Secret of the supply chain

Product data management systems are gaining popularity because they can support information right across the supply chain, reports Brian Davis

Product data management systems are beginning to gain ground in a wider spectrum of industry. Early systems, introduced in the mid-1980s by software firms such as Computervision, SDRC and Control Data Systems, required customisation and were mostly used in the design departments of large automotive, aerospace and defence companies. Some companies devised their own systems, which have since been replaced by commercial ones.

In the early 1990s more industrialised versions began to appear, but they were often expensive and hard to implement. Today, PDM systems are easier to install, more cost-effective and can support management of product definition information across the supply chain. They can handle design and manufacturing information throughout the design-to-manufacture cycle.

Information is captured by the PDM system as a design develops in the CAD system. The PDM system manages each revision, incorporating improvements as the product goes through engineering, manufacturing and out to any field support organisations. `PDM is increasingly seen as a tool which supports the entire product definition life-cycle and enables integration within an enterprise during product definition, production and business operations support,’ says Jorde Portella, European operations director of market research firm CIMdata.

CIMdata estimates that the worldwide PDM market grew 27% to $1.4bn (£0.87bn) in 1998, driven mainly by automotive and electronics companies. The market is predicted to exceed $1.75bn in 1999, with annual growth of 16% to 2003.

`The main transition for PDM has been the move from a tool-kit which required high customisation to the ability to provide more packaged solutions,’ says Portella. `But we are at a half-way house; PDM still needs a lot of customisation and integration. For it to become widespread, vendors will need to focus on particular markets to provide more pre-defined applications and processes.’

Neil Stocker, Metaphase UK business manager, says two vendor developments are on the way. `First, there will be a move towards packaging PDM products for specialist functions like document management. Second, there will be developments that address processes such as virtual product development management (VPDM) at the conceptual stage of the product life-cycle, where there is much more information sharing and collaboration and a need for a high degree of visualisation.’

SDRC’s Metaphase is a high-end product used by the UK’s defence ministry, car makers Ford, Jaguar, Renault and DaimlerChrysler, and electronic product producers Thomson, Ericsson and Motorola.

Other developments include a web version of CoCreate’s WorkManager system, due to be launched next year. The current version 5.0 has workflow control, product configuration and product structure management, workflow process management and data and document management. WorkManager’s main users in the UK include Rover, British Aerospace and TRW.