Product Data's Vital Link

In the rising sea of electronic flotsam and jetsam that surrounds our daily workplace, one concept seems to frequently bob to the surface: integration. The idea is to connect systems so that information can be shared and acted on by all who need it, as quickly as possible. It's little wonder, then, that enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, with their promise of doing away with "islands" of data in favor of one connected, seamless network, have grown so popular over the last decade. ERP rescued companies that were drowning in disparate systems, databases, hardware, and networks. Today most savvy executives recognize that integration of information can mean the difference between whether a project sinks or floats. For that reason, product data that once was isolated suddenly has taken center stage at a number of manufacturing companies. These firms have learned that product design information, especially changes in product designs and specifications, is useful to more people than just designers and engineers. For instance, companies that want to engineer to order often find their employees negotiating with the customer throughout the project. The result is design modifications, and that's where a good product data management (PDM) system comes in. PDM both stores and keeps track of these changes in product design. With a process that is so dependent on customer orders, there has to be close communications between product engineering and manufacturing engineering. Likewise, others in the company often need to be kept informed of product design changes. For companies using Baan Co.'s Baan PDM, for example, the integrated system electronically informs those who need the information of any changes requiring their review. "This is another method to extend the enterprise and make ERP more robust," says a Baan PDM product manager. "The largest benefit of integration of PDM and ERP is communication and flow of information." One of the most obvious applications of PDM data for ERP users is the bill of materials (BOM). "There's a natural progression to want that BOM in your manufacturing system," says the Baan manager. Adds a product expert at Inso Corp.'s Product Data Management division (formerly Sherpa Corp.), "If you don't have the engineering data going in, you're not going to have an accurate BOM." In general, PDM can be viewed as the link between a company's computer-aided-design (CAD) system and its ERP network. Too often in the past, PDM systems were kept totally separate from other information systems. The result was that almost no one in the organization could get his or her hands on any product data without directly requesting it from a designer or engineer who had access. That's too bad, because in a world of integrated information, PDM data is as much in need of integration as, say, human resources information. A salesperson working with a customer on a complex order may need to know about certain product specifications. Similarly, a purchasing officer needs to know specific data about parts that need to be ordered on a rush basis for a new component or subassembly. Holdups in getting this kind of data quickly and without error can be costly. A number of PDM software companies have begun offering systems that integrate more easily with ERP systems and, not surprisingly, electronic commerce and the Internet are helping. For instance, Norway's Kongsberg Aerospace last year began using the Web-based portion of SherpaWorks, a PDM system now owned by Inso Corp. of Boston. The aerospace firm uses the system to enable larger numbers of people in the company to access product information. "This is an excellent application for getting PDM information distributed throughout the enterprise," says Niels Mortensen, PDM system manager. Kongsberg, which makes anti-ship missiles, boosted the number of employees with access to product information to 400 from 250. Another company, KLA-Tencor Corp., a San Jose manufacturer of integrated circuit testing equipment, also is using SherpaWorks and the Web to roll out product data to more than 1,000 people -- five times as many as before. The system lets employees browse, access, and change product data via the Internet. Now that's integration.

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