Autodesk Launches PDM-in-the-Cloud to Bolster PLM Solution – Finally
John Hayes posted on September 22, 2016 |
PDM will be included at no extra charge for all cloud PLM subscribers.


Autodesk has announced that product data management (PDM) will now be part of Autodesk’s cloud-based PLM solution. 

It is the biggest thing to happen to Autodesk PLM since Autodesk launched PLM360 in 2012. With this launch comes a new name: Fusion Lifecycle. 

PDM allows users to manage their CAD geometry with features like revision control, versioning, release tracking and collaboration on designs. Most companies start to feel the need for PDM once they have 3-5 people regularly using CAD data. And with teams of more than 10, it’s downright imperative.

Adding PDM functionality to Autodesk’s cloud offering is a big deal because PLM systems from all the other major vendors already had PDM at their core. Competitive PLM solutions all manage CAD files, so Autodesk’s PLM360 was considered by many to be only a partial solution. Autodesk’s Fusion Lifecycle, with this major step forward, can now be considered a full-featured product development platform.

The PDM user interface within Fusion Lifecycle.
The PDM user interface within Fusion Lifecycle.

The new PDM functionality will be included for all existing Autodesk PLM customers as part of their subscription. Users will have to migrate to the new version of Fusion Lifecycle to use this new PDM functionality. There is no change in the price – subscription fees still range from $25 to $150 per month, with most licenses priced at $75 per user per month.

Commentary on PDM in Fusion Lifecycle from Customers and Analysts

Customers, industry analysts and Autodesk representatives have all voiced their views on the announcement, including:

  • What PDM in the cloud means to Autodesk’s customers
  • Will users adopt PDM in the cloud?
  • Will this announcement convince more companies to consider PLM in the cloud?
  • What’s the future direction for Autodesk PLM?

What PDM in the Cloud Means to Autodesk’s Customers

Chad Jackson, industry analyst at Lifecycle Insights, commented, “Autodesk has been discussing adding data management capabilities to their PLM offering for a couple years. I'm pleased they did it right by delivering a full feature set rather than just doing the minimum to put a check in a box.”

Allan Behrens of Taxal agrees, saying, “It’s reasonably featured for a first release. The interesting thing to see will be the performance on the cloud.”

Until now the Fusion Lifecycle platform centered primarily around workflows and collaboration, including modules for:

  • BOM management
  • New Product Introduction
  • Engineering Change Management
  • Supplier Collaboration
  • Quality management

Notice that none of these modules actually have to touch product geometry. That is changing with the introduction of PDM.  Specifically, the BOM in Fusion Lifecycle can now relate CAD data and any other document type as attachments. We can speculate that future releases will have tighter integration between the CAD models and the BOM.

According to Brian Roepke, Sr. Director at Autodesk, the new PDM solution includes support for all file types. Out of the box, this solution also provides CAD reference management support for Autodesk CAD products (Fusion360, Inventor and AutoCAD), and SOLIDWORKS. Autodesk plans to aggressively add more CAD packages to the list of products they support. “We are working on an integration to Siemens NX right now and hope to launch an integration to PTC Creo by the end of the year…but no promises,” added Roepke. He also noted that they are researching how to integrate with Siemens Solid Edge.

The basics you would expect to find in PDM are here, though with one important bonus and one caveat. Every time you save a file, it automatically updates on the cloud and is instantly available to everyone who has access. However, saving to remote servers on the cloud may be slower than local file saving.

Mark Zeni, Director of Operations for EPC at First Solar, had issues with performance when implementing an on-premise PDM system some years ago. “The project failed because users wouldn’t accept such poor performance,” said Zeni.

Users might wonder whether Autodesk’s cloud based PDM will suffer from similar performance issues. To combat the risk of unacceptable lag time, Autodesk is introducing a technology they call “transfer avoidance,” the ability to only update the files that have changed rather than re-saving entire assemblies. This will save bandwidth and transfer time. Zeni is optimistic that Fusion Lifecycle will deliver on performance, adding, “We want to get a sandbox for the new Fusion Lifecycle going right away to test the PDM functionality.”

Fusion Lifecycle’s PDM includes file previews for attachments and more importantly, real-time collaboration on live file sharing. “The synchronized collaboration stuff is very cool,” says industry analyst Allan Behrens. “That’s what people want - to see the same thing at the same time and be able to talk about it.”

A collaboration window in Fusion Lifecycle showing the new live commenting feature.
A collaboration window in Fusion Lifecycle showing the new live commenting feature.

The viewing features also include mark-ups and commenting to support both real-time and asynchronous design reviews. According to Jared Sund, Sr. Program Mgr. PLM at Autodesk, the full PLM suite remains a “100% cloud-based product with no download.” This means that collaboration with people outside of the company should be easy, since suppliers and consultants won’t have to download software in order to participate in a design review. This functionality depends on the collaborators all using current versions of Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer.

Will Autodesk Users Adopt PDM in the Cloud?

Many Autodesk customers use Vault, the company’s on-premise PDM application. One of the challenges with Vault is collaborating with external parties. Most customers follow a process of emailing documents or setting up external file-sharing environments in. For those struggling with collaborating outside of Vault, this new cloud-based PDM could be an answer. 

“The bad thing about tools like Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Docs is that they are disconnected from the product development process,” says Sund. “With PDM in Fusion Lifecycle, even downstream users get the benefit of all of the documentation that is within the CAD data.”

The PDM system can be used to manage other important product data beyond CAD files, including RFIs, RFPs and quotes. Thin Film Electronics is one company that was searching for a document management system. According to their VP of Quality, My Nguyen, they decided to implement Fusion Lifecycle and use its Document Management features. The reason they chose a PLM system to solve a document management problem was “we know that we will need the things that a full PLM solution can bring soon – things like NPI, BOM and change management. So choosing a system that we can grow into made sense.”

Nguyen has had front-line experience in rolling out other systems. One thing he learned is that the User Interface is absolutely critical to user adoption. “I love the new UI on Fusion Lifecycle,” he said. “The UI was one of the biggest reasons we chose Fusion Lifecycle over Arena PLM.”

Not all Fusion Lifecycle customers will take advantage of the new PDM functionality. “Vault continues to be an important solution for on-premise data management. We don’t see everyone moving to PDM in the cloud straight away” said Sund.

Rick Noriega of Vacco Industries agrees, saying, “We put everything into Vault now, and we have no short-term plans to put everything into the cloud, but it would make collaborating with external suppliers much easier.” Rick is concerned that Vacco would have difficulty maintaining their ITAR compliance if they were to use the PDM-in-the-cloud functionality. He currently supports their ITAR processes with cloud-based workflows, however. 

“We maintain our ITAR compliance by setting up rules within Fusion Lifecycle,” he said. “For example, we block emails of sensitive data from going outside the company or outside the country. Having all this data in the PLM system provides traceability for an audit.”

Will More Companies Consider Cloud-Based Product Development?

Autodesk can now offer many companies a way to conduct their entire product development cycle in the cloud. By adding ever more functionality, the company intends to make cloud-based product development more appealing to more customers. The graphic below outlines the company’s “Product Innovation Platform,” spanning design, configuration, PLM and IoT.

Last year Autodesk acquired Configure One, a server-based product that enables highly engineered products to be configured according to pre-set rules. This year the company announced that Configure One would join its cloud platform as Fusion Configure.

The company had previously acquired the IoT provider SeeControl, which is also now part of the Autodesk cloud platform and is called Fusion Connect.

Autodesk’s explanation of how their cloud products fit into development cycle.
Autodesk’s explanation of how their cloud products fit into development cycle.

“These new features will be pretty dangerous to other PLM-in-the-cloud vendors,” said Allan Behrens. “The situation will only get worse for them as Autodesk’s feature sets evolve.” By comparison to other vendors he noted, “the integration with the Fusion cloud-based CAD tools looks simple and elegant.”

There are many things that are driving the adoption of cloud-based product development. First is the ease of sharing data. According to Scott Reese, VP of Cloud Products at Autodesk, “Putting product development data in the cloud allows rapid collaboration in a way that desktop software never will. It even enables people using smartphones and other devices.”

Second, cloud-based solutions are typically packaged with subscription licenses, allowing a low up-front cost and flexibility in rolling out additional licenses. Third, the ease of setting up a cloud-based service makes it attractive to companies that have limited IT resources. According to Nguyen, “Cloud-based was key because we have a small IT team and we don't want to take care of all the infrastructure of an on-premise solution. When it comes to updates, we really don’t want to manage point to point connections.”

Marc Halpern, analyst at Gartner expresses concern about cloud-based subscription licensing models for design and PLM software. “The subscription licensing model gives vendors too much negotiating leverage over customers at renewal time because customers cannot access their data stored in vendor-proprietary formats unless they renew under terms that satisfy the vendor,” he said. “Besides no access to the data, they need the vendors’ software to read the data if they did have access. Data exchange standards, while progressing, can translate a significant percentage of data from proprietary vendor formats but possibly not enough.”

It seems that ever more companies are willing to trade the risk of control over their data for the convenience of getting started quickly. When it comes to PLM, “A lot of customers of Fusion Lifecycle started by tackling non-engineering problems first. That stands in contrast to traditional PLM deployments that typically start with PDM,” said analyst Chad Jackson. “What's interesting about that is companies often tackle data management first and then try to move on to more pressing issues. However, many get stuck trying to roll-out company wide all at once. They get frustrated because that first step, especially for larger companies, can end up taking 3-4 years with slim ROI.”

Future Direction for Autodesk PLM

Autodesk announced a partnership between their Fusion Connect IoT product and Nutonian, a company that specializes in artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics. The predictive analytics functionality is intended to analyze historic data sets within Fusion Connect and automatically create equations that describe the past, and thereby predict the future. The feature can be automated so that, for example, if the operating conditions change within a piece of equipment running on a factory floor, it will update the predictive algorithm.

Future direction of Autodesk’s product development offering. Infographic courtesy of Autodesk.
Future direction of Autodesk’s product development offering. (Infographic courtesy of Autodesk.)

This type of functionality can also be applied to managing field service for installed products, an area where competitor PTC has made significant investments with Thingworx, their IoT product.

Analyst Behrens sees exciting potential for cloud-based field service matched with IoT. He believes that the cloud offers the prospect to track products in the field at a serial number level, attaching design, BOM and performance data to each individual product. “This is the missing data set that will unlock the value of IoT for many manufacturing customers.”

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