database will immediately have access to lists of approved suppliers.

Fleetwood's Easton says having all product data on-line enables engineers to standardize many administrative procedures related to the production of drawings. AM-WorkFlow can import defined fields from one screen into another file. This eliminates some repetitive data entry tasks and individual "style" issues, improving consistency across all the company's drawings.

Zenith Electronics has grandiose plans for its PDM system. Corwin says his department is working on web interfaces to Matrix that is making product data accessible to authorized suppliers via Netscape. Currently, suppliers can dial into Zenith's intranet to get the product data they need. Eventually, Corwin says, Zenith product data will be available to authorized users via the World Wide Web, once security issues have been addressed. A firewall server is already in place.

Nobody likes looking through filing cabinets for lost records. Similarly, nobody wants to troll through uncatalogued, unfriendly databases for designs of unknown utility. More often than not, engineers simply will re-create perfectly useful existing designs rather than spend the time and patience to search for them. Properly implemented and stocked, a PDM system allows engineers to concentrate on coming up with new designs rather then re-inventing the wheel.

PDM Benefits- PDM enables engineers to use a given design on any number of projects without requiring them to design it all over again every time.
- The management functions of PDM serve to prevent engineers from working at cross-purposes.
- Having all product information on-line or near-line improves its accessibility throughout the company.
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