Research Reveals How Smaller Design Teams Really Manage Product Data
John Hayes posted on June 29, 2017 |

In May 2017, surveyed 151 product development professionals on How Product Design Teams Manage their Data.

We were particularly intrigued by the survey results for smaller design teams, those with 3-20 people who need access to product data. Not surprisingly, we found that many of them don’t use formal data management systems.

In fact, among those respondents, 28 percent had either no data management systems or rudimentary systems based on email, spreadsheets or forms, while 32 percent relied on shared drives, either on a server or on the cloud. The balance of 40 percent had some type of formal data management system.

 In this article, we’ll explore the triggering events that indicate it is time for a small design team to get more formal in managing their product data. You can get the full research report here.

Very Small Design Teams Can Often Manage Product Data Informally

Joe Medeiros is a Senior Application Engineer specializing in implementing Product Data Management (PDM) systems with Javelin Technologies. He said that for a single CAD user, the search capabilities of Windows 10 are often sufficient for managing product data.

However, once you have two or more people sharing product data, one of two scenarios will arise.

“You may have people working individually from their local computers, in which case they don’t always have the same files,” Medeiros said. “Or, if they share a network drive, they may have access to the same files, but suffer a decrease in system performance. Many users find this frustrating.”

If users are frustrated, they may choose to work around the system to complete their tasks in a timely manner.  In some environments, particularly if the people sit together physically, this can work well. They speak face to face, text or instant message to tell the other person when they are working on a file, so that their co-worker doesn’t simultaneously create a conflicting version.

Medeiros pointed out that these systems have limits because with shared drives, “the last version uploaded can overwrite previous versions, resulting in a Last-Person-Wins paradigm.” That can result in lost work.

Once a Design Team Reaches 3-5 People, More Formal Data Management Can Be a Big Help

“Design teams start to get really frustrated with network drives when they grow to three to five people,” said Medeiros. He pointed to the steadily degrading performance associated with adding more people to a network drive, and more frequent incidents of overwriting files and losing work. “At this level,” he said, “it becomes critical for most teams to consider a formal PDM system.”

Some design teams can delay the need for a formal PDM system if they have a comprehensive set of procedures, and if all employees follow them to the letter. However, that is not reality for most design teams. Instead, teams struggle when a new person joins who has his or her own interpretation of the procedures, or when a key team member leaves.  

Once a company adopts a PDM system, employees can still easily share files. The difference is that when any member retrieves a file from the vault, she or he will be doing so in a controlled way that reduces the risk of work being overwritten.

Three Important Considerations When Selecting a Data Management System

Our survey asked design teams about several common features of PDM systems. Of all the features mentioned, “easy connectivity to your primary CAD system” received one of the highest rankings, indicating that respondents felt this was a very important attribute of a PDM system.

The reason this is so important is that for a PDM system to work, all of the users have to follow the procedures. If the users are presented with a familiar interface, such as that of their primary CAD system, then they are more likely to use the system rather than seek work-arounds, according to Joe Medeiros.

“Gaining user adoption is one of the biggest challenges to implementing a formal PDM system,” he said. “Some vendors offer free PDM included with the CAD application, which makes it very easy to get started.”

Second, all design teams face a need to protect their data, but also a conflicting requirement to share their data with external team members such as consultants, suppliers and clients. According to our survey respondents, 71 percent of them rate the ability to easily and securely share data externally as important or very important.

Email is not a secure system, but it is commonly used because it is so easy. Some PDM systems offer only complex paths to share data, which can result in team members working around the system. That is why the requirement for easy and secure data sharing is often difficult to meet, even though design teams rank it as being so important.

In many cases, external team members only need to be able to view a model and perhaps annotate it. In those cases, many PDM systems allow users to simply email a link to a read-only view of the model that does not allow the recipient to download the model or modify it.

Third, every company evolves its own processes for managing product data. For this reason, survey respondents indicated that being able to adapt a PDM system to their own workflows was an important factor for a data management system.

As shown in the chart above, 71 percent of respondents said that it is important or very important that their data management system be customizable to fit their workflows without having to bring in an external consultant.

Mike Spens, technical product expert at SOLIDWORKS, pointed out that some PDM systems, such as SOLIDWORKS PDM, have a workflow designer tool that “is like building a Visio worksheet. It’s a simple drag-and-drop interface that allows users to architect their workflows, set notifications, choose roles and set permissions. In my experience, design teams need an external consultant to train the users initially. They then take on the task of managing and updating their workflows themselves.”

How to Decide Whether to Use Formal PDM

According to Spens, the trigger to move from a simple process to formal PDM often comes in the form of a costly mistake, such as manufacturing the wrong version of a mold that cost tens of thousands of dollars and took six weeks to deliver.  When companies have a major event like that, they take action.

“That’s too bad,” said Spens. “It’s like buying a safety saw after you’ve lost a couple fingers. Sometimes it takes a lot of pain to motivate people to act.”

Other common triggers to adopt a formal PDM system can come in the form of a merger or acquisition that leads a development team to roll out widespread adoption of their best practices. Similar demands can arise from external parties, such as certification agencies, suppliers and customers, or simply internal processes that break down.

When does a team know that their broken processes are taking up too much time? Survey respondents indicated that their design team members spend an average of almost nine hours per week, or 20 - 25 percent of a typical work week, on non-productive activities such as searching for a file.

How many hours per week does a typical  design engineer spend on the following activities?
How many hours per week does a typical design engineer spend on the following activities?

Another issue that can waste a lot of time for users of shared drives is that there are often broken references in assemblies. Designers may go so far as recreating a part and giving it the right nomenclature because they can’t find the original part where it should be.  According to Mike Spens, “Users have to spend time correcting these broken references before they can resume their actual design work. This is particularly frequent when people are new or unaware of the associativity between the files. They can do a lot of damage even if they have the best of intentions.”

There are a number of events and influences that can drive smaller design teams to adopt a formal PDM system, as 40 percent of survey respondents had done. As teams get larger, they become more likely to adopt a formal PDM system. The percentage of respondents with a formal system goes up dramatically, to 69 percent, for teams of 50 people or more.  

Read the full report on product data management practices. The full report contains additional insights from the survey respondents including how seven design processes are most affected by implementing a formal data management system. 

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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