Killer sends a chill

When Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) released its Windchill product into the Product Data Management market in June, it picked up a list of million-dollar orders from Airbus, Sun, Groupe Schneider and BMW within just a few days. The customers are all large manufacturing companies, with operations widely geographically dispersed. And they all have significant investments […]

When Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) released its Windchill product into the Product Data Management market in June, it picked up a list of million-dollar orders from Airbus, Sun, Groupe Schneider and BMW within just a few days. The customers are all large manufacturing companies, with operations widely geographically dispersed. And they all have significant investments in up-to-date IT systems.

So what does Windchill offer them that cannot be delivered by other PDM systems or by any industrial strength application suites? Why is it set to be a killer application?

Over the past three years the Internet and associated technologies have led to significant developments in the way computer systems work together. But until now there has been no large-scale product based on these ideas which can be applied to a wide range of future computer systems.

Windchill is a PDM system that shows how Internet technology can be used to provide flexible computing. It puts together all the recently developed technology to deliver a method for communication between systems using Internet standards, and applications that use this method for PDM.

Although the software has been written within the past two years, the designers have experience in other product data management systems. The initial team came from competitor Metaphase Technology. Product development has been helped by a panel of early users, who have kept the development focused on providing the PDM benefits they need.

‘What PTC has done so far is impressive,’ says Ed Miller, president of consultant CIMdata. ‘And the Windchill applications basically look good, although we’ll need to see how they operate. All that’s missing at the moment is workflow, and that’s scheduled for later this year.’

Windchill consists of two distinct parts: the product information backbone and a set of applications that use the backbone to communicate. The product information backbone is a set of standards that allows data to pass between applications, on the same machine or across a network. For PDM this will usually be an intranet (private Internet) but any Internet-type connection can be used.

The backbone links Windchill servers, which are smart web servers written using Java, to manage data using an Oracle database. Product data can be accessed just like web pages, wherever it is on the network. If a designer is working in London and needs data held on another server, that server can be in the office block next door or in San Francisco. Product data can be incorporated into designs wherever it resides, and in the certain knowledge that it is accessible across the network.

The Windchill PDM applications provide a set of standard facilities including a product information manager, change manager, life cycle administrator and configuration manager, and some Internet-style search and presentation facilities. All applications are written in Java and are downloaded from a server so the only software that has to be installed on the desktop is a standard web browser.

Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) is a partner for Parametric Technology on Windchill’s deployment around the world. Andrew Cook, CSC’s principal consultant for new product introduction, says: ‘Windchill allows rapid deployment of a system, whether on a single site or on many sites across an enterprise, and has low maintenance demands.

‘Characteristically, PDM systems require a large infrastructure investment, but this technology makes it much easier to install on top of existing infrastructure. ‘Possibly most significantly for the IT industry this could be the platform that companies have been waiting for to build and integrate all their applications.’

Its potential is even more important than the technology itself. CIMdata’s Miller says: ‘Parametric Technology has made a clear commitment for the future with Windchill and expects a large part of future revenue to come from PDM or ERP extensions.’

All leading PDM vendors can now deliver some of their product functionality through the Internet, although Windchill PDM is the only set of applications written exclusively in Java. There is some caution about this, but competitors are watching the development closely to see how it performs in practice.

One competitor, Agile Workplace is a highly integrated PDM system designed to operate across Internet connections, with 100 installations.

‘Windchill in interesting because it validates web technology,’ says Luc Daime, European operations director at Agile Software. ‘Agile has already proven its software on wide area networks, and provides PDM for the supply chain, particularly in the electronics market. Windchill still has to prove itself.’

Metaphase Technology is one of the market leaders, and has a Java front end to its own PDM system. ‘Certainly Metaphase believes the technological concept introduced by Windchill is interesting,’ says Neil Stocker, UK business manager for Metaphase Technology Group.

‘A big concern for anyone implementing a large-scale PDM solution must be that the full product is based on Java. In our view this technology is not yet mature enough for mission-critical applications.’

Competitors and commentators are waiting to see how Windchill PDM performs. The promise is that it is a short step from just providing PDM using Windchill, to using the product information backbone as a common carrier of information between many different business systems. The mechanisms are in place to allow this to happen, and Parametric’s ambitious six-monthly release cycle will see developments for directly linking Pro/ENGINEER and CAD systems to the backbone quickly, followed by provision for other CAD systems, then other business systems.

The PDM applications may be good, but the backbone could become the real killer application.