Bridging The Enterprise Gap

Manufacturers ponder benefits of and obstacles to linking PDM and ERP systems.

Unlike the plot line in those old Western films, it's not really a case of "This town ain't big enough for both of us." It's more like "Now that we're both here, how can we coexist?" During the last half-decade, manufacturing companies have been installing or upgrading enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) systems to serve as the backbone of their often-global information-management systems. Meanwhile, many firms have recognized a need for yet another type of enterprise-wide system to track, control, and update product-related information. These product-data-management (PDM) systems aren't yet as prevalent as ERP systems. But, like ERP, they've evolved from localized solutions (for managing CAD designs and documents) into far-reaching computer tools offering an expanded array of capabilities. Today's enterprise PDM systems not only manage a broader scope of product information but, when coupled with Web technology, they make it readily accessible to a wide spectrum of users -- in manufacturing, purchasing, sales and marketing, and other corporate functions. In some cases, even supply-chain partners are now included in the loop. Among the latest incarnations of the technology is a solution from Enovia Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based unit of Dassault Systemes SA, that has been christened "PDM II." In addition to classical PDM features, it offers virtual-product-development capabilities to support collaborative design activity. Whereas ERP -- like its predecessor MRP II -- grew out of a need to support the information requirements of manufacturing operations, PDM has its roots in the engineering side of the organization. Thus, while the two systems have some common data requirements, each takes its own unique perspective and wants the data formatted in a way that best suits its needs. This presents several dilemmas, including:

  • If a company maintains independent ERP and PDM systems, it must tolerate delays in communicating information on new-product designs or engineering changes between engineering and manufacturing -- and risk problems stemming from inaccurate or conflicting data.
  • If it decides to integrate the two systems to ensure consistency and the timely flow of relevant data, various technical and cultural issues have to be resolved. For example, which system (and which part of the organization) will have ultimate control over such basic product -- structure information as the bill of materials (BOM), which exists in slightly different formats in each system.
"Traditionally, most people have had separate PDM and ERP systems," says Ed Miller, president of CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., consulting/research firm that specializes in PDM issues. "But one of the themes that has become fairly critical in the last three years is: How do we get PDM and ERP talking together?" Nancy Rouse, editor of PDM Report, an industry newsletter, observes that most companies with both systems typically haven't yet integrated them, either with off-the-shelf interface packages from third-party vendors or by creating customized links. "In most cases, they have three [workers] come in part-time and re-enter the data," Rouse quips. "That's their integration." In large engineering-intensive companies that must manage massive amounts of product data, the ideal is to achieve a "seamless" flow of information, asserts Ron Bienkowski, executive engineer-technical computing, at DaimlerChrysler AG in Auburn Hills, Mich. "If you have human beings reading a bill of materials and transcribing it manually into the ERP system, that is insanity," he says. "You will never keep it up to date. You'll never keep it accurate." At Auburn Hills, DaimlerChrysler has begun to link an internally developed ERP system with a PDM system from Enovia. Fully integrating the two may take another two years, but the automaker already has installed an automated link to eliminate retyping of data. The Enovia system, which incorporates the Product Manager PDM solution developed by IBM Corp., is expected to enhance DaimlerChrysler's ability to bring new vehicles to market. "We're automating the product-creation process," says Bienkowski, who is quick to illustrate the magnitude of the information-management challenge that modern auto companies must address. DaimlerChrysler must deal with product designs and other data generated by as many as 1,000 people in widely dispersed locations working on a given product program. Plus, it must manage information on parts and assemblies coming from several hundred suppliers along with data on relationships, such as the tolerances between parts and "what part goes into what subassembly." The Enovia software helps to do that, as well as manage workflow -- for example, the sequence of steps in approving and releasing design changes. It also plays a key role in configuration control that is important in creating "virtual mockups" of planned vehicles -- 3-D digital representations that may involve as many as 5,000 different parts. On the manufacturing side, the Enovia system is enabling Chrysler to synchronize an increasing amount of data on assembly equipment and tooling. "Tools have to be precisely designed relative to the part," Bienkowski notes. "If a part changes, the tools have to change. You don't want to find out when you get to production launch that the tools no longer fit the part." Bridging the gap between PDM and ERP becomes important long before the start-up of production in an assembly plant, he emphasizes, since information in an ERP system plays a role in validating the manufacturability of a design. "You want to involve the ERP system in building physical prototypes and prove that the system you're using to build it will work. The earlier you can start using ERP to help manage the build of a vehicle configuration, the earlier you can validate it." Brion Carroll, CEO of Life Cycle Solutions Inc., an Avon, Mass.-based consulting firm, notes that one of the chief benefits of integrating PDM with ERP is that "you get an exact representation of the engineered product in the manufacturing world. You don't build the wrong product or manufacture the wrong component, which can happen when manufacturing doesn't have the latest information from engineering." In companies where time-to-market is a critical success factor, the linkage can reduce product-development leadtimes, he adds. "If someone wants to reduce their design-to-manufacture time by half and they aren't integrating their ERP and PDM systems, then they're missing a major facilitator of that [reduction]," Carroll asserts. However, the relative need to integrate the two typically depends on the nature of a company and its products. "The higher the intensity of the engineering and the higher the probability of changes [being introduced] between engineering and manufacturing, the more critical the dialogue between PDM and ERP becomes," Carroll says. The fact that a growing number of manufacturers have identified a need to integrate their systems hasn't been lost on the software providers. Most major PDM vendors have announced the development -- often by third-party software firms -- of interfaces to selected ERP systems. For example, the Metaphase Enterprise solution offered by Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC), Cincinnati, now has interfaces to three ERP systems -- SAP R/3, Oracle Manufacturing, and Baan IV. "They are two-way interfaces that allow you to pass product structure information back and forth, as well as engineering change information and documentation," says Scott Cords, interface product manager for SDRC's Metaphase division. Agile Software Corp., a San Jose-based firm whose Agile Workplace suite emphasizes product-change collaboration across the supply chain, has created templates to facilitate integration with most of the ERP systems commonly used in its target markets -- electronics and medical-device manufacturers. Those industries have been shifting "to more of a virtual-manufacturing model," notes Joseph Fazio, Agile's director of marketing. "And they have a real acute problem: When product definitions change, such as a change in the bill of materials or a change in a part, how do you communicate that to all of your supply-chain partners in real time?" The ChangeCAST module in the Agile software maps PDM data fields to comparable fields in a variety of ERP systems. When new-product definitions or engineering changes are released, "Agile ChangeCAST will take that new data and push it into one or more different systems," Fazio says, including those at supplier firms. Enovia's ProductManager package has two-way integration with SAP and a link to Baan is under development. If the production side decides to change the manufacturing BOM -- for example, by substituting a part for one in the BOM released by design engineering -- that change can be communicated automatically back to the PDM system. "ProductManager has an agent that runs 24 hours a day and looks for things sent to it," explains Joel Lemke, Enovia CEO. "It will bring them in and update the PDM database in real time." For their part, a number of ERP vendors are responding to the market demand by incorporating some level of PDM capability into their products or by offering their own tightly integrated PDM packages. In addition, they have established formal programs to certify third-party interfaces to selected PDM systems. With its BaanPDM offering, the Netherlands-based Baan Co. NV is targeting users of Baan ERP products -- Baan IV and its new Baan Series. "We're focused primarily on the Baan business, because there is so much of it out there," says Lance Murphy, the Detroit-based PDM product manager for Baan USA. Companies deploying both Baan products should benefit from the "extremely tight integration" between the two. Timing of new design releases comes into play because product designs on the engineering side may go through multiple iterations before final approval. "If manufacturing gets information about a product that hasn't yet been released by engineering, conceivably they might start to order parts for products that will never be built," says Murphy. However, Enovia's Lemke contends that one benefit of linking ERP to PDM is that it provides a window to give manufacturing personnel advance notice of pending engineering changes. "Production planning is done in ERP, but today it is based on data that is known within the ERP system -- and ERP doesn't necessarily know that engineering is working on a new engineering change (EC). By linking the systems, the ERP guys can have visibility as to what is going on. And when they are doing production planning, they can check to see if new ECs are coming." One of the simplest forms of integration, CIMdata's Miller points out, "has nothing to do with physically passing data back and forth at all." Rather it is a simple matter of providing access to product information from both systems at the same time, such as allowing a design engineer to obtain cost information from the ERP side without having to learn the intricacies of an ERP system. PDM providers and independent software houses now offer Web-based packages with "hooks" to gather data from both PDM and ERP and present it on the screen at the same time. "That solves a tremendous percentage of the problems that people traditionally use integration to try to solve," Miller says. Integration packages haven't been developed for all ERP systems, he notes, and where they aren't available the task of integration is considerably more difficult. "But the technical difficulties pale in comparison to the people difficulties. You have turf battles over who owns what data and when they own it." Typically, the engineering organization controls design changes. But a company that is heavily manufacturing-driven may want the engineering change process "intimately integrated with its manufacturing controls," Miller points out. "And at that point, you start getting stressed." Companies that want to ensure a successful integration effort need "a clear change process," asserts SDRC's Cords. "You have to understand how you are going to do things. And the change process has to be followed."
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