Five Ways Product Design Teams Fail at Data Management
John Hayes posted on June 23, 2017 |

ENGINEERING.com surveyed 151 product development professionals in May 2017 about their design processes and systems. For more details, download the Research Report: How Design Teams Manage Product Data.

 

Almost half of the respondents told us that their teams performed poorly on the following five issues and processes:

 

  1. Securely sharing product data outside of the core product team

  2. Implementing and documenting product development workflows

  3. Avoiding re-designing the same part multiple times

  4. Bringing new users up to full fluency on accessing product data

  5. Managing change orders


By “performed poorly,” we mean that these teams scored themselves as being either “Rotten,” “Pretty Bad” or “So-so,” rather than “Pretty Good” or “Spectacular” on their survey responses.

 

It’s true that each individual respondent could have a different interpretation of what they mean by “Pretty Good” versus “Pretty Bad,” so the results aren’t strictly portable from one organization to the next. Nonetheless, the responses do represent the opinions of product development professionals about their own systems and processes.

 

The following chart sets out the proportion of survey respondents who said that their company performed poorly across the five processes and issues surveyed.

 

 

The balance of this article will discuss the results for each of the five issues and processes.  You can also download the full report on product data management here.

 

Who Were These 151 Product Development Professionals?

The survey respondents represented a wide range of company sizes, industries and levels of adoption of data management. Their job roles were primarily engineers and senior engineers (60 percent), but there was also representation from technical staff and management.

Percentages of respondents within each of the job roles.
Percentages of respondents within each of the job roles.

 

The participants indicated a wide range of sizes for their design teams. When asked, “How many people in your company need access to product data?” the responses ranged from one or two, to more than 250.

 

The industries represented by the respondents leaned heavily towards engineering design services (28 percent), general manufacturing (21 percent) and automotive (15 percent), with representation from 13 others.

 

Survey respondents reported using all manner of data management systems, with 21 percent saying they had no data management system or that they used email and spreadsheets, 27 percent reporting that they used shared folders or drives and the balance of 52 percent using some form of formal PDM or PLM system.

 

Securing Product Data that Travels Outside of the Product Team

Many companies are concerned that their intellectual property may be stolen if it travels outside of their company, such as to off-shore suppliers or to suppliers who are also competitors. Even if the design isn’t stolen outright, there remains a risk that some level of the design may be used inappropriately. 71 percent of respondents to the survey said that having a data management system that allows easy, secure data sharing is either important or very important. Sadly, not all the respondents have a system to do that.

 

Joe Medeiros is a senior application engineer specializing in implementing Product Data Management (PDM) systems with Javelin Technologies. He said that users often email drawings and models, or use unsecure FTP sites. He suggests that a better practice is for teams to distribute drawings via a web client or viewer into their PDM system, allowing users to control what another user can see. In general, he recommends that users provide access to the data, rather than send it outside the system.

 

However, data doesn’t have to travel outside the company to cause challenges. Accessing data from multiple locations within the same company, or from departments outside of engineering and design, can also raise challenges.

 

The chart above shows the percentage of survey respondents who said that their company was either “Pretty Good” or “Spectacular” at sharing data for three purposes. You can see that those companies who have a formal data management system (the blue columns) reported better results on sharing data than those with an informal data sharing system.

 

Managing Change Orders

Change orders can be one of the most difficult processes to manage, particularly for large teams or teams spanning multiple locations, so it is not surprising that 51 percent of respondents reported that their company performed poorly on these tasks.

 

Poor change order management can be very costly, particularly if the manufacturing team doesn’t have the same data as the design team. This can lead to a built product that does not match the design because something changed. 

 

According to Mike Spens, technical product expert at SOLIDWORKS, many design teams have change order processes that are paper-based, or depend on an MS Word document that is forwarded to multiple people via email.

 

“That is fraught with issues,” said Spens. “Each time the file is downloaded to an individual computer, a new copy is created, resulting in multiple versions. There is no transparency and no reporting. It’s difficult to find out the status of any change order, and far too easy for multiple versions to lead to downstream errors.”

 

Formal data management systems tend to have processes to help ensure that all team members are using the latest versions of models that reflect appropriate changes, whether those changes came from customers, marketing, operations or suppliers.  When properly implemented, all users can see where the change orders are and who has to interact with them next. This rich information, which can include links to the affected documents and discussions about changes to the documents, all happens in the same place.

 

Our survey revealed that only 40 percent of design teams who have no formal data management system claimed to be successful at managing change orders. That means that the other 60 percent are exposed to risks that may prove costly. An avoidable error, such as ordering a wrong mold, can result in lost time as well as the lost payment to the supplier.  The percentage of participants reporting success with change order processes improved to 58 percent for those teams with a formal PDM or PLM system.

 

Implementing / Documenting Product Development Workflows

In order to meet supplier demands and the requirements of external certifications, many companies need to document their product development workflows and their adherence to them.

 

Unfortunately, 55 percent of product professionals surveyed said that their companies performed poorly in this regard.

 

The workflows that design teams need vary widely from team to team.


The most basic requirement is typically to identify who is working on a file, who reviewed it and whether the file has been released. Larger teams have much more sophisticated workflows that can run to hundreds of steps. Managing the notifications for everyone involved is too complex for a manual system, particularly when you consider the need to remind people of outstanding items.

 

Spens pointed out that modern PDM systems have workflow tools that are “indefinitely flexible” to support workflows from simple approvals to complex multi-stage processes. The workflow tools can also write data back to the files, so you can see who approved what and when. They can even provide double-authentication through a password to ensure compliance with external bodies such as the FDA.

 

Avoiding Designing the Same Part Multiple Times

Designing the same part multiple times can destroy a lot of value. On a small team, for example, two people might design a bracket and save it to the network drive at the same time. The result will be either two models with different file names, or one file will overwrite the other if they share the same file name.

 

This problem is less common among smaller design teams, but can easily crop up in teams that are larger or geographically disbursed.

 

48 percent of respondents that had no formal data management systems said that their company was either “Rotten,” “Pretty Bad” or “So-so” at avoiding designing the same part over again, which means that there are a lot of duplicate parts in many companies.

 

Mike Spens said that many duplicate parts arise because parts get lost due to broken references in an assembly. In those scenarios, designers often find it faster and easier to recreate the part than continue to search for it. Generally speaking, formal PDM systems manage and keep track of all “where used” references, so that if a part file does get renamed or moved, users can still find the file they need.

 

For reasons such as this, companies with a formal data management system reported better results, with 63 percent saying that their teams were either “Pretty Good” or “Spectacular.” That’s a big benefit, given that duplicate files cause not only unnecessary design work, but significant inventory and ordering issues downstream.

Percent of respondents reporting that their team is either  Pretty Good or Spectacular at each process
Percent of respondents reporting that their team is either Pretty Good or Spectacular at each process

 

Bringing New Users Up to Full Fluency on Accessing Product Data

One of the main challenges with managing product design processes is that everyone who accesses and saves data has to follow the same processes in order for them to be effective.

 

According to Joe Medeiros, three ways to help new users are:

1.       Adopt a PDM solution that is integrated within your primary CAD system so that users do not have to learn and manage another toolset

2.       Ensure that all users are accessing files from a single system, rather than allowing users to manage files on their local machine

3.       Ensure that they follow file naming and other meta-data conventions

These steps can help to ensure that new users don’t introduce a significant breakdown into the workflow.

 

While PDM systems are not a panacea for addressing these common data management issues, they do assist with implementing the right processes and making it easier for everyone on a design team to follow them.

 

Read the full report on product data management practices

The full report contains additional insights from the survey respondents including how much time design team members spend on non-productive activities such as looking for files, and what features they consider most important for managing product data. 

 

I would like to thank SOLIDWORKS for sponsoring this research. They have had no editorial input to this story, other than as an information source. – John 

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