CAD files is a source of information for many PLM system.  Many PLM systems started from CAD file management.  Originally founded as EDM (Engineering Data Management), these system management CAD files and later on evolved into PDM systems managing CAD files and sometimes also Bill of Materials. Later on, high end PDM systems managing complex aerospace, defense and automotive programs evolved into PLM system. 

There are two fundamental elements in design data – (1) information about files (often called meta-data) and (2) design data located inside of file. File information is usually a combination of attributes coming from files as well as basic naming information applied on files and folders. Design data is more interesting and much more complex. It is a set of information about parts, assemblies, drawings and dependencies between them. Traditionally, CAD systems are holding this information in a very closed internal format, which prevented many PDM / PLM systems from the ability to manage design data efficiently.

The data inside CAD file can be very complex and to contain lot of specific design information – configurations, manufacturing instructions, bill of materials and many others. Each CAD systems keeps these data elements in a specific format. Complexity of design information hidden inside of CAD files as well as the way CAD systems are managing it became a challenge for PDM systems to manage design data.

When you evaluate design data management capabilities, pay attention on how PDM / PLM system can manage specific CAD design data and support specific versions of CAD software.

Immersive CAD data management – PDM future?

For many years, data management was considered as something that burdens the activity of designers and engineers focused on CAD system work as their daily activities. I believe many people will say that this is still true. On the other hand, with the growing amount of information many users have started to ask questions such as: Where did I save my files?, Which is the latest revision of my work? Who is working on these product files now? etc. Additional changes have arisen with the shifted perception related to the place of search technologies in our life. You can hear from many people phrases like  “you can Google it!”… and sometimes this seems to have become the most reliable way to find answers or information.

I definitely see a growing needs for the adoption of PDM, or simply data management, becoming part of the standard function set of the Designer’s and Engineer’s environments. For example, the latest releases of SolidWorks PDMs presented consolidation on a short list of data management functionality and user experience related to this function set, embedded in SolidWorks User Interface. Major changes in SolidWorks Enterprise PDM task pane shows the need to integrate data management tasks into the regular daily work of users.


Another example is the CATIA V6 release. Starting from V6, CATIA data management functionality is completely integrated. Together with lifelike experience introduced in V6 and previewed last year in the Dassault Systemes 3DLive product, this environment does not differentiate completely between CAD functions and data management.


There are more examples like these from other CAD/PLM vendors.

Both examples show that data management has become a standard function of the environment of CAD and Engineers. So, what we can see in the future of CAD / PDM? In my view, standardization of CAD data management will allow better use of design and engineering data in downstream environments, as well as improved usability in general. Data interfaces behind CAD systems will make the development of new technologies possible, based on data availability and reuse.

Both examples show that data management has become a standard function of the environment of CAD and Engineers. So, what we can see in the future of CAD / PDM? In my view, standardization of CAD data management will allow better use of design and engineering data in downstream environments, as well as improved usability in general. Data interfaces behind CAD systems will make the development of new technologies possible, based on data availability and reuse.

How to liberate design data from CAD tools?

For many years, CAD and design data is strongly associated with vendors lock-in. Once created, it is very complex and experience to translate it to another system. One of the questions industry is asking – how to manage design (CAD) data independently. The topic is heavily debated. PDM and PLM systems are mostly relying on storing CAD and geometrical data in vendor dependent formats. In addition to that, visualization of data provided by translation native CAD data into viewable formats. There are few aspects to mention in the context of design data liberation.

Dependencies on CAD vendor

In today’s world, companies are required to follow CAD vendors. Everything, they are creating in 3D is heavily dependent on the specific CAD application. It comes accumulated dependencies on the format of data, 3D features as well as a very long learning curve of CAD users in the companies. However, it creates huge benefits for vendors in the way of a maintenance revenue stream. It doesn’t mean you cannot shift between tools, however it presents a significant associated cost of change.

Competition On Tools

When/If dependencies on tools will be removed, the new form of competition can be presented. Vendors will be enforced to compete on a tool proper. The cost of change or switch between CAD systems will be no longer a factor in this competition. So, we can expect CAD market to become similar to the telecom market where a switch between previous and next mobile phone is zero for the end user.

Long Term Data Retention

Since intelligence will be introduced in CAD, forward data compliance will help to resolve the problem of long data storage. This is a very important topic for many industries, especially regulated ones. Some of them are required to keep data for 50-60 years. Today 2D is the ultimate way to do so (because it just work). Future may be different.

The future of data liberation sounds very disruptive for today’s CAD vendors. It can present a significant shift in business models and competitive landscape. In my view, it can generate the biggest change in CAD vendor’s landscape.

Why and When to Rethink PDM?

PDM (Product Data Management) isn’t a new discipline. Nevertheless, I think, PDM is going through the time of disruption and renaissance. Cloud, social and mobile technologies are changing the way we’ve been working in the past. From that side, I can see companies that trying to reinvent PDM with a new meaning and technologies. On the other side, analysts and established CAD and PLM vendors are trying to restate the values of PDM solutions as part of their core business.

Traditionally PDM value can be separated into 3 distinct sets of data management capabilities: CAD Data Management, Engineering Data Management and Enterprise Data Management. The challenging part of PDM for the last 20 years was to justify the cost of implementation and use of PDM combined with complex engineering workflow. Engineers don’t like data management. I was talking about it many times. For most of engineers, PDM is a software that slow their work and make their life complicated. Think about an engineer waiting until updated files is synchronized from the server in the morning or release of new 3D models is taking next 15-20 minutes. To put it gently, these examples are not very rare in CAD data management eco-system. Nevertheless, I’ve seen several PDM systems in the past 15 years that succeeded to find a decent balance of value vs. disturbance to engineers. Another aspect of PDM implementation is cost. For many (especially small) organizations, the cost of most existing PDM implementation is too high. Therefore, we still can see lots of organizations managing CAD files using shared network folders and excel spreadsheets.

So why and when companies may decide to re-think their existing PDM strategies? I’d like to separate all options in the three groups: 1-we don’t need PDM; 2-we need PDM, but it is too costly; 3-PDM is part of larger PLM/Data management strategy.

1- We don’t need PDM.

This is a typical situation in very small engineering firms or micro-engineering departments in large companies. The status quo is okay for them. They are busy with everyday tasks and don’t want to look on new tech. What can make them to re-think PDM? In my view, it will come with the influence of external factors. Web, globalization, speed of changes and other factors can turn these companies to think about PDM values.

2- We need PDM, but it is too costly.

I can see many medium-size companies in this category. Usually, they outgrew their network/file sharing capabilities and have a pressure to make some order in data management. However, for some reasons budget restrictions and value/cost justification make them feel wrong about current PDM solutions. One possible solution for these companies is to buy PDM systems bundled with CAD system they use. It will be probably the most cost effective. For many of these companies CAD-PDM bundle will be a decent solution to solve their problems. However, another option is “to re-think” and bring new PDM solution with lower TCO and improved workflow for engineers.

3- PDM is part of larger PLM/Data management strategy.

Mostly large companies are coming into this category. For them, PDM is a part in the overall solution puzzle. These companies are looking about overall business processes, connectivity, multiple systems and global IT cost. These companies can be good partners to work for the future. Some of them can be good thinker how to re-invent PDM. However, don’t expect fast decisions here. To establish right strategy for them is an ultimate priority.

PDM is going to change. However, the speed of changes in engineering and manufacturing industry is very slow. Therefore, don’t expect everything to change tomorrow. Existing systems will keep serving us for coming years. At the same, time new systems potentially can make engineers’ life easier. The focus on improvements of engineering workflow and longevity of solutions is something you should consider when analyzing opportunity to bring new or change your existing PDMs.

Future CAD File Management Trajectories

CAD data is a core and one of the most fundamental parts of every manufacturing design. It all starts and dies from how your product looks and feels. In the past, 3D CAD was most focused on mechanical elements of design. Today, CAD systems are meshing into a complex conglomerate of data about shape, assembly, simulation and many other aspects of product design. Thinking even more broadly, CAD files are representing a significant part of engineering and product knowledge.

Despite overall significance, many manufacturing companies and engineering organization are missing the point of CAD files management. It is not unusual to hear that 60-70% of companies manage CAD files on shared network drives.

Perhaps the most common way to manage CAD files is on a shared drive with a directory structure and file naming conventions. That can work in some situations, but it carries significant risks and limitations.

These manual approaches are better than nothing, but in all but the simplest scenarios lead to errors. As complexity and number of engineers increase, unmanaged approaches fall apart. Relying on individuals to consistently follow manual rules eventually leads to problems. This approach frequently results in the errors discussed earlier, specifically overwriting each other’s work, using the wrong version of a file, multiple people working on the same file, and lost productivity.

The options to manage CAD data are varies from keeping CAD files on shared drives and up to full PDM system. Cloud data storages is a new option, which recently became available using mainstream cloud storage vendors – Dropbox, Google Drive and more specialized such as Box.

I can outline potential trajectories of future CAD file management solutions.

Cloud File Systems.

Quite a few companies these days are trying to virtualize file system and make transparent between on-premise and cloud storage. If it turns into reliable, fast and cost effective solution, engineers can just use this cloud file system to save files. I can see a good opportunity for cloud file systems to support revision history. So, it is almost PDM and these companies can start eating PDM lunch.

PDM with cloud file storage

The complexity of CAD data can make option of cloud file system not very reliable. In that case, we can see a next turn in the evolution of existing PDM system – turn them to the cloud via IaaS and / or cloud hosting. Technologically, these solutions can be very similar to any existing PDM system. It might require some tuning to work with low latency and cloud file storage. But underlying idea will remain the same.

Engineering data platforms

This is one of the most interesting trajectory for me. Somebody would like to re-think the way engineering data (include CAD data) stored and managed in the cloud. The process of re-thinking can touch also technological aspects (databases and storage) as well as logical and functional aspects related to collaborative design and engineering and more.

One of the biggest challenges these days is how to leverage cloud system advantages on top of massive amount of CAD files. Every engineering organization is struggling to find an efficient solution to manage engineering data accumulated on desktops and network drives. Security, cost and scale – these are three most important elements every manufacturing company will be assessing to find an appropriate CAD file management solution. Just my thoughts…

How to choose PDM (circa 2010)

Product Data Management (PDM) is a software to manage CAD files and design data. The problems of design data management are spread between just having the ability to keep files in a safe place towards managing revisions and sometimes even design bill of materials.

Below is a picture that shows potential options for CAD files and design data management. I put two versions – one I originally created back in 2010. 


I decided to update the diagram – life is changing and for the last five years we got new technologies and products available.

How to choose PDM (circa 2016)



How to evaluate PDM before it will ruin your personal productivity

The truth is the everyone wants to have data managed and organized. But nobody wants to anything about that. Especially engineers. When you ask engineers about PDM, they will roll eyes and finger-point on IT that didn’t bring a good system for them.

Product Data Management (PDM) was around for the last 20-30 years. However, I can see an increased traction around PDM topic last year. You ask me what’s the reason? My simple answer – Dropbox. Think 10 years back. The typical “PDM spiel” was to enable data control and collaboration in a team of engineers. So, PDM value proposition was to enable team with controlled access to CAD files and manage file revisions alongside. The alternative was to put data on a shared network drive (z:\ drive) and hope nobody will overwrite your last change. However, z:\ drive is replaced by Dropbox (or alternative to Dropbox solutions) with ability to synchronize and collaborate around data changes. It smells disruption and raised many questions about future of PDM systems, especially for small teams.

Traditional PDM value proposition – enabling collaboration, offloading complexity of CAD, managing design configurations, managing data dependencies (eg. simulation data), etc. These values are typical and (almost) never questionable. However, individual productivity is a topic often questioned in the context of PDM. what is even more valuable is how to free individual engineers and designers to spend more of their time actually designing products, not managing spreadsheets with file names.

PDM indeed delivers value. However, PDM implementation usually can raise many questions about individual productivity lost and additional efforts to implement and maintain PDM system. Here are few tips that can help you to evaluate PDM  system to insure it will boost your individual and team performance.

Secure global collaboration

PDM is using centralized storage to keep data and control access. No tricks here. So, before starting your work, you need to insure you can move your data from central location to your working folders and back. Nobody wants to have slow system that will suck your time during check-in/check-out process. The ability to manage conflicts is also very important here. You better test your specific CAD system, version and sample your data.

Complexity of CAD

Yes, CAD data is complex and very intertwined. Drawings, dependencies and many other features. Some of them carefully designed by CAD vendor for a very specific design process, features or performance optimization. Check if PDM system will support all features and won’t break design scenarios beautifully crafted by CAD. This is also the time to check how your PDM system can support different versions of CAD software.

Managing configurations

Design configuration brings an additional level of complexity to data management.  CAD systems are implementing it differently. If configurations matter for you, check how PDM system will allow you to manage configuration and expose this information in PDM environment.

Design dependencies (simulation, manufacturing, etc.)

Another important point. Obviously, you want PDM to capture “related data” such as simulation, requirements, manufacturing information. This information either management by your CAD system or created by add-ins or separate application. You need to validate PDM system’s ability to capture this information and integrate with separate CAE tools you might use. Otherwise, you will be manually connecting files in your PDM environment.

Design BOM

This is not always obvious. However, the ability to generate design BOM in the way you can share it with outside parties is an important functionality of PDM system. The same is about BOM updates. Otherwise you will be spending your time in Excel updating bill of materials to share with your suppliers.

The demand of customers is to provide technology and products that can boost your individual and team performance. Traditional approach to solve CAD data management problems is going to meet new technologies and paradigms.  In my view, PDM has a huge unrealized potential. However, the devil in details. Wrong PDM system can suck your time and make your everyday’s experience very complicated.

The Future of Free PDM

Free is an interesting trend. As we always said, there is no free lunch. But, last decade introduced us to a new way of thinking about FREE. I recommend you to read a book – Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson. Free trend is interesting and has many opportunities. It is, of course, not a silver bullet to solve any problem. I can define two main use cases for free service or software: 1/ multi-level business schema in which monetizing is enabled by free product. The best example is Google. More generic use case is any ads selling in social networks; 2/ freemium model in which free product used to increase market share and product reach. Despite many discussions about significant potential of freemium models, it didn’t change the grand business schema in PDM/PLM. Most of “free” examples are coming into option #2 I mentioned above. PLM is a system that must be “sold” opposite to other products that can be “bought”. However, PDM is a bit different. Last 2-3 years indicated some shifts in PDM development. The value became more clear, the functionality is more standard and cloud file sharing and storage tools gave some vision for the future of PDM. In parallel, CAD/PDM integration became more integrated and customers are often assume that it must be provided by CAD vendors.

CAD vendors are recognizing that PDM should be integrated into CAD system and probably become an integral part of the system. It already happened at SolidWorks. From SolidWorks 2016 version, standard PDM package is always included in the system.

Independent vendors followed the trend too. GrabCAD (Stratasys company) changed their polices about GrabCAD Workbench. It is free for the moment that will enable GrabCAD to focus on growing of GrabCAD engineering community.

These two events made me think about future trajectories of PDM value proposition and pricing. Few interesting data points – if you are listening to companies developing cloud CAD solution, you can get the message – future cloud CAD won’t require PDM. More specifically, PDM will be a fundamental part of cloud CAD allowing people to collaborate on design. Even more, it will be much more transparent and intuitive than today. On the other side, generic cloud file sharing and collaboration tools are getting much more smarter and can quietly become ready to manage CAD files. Last, but not least – the complexity of CAD / PDM integration is well know fact. The trend towards simplification of integration and an attempt to re-imagine the way PDM can be integrated with PDM gain some support from both software vendors and customers. It might end up by removing check-in/out commands or tight bundling of CAD/PDM solutions coming from CAD vendors.

Everyone needs to manage CAD data, but nobody wants to implement CAD data management. My hunch, GrabCAD decided to give away Workbench to reach more customers and learn more future potential of GrabCAD business models. SolidWorks is trying to gain more market share from own customers without PDM solutions before they will implement free cloud PDM from other vendors.  SolidWorks customers will get standard PDM package for free, which is a good news for large amount of companies having 2-3 SolidWorks seats. It looks like we are in the beginning of PDM market disruption. I can be wrong, but users are winning and this is what mostly important.

How CAD vendors “murdered” PDM business

We only sleep at night because Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Elon Musk don’t want our businesses. Yet. It came from the Warren Ellis’ article The New Tech Disruption: Murdering Businesses and Haunting Their Corpses. The article is a very nice summary of examples demonstrating the dynamics of businesses these days and aggressiveness towards earlier partners and future competitors. It is must read for everyone who is building business these days. Here is one example:

If you build your business on top of someone else’s system, eventually they’re going to notice. Just last week, the live-streaming app Meerkat, which uses Twitter to transmit, felt a cold breeze pass through the room when Twitter bought the competing system Periscope, which will doubtless be baked into Twitter as soon as possible. Digital businesses can murder and haunt their own parasites.

The article made me think more about what happens in product data management (PDM) businesses. Let me go back in time into 1990s or maybe even earlier. Do you remember the beginning of PDM (product data management)  or how it was called TDM (technical data management)? PDM was born to manage CAD files. The fundamental idea was to solve a problem created by CAD system. CAD systems used files to store data. But, as you know, most of CAD systems are not creating single file, but use MANY files to store data. These files are interconnected for different purposes – parts are used by assemblies, drawings are created out of parts. If you are user of AutoCAD, you must be familiar with the mess that can be created by usage of XREFs. Trying to re-use and share design was painful. You can hear customers screaming for decades about how to find a last revision of a document.

So, the problem was clearly identified. The pain was here and PDM vendors came up with a value to help customers – data management system that can keep record of all these files and provides a set of functions to search, share, change, etc. More than 2 decades later, there are no so many PDM companies left. Most of them (successful) were acquired by CAD vendors, many of less successful disappeared. However, what I found mostly interesting is that pain is still here. Users are struggling to manage CAD files, revisions, re-use, search and share files.

During last few years, we had a renaissance of PDM driven mostly by cloud technology. Cloud is an ideal paradigm to share data. So, the idea to develop cloud products to share and view CAD data was appealing to many companies. Some of them developed very good products customers really like, but I can carefully state that none of them turned into sustainable businesses.

So, what happened? Here is my guess – all PDM businesses were murdered… by CAD vendors. Think about acquisition as a kind of murder too. Each CAD vendor acquired (or developed)  PDM product, which was  “the best for a specific CAD”, but never provided an equally good solution for multiple CAD systems. Most of “other CAD integrations” are developed by partners because of limitations of licensing and partnership agreements. Independent PDM vendors put their focus on developing of multi-CAD strategies and struggled to keep up with CAD features development and API support.

The things are getting more interesting these days. The new era of cloud CAD systems is coming. The most interesting part of cloud CAD systems is that in order to make them successful, CAD vendors will have to solve fundamental PDM problem – to store design data, manage revisions, search and re-use existing designs. You can read more about this in my earlier post – Cloud CAD will have to solve PDM problem at first place.

I attended Onshape webinar where Jon Hirschtick explained why Onshape decided to develop new generation of CAD systems using cloud platform and new browser based technologies. You can see recording here. The following slide caught my attention. You can clearly see – Onshape is going to provide PDM functionality with no additional license cost to all Onshape users.


Autodesk, which is strategically focusing on development of cloud technologies and applications for the last five years, is coming with the similar functionality in their Fusion360 product. I captured the following table at Autodesk Fusion360 website. As you can see core PDM functionality is included into Fusion360 subscriptions.


PDM business is built on top of CAD systems. In the past, CAD vendors had “love-hate” relationships with PDM businesses. Depends on the time and specific situation, PDM was out of CAD priorities. In some periods PDM businesses helped CAD vendors to collaborate and compete. Things are changing today. Data management is very critical for CAD business. CAD vendors cannot avoid it and let other companies to manage their data. Data management (PDM) is an essential part of cloud CAD success, since it is a part of their “platform” and data management strategies. I can see some interesting competition in front of us about how to get data management done right from cost and user experience standpoints. If your technology knows how to manage CAD data in the cloud, you can be a valuable asset for CAD vendor. If you are building PDM business, you probably will be a target for a future murder.

picture credit (c) Can Stock Photo

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