Managing and maintaining technical files is a common problem within the engineering discipline. When it comes to design data, a huge and diverse body of iterated data is often too much to deal with through manual naming and file organization alone. A shared drive or a server along with a standard archiving method is the normal solution but it’s a risky one for the following reasons:
1) Such an approach might work for one design engineer, who can quickly and easily navigate his own file system, but most mechanical design engineers work in diverse teams with many specialties; they must coordinate with other design engineers working on CAD, CAE, thermal studies, etc., as well as clients, management, and more.
2) When mechanical design engineers need to find a project or a file that was archived some months ago, it can be difficult to locate the correct version quickly. In addition, they could end up dismissing valuable data that could have been reused or losing data due to mistaken saves or changes in file organization.
3) Precious time is lost in the creation of renderings, presentations and screenshots to share with people out of the design engineering pool that need data but don’t have the proper software, licenses or workstations to run the original files.
4) The way information is often shared through FTP and emails puts the technical expertise of companies at high risk.
5) When non-engineers seek specific file versions within their own archives or emails, the task can be extremely daunting and even bigger mistakes can happen.
All of this makes the manual file management method prone to errors. To solve these issues, the IT industry has been working on intranet management applications that enable fully secured control over design data while keeping it neat with no effort. Many options are currently available, in the form of both personalized developed applications and cloud-based systems. The most promising used by big organizations is PDM/PLM technology.
PDM (Product Data Management) and PLM (Project Lifecycle Management) offer an efficient approach to managing design data and, in the case of PLM, to extend to the company’s structure and model all business actions and every possible interaction of the company within one virtual platform. With the most recent improvement, PDM has become part of PLM; mechanical design engineers can work on the PLM platform directly and manage many versions of their work with interactive commentaries and categories. The best part is that any other employee, manufacturer or even customer can access the designs and browse through them in an easy and highly-secure way.
Here are some of the main benefits that mechanical design engineers can get from using PLM platforms for design data management:
Having a clear and powerful reading/writing policy for design data files is a compulsory asset for design data management. PLM enables mechanical design engineers to work without worrying about overwriting or losing a version. Many mechanical design engineers can work in parallel on the same project without worrying about overwriting someone’s work or modifying original data. Having control over the files means they can also create, modify, move and delete data quickly and efficiently without worrying about being overridden by a colleague, making a mistake that would prove disastrous or wasting time naming and organizing. In addition, tracking iteration history and locating the required version is a swift operation.
Many users outside the design team may need to view design files (marketing department, presales, managers, directors, etc.). They shouldn’t be required to own a viewer or a license, download packs of data, and own a powerful workstation to do this. Also, viewing the file shouldn’t hinder the continuous workflow of the mechanical design engineers or the modifications they’d like to implement. PLM platforms bring an interactive solution that allows the integration of CAD/CAE/Fluid/thermal software within the virtual website. It allows a shared use of licenses, the option of uploading classic and light file formats in light versions of engineering software so that from the company’s PLM website, any user with the proper access rights can view the data and even manipulate it in 3D to visualize it as he pleases.
The original starting data should be the same for everyone and nobody but the project administrator should have rights over it. Mechanical design engineers can copy such data to their personal directories to work on it but everyone should be working on the same main platform from the same data. PLM not only enables such organization but gives many automated and controlled features to manage the directories according to time or progress made on the data. Thanks to this capability, mechanical design engineers are able to have a raw, un-alterable first version and detailed versions of their work according to their own standards. Moreover, the project manager or the lead mechanical design engineer can have a look at everyone’s progress and work at any given time.
Mechanical design engineers should be able to create and manage versions of their work at any given time or operation. Sometimes, this depends on their own habit of saving versions of their work and at other times, official versions are required at focal steps of the design process. In any case, PLM offers the option of creating alerts while working within the interface of the software in the virtual platform and saving versions according to criteria that the mechanical design engineer can specify. Saving will come with some compulsory text filling which will make it easier to insert commentaries about the version. Naming can be automated as well and, since the platform automatically organizes the project, versions will be put into their respective directories and thoroughly named. Browsing up for them will be a matter of clicks and modifying them will generate new “revisions” instead of overwriting them.
Design work should be easily and quickly organized so that mechanical design engineers don’t spend time on design management activities. Thanks to PLM software, the project manager or department head could be assigned an “administrator” role on the virtual platform and create a project along with the main tasks, sections, categories and features that will be required to organize the file. Automated numbering for any category or subcategory can be set and generated with no effort. Even naming the parts can be automated if there’s compatibility between the engineering software and the PLM platform.
Mechanical design engineers should be able to quickly and efficiently locate a desired version of a file in as little time as possible. PLM makes looking for a version as easy as browsing through a website contents. If the mechanical design engineer doesn’t remember the main project from which he wants to extract a version of a part, he can just type keywords he remembers and the results will be displayed soon after. The PLM solution will even give an overview of the file and thanks to compulsory commentary, the mechanical design engineer can be easily review the file without having to open the model and compare it with other versions.
As mentioned before, mechanical design engineers should be able to easily share their work without data uploading with the rest of the staff. Thanks to PLM, a presales employee and even the customer can log in to the platform and get a 3D easy-to-browse rendering of the design or the data in general. PLM technology is improving in such a way that soon, it will be possible to discuss interactively with the customer while he manipulates the data in the light version of the software. Such interactive and fluid meetings have a huge upside for communicating with the customer and other non-engineering groups.
Since PLM solutions are still quite expensive, they’re more oriented towards large companies and international businesses that require strong, secured coordination. Furthermore, even though the PLM platforms have been extended to include external collaboration, they can’t be used on an ad-hoc basis, and they don’t update information change as quickly as expected due to the control required over the interactions of all the systems for each modification. In addition, PLM requires IT support of its own and though the PLM providers offer a helpdesk available for their customer to maintain and look out for the platform, the costs are high and it might not be as quick and efficient as having a PLM consultant on hand. Finally, PLM is often a new mindset to implement within a company, and requires effort to train employees and time to launch and settle before it is fully adopted. Therefore, small to medium companies and most of the engineering consulting groups don’t use the available PLM platforms.
Additionally, the main available solutions of PLM in the market are compatible with a small selection of engineering software, normally made by the PLM company or its partners, and most of the time they’re designed with “controlling information” as the main drive instead of “sharing information”.
Still, PLM is only at its beginning. Even for small to medium-sized companies, employees can get inspiration from the technology to create internal basic applications and become acquainted with PLM. The main point is to not be intimidated by PLM and to be aware that it takes time and combined effort to achieve success with it. But once it’s there, all the hassle of technical organization and data issues are eliminated.