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Do Small Companies Need PLM?

Finding and reusing product designs, quickly getting to the right design revision, and just plain working on the same design revision in a collaborative work environment—these alone are all good reasons to implement product lifecycle management (PLM) systems. But it seems small companies aren't really buying into PLM; they are just now implementing and getting settled with product data management (PDM)—and getting what they would expect from "PLM."

Company: ECCO consists of three offices: ECCO (Boise, ID), Vision Alert (Leeds, UK), and Hazard Systems (Tasmania).

 
Contact: Todd Mansfield, Systems Engineering Team Leader Company description: ECCO designs and manufactures mostly amber warning lights and backup alarms for utility vehicles. Most of its products are small, about the size of a hand, and consist of 400 to 500 parts. Manufacturing these products in ECCO-Boise alone uses over 150,000 parts per week. About 50% of ECCO's work is printed circuit assembly design.
 
Company Size: $45-million in sales.
 
Challenge: Growth, says Mansfield, is usually what starts people down the road of PDM or PLM. At ECCO, the communication between the folks in Boise who "knew everything about everything at work" and the overseas engineering operations started breaking down. The handoffs—from electrical to mechanical to configuration and release and more—were getting beyond what people could handle manually. Another reason: Part numbers at ECCO exploded over the last six years. The company's catalog swelled from 10 pages to 50. The company's tooling list itemizes 50 tools now.
 
The manual system to control revision was no longer acceptable. This system basically involved filing the latest version of a drawing into a master binder, as well as filing the document control record. The problem: "The paper was under control, but the data from which the paper came was not." The alternative was to use the control system (a small manufacturing resource planning package) for the "make-ship loop" at Boise. However, this system "falls a bit short" for engineering work, document management, and collaboration: it could not provide information regarding whether a drawing was "the right one, the right rev, the right part number, the right description."
 
Software: For 20 years, ECCO was an Autodesk (San Rafael, CA) AutoCAD shop. (ECCO still has AutoCAD for legacy drawings.) In 1997, ECCO began using SolidWorks Office Professional from SolidWorks Corp. (Concord, MA). This mechanical design suite includes the SolidWorks solid modeler, plus numerous design communications and collaboration tools, plus PDMWorks. Across its three locations worldwide, ECCO has nine seats of SolidWorks Office, 11 seats of PDMWorks standalone, and two seats of PDMWorks Advanced Server. ECCO's PDMWorks vault now contains over 9,000 documents and their history—enough A-size documents to fill 72 3-in. binders. And yes, the company still maintains hard copies of its engineering documents.
 
Benefits: PDMWorks Web Portal give ECCO's design teams, customers, and suppliers worldwide round-the-clock access to projects and product data. "This is a huge, huge part of how we communicate to our suppliers and customers. Users don't have to bug an engineer or designer. I wanted to give the engineers their time back, if you will," says Mansfield. By default, the PDMWorks vault guarantees it has the latest drawings. "This has not only kept our information straight, it has also streamlined our ordering process for materials."
 
ROI: PDM does add overhead, admits Mansfield, "but in the end it doesn't because PDM puts information at your fingertips that you alone can't guess about in a file server environment. That's very powerful."
 
Straight talk: "I see PDM and PLM as somewhat synonymous. The people who can tell the difference have too much time on their hands."
 

Company: Continental Tooling Concepts (CTC; Wyoming, MI)
 
Contact: Steve Pikaart, Founder/Member
 
Company description: CTC designs precision stamping dies mainly for local tool and die shops in the west Michigan area. A typical project can take four to eight weeks of design time.
 
Company Size: Four employees. Six months ago, there was just Pikaart.
 
Challenge: Managing data internally. In the future, CTC will make data available to its customers in real time in order to reap some of the benefits in collaborative product development. Pikaart sees his first step being to implement PDM and see how much collaboration it provides. "If that's limited and PLM is the way to go, then that's the way I'll want to be going." Pikaart began seriously considering PDM when CTC added employees. "We have to shout back and forth to each other across the office, ‘What version of this file do you have?' It's a lot of work to keep track of who's working on what so that no one is overwriting each other's data."
 
Software: Pro/Engineer Wildfire solids modeling system from PTC (Needham, MA). CTC expects to purchase Pro/Intralink, PTC's workgroup PDM system, before the end of 2004. The initial outlay for Intralink will be about $14,000 for four client seats and consulting, plus $2,000/year for maintenance.
 
Benefits: "Making information available to the customer. Saving us trips to the customer and saving the customer trips to CTC. Making the review process easier. Making the customer more aware of the design and what's going on in the design process when it's convenient to the customer is big. All of this will save us a lot of time and a lot of money."
 
ROI: Even though Pikaart hasn't installed PDM or PLM yet, nor does he have hard numbers, he does know how much time is consumed in the design process for protecting data and making collaboration easier—both internally and with the customer during customer reviews.
 
Straight talk: "If [CTC] was one guy, I wouldn't invest in PDM. But when you get into a collaborative environment, when you have multiple designers working on one project, that's when the data management stuff becomes invaluable."
 

 
Company: Trostel, Ltd. (Lake Geneva, WI)
 
Contact: Elisabeth Schneider, CAD Administrator Company description: Trostel manufactures precision molded rubber seals for the automotive bearing, and other markets.
 
Company Size: Trostel's headquarters and metal stamping plant are in Lake Geneva; it has molding facilities in Whitewater, WI, and in Mexico. Trostel's revenues are about $60-million.
 
Challenge: At one time, individual engineers typically vaulted their drawings on various network locations and on their own computer's hard drives. "Not only did they lose track of the revision levels, but they also ran the risk of losing the drawings if the computer crashed," says Schneider. Trostel needed a better approach. Moreover, revision level and version control is becoming increasingly important in collaborative engineering.
 
Software: Trostel has eight seats of Autodesk Inventor 7, one of Autodesk Inventor Professional, and 10 seats of AutoCAD LT. All are networked. For PDM, Trostel uses Autodesk Vault (recently upgraded to version 3.0). As of a year ago, the vault had 21,000 drawings.
 
Benefits: In manufacturing precision molded products, dimensional control is critical. If the toolmaker is working from the wrong revision level of a product drawing, the possibility exists that the finished mold cavity will not produce a part to specification. Unfortunately, and especially in mold making, material can't be added later on. Fixing errors is time consuming, can lead to missed customer ship dates, and ultimately to lost revenues and lost customers.
 
ROI: While Schneider can't put her finger on how much Trostel has saved with Autodesk Vault, she says, "It's obvious it will give you the competitive edge. What does that mean? You are fast. You are responsive. Your responses are accurate. You can respond to several counterparts at one time. And it's on-line. How much business would you lose if you used regular mail to send drawings to China?"
 
Straight talk: "[PDM] is mandatory to staying competitive in today's world where you have global manufacturing. At all times you need to be able to send the correct data to your counterparts and to your collaboration partners."
 

 
Company: Ambrake Manufacturing (Elizabethtown, KY)
 
Contact: Mike Frayser, Senior Manufacturing Engineer
 
Company description: Ambrake, a joint venture between Akebono and Delphi, supplies brake systems.
 
Company Size: Ambrake has three other facilities: one for remanufacturing and two for aftermarket friction materials. Approximately 1,100 employees; sales are between $300- to $350-million annually.
 
Challenge: Quickly retrieving drawings. Disk brake calipers are "pretty similar," admits Frayser. Finding and then modifying existing caliper designs will help bring new caliper designs to market faster. Ambrake's production maintenance department needs to quickly find drawings, as well; in order to minimize downtime when production tools break. Up to now for PDM, Ambrake has been using Cyco AutoManager WorkFlow from Cyco Software (Atlanta, GA); however, this system couldn't handle the links between files when Ambrake moved up to 3D drawing creation.
 
Software: UGS Solid Edge (Huntsville, AL) and, before that, Autodesk AutoCAD. Since January 2004, Ambrake has had Insight, the PDM system that comes with Solid Edge. Insight gives Ambrake basic PDM: mostly document-level management. Ambrake doesn't have lifecycle management. "We would have it if the software supported it a little better." Frayser is currently recreating in Solid Edge the front end on the Cyco PDM product. So far, about 3,000 drawings are in Insight; another 60,000 are in the queue. Benefits: PDM gives Ambrake a "big head start" on getting new products onto existing equipment.
 
ROI: Ambrake hasn't attached any dollars or time savings to the PDM implementation, but Frayser, knows he "can find things a lot faster now."
 
Straight talk: "We don't want to reinvent the wheel every time we start something."