Friday, June 22, 2012

PDM, CAD Integration and Insight XT

PDM is known as a necessary evil in most engineering worlds.  Why it’s labeled “evil”, I’ll explain in a bit.  It’s necessary because of 2 reasons:

  1. Engineering and related disciplines create a huge amount of data and that data is related to parts which are related to a product structure and that may also be related to tooling and equipment.  PDM excels at storing all this data securely and managing the relationships between it and the changes that happen to it.
  2. The use of 3D compound document design systems pretty much require PDM after a couple years of use with more than a half dozen authors.  Compound document design systems build assemblies from parts and subassemblies that are all independent files.  When you open an assembly, the design system actually must find and open each and every component file that makes up that assembly, so on an assembly comprised of 350 unique components, your opening 350 files.  Couple this with cross assembly use of components, multiple revisions of each, the explosion of data in a couple years use by the average company and multiple users trying to open and edit it, and you got a mess.  Most PDM systems also excels at managing these compound document links, revision configuration, and multiple user access.

Now lets talk about why it’s labeled as “evil”.  There are a multitude of reasons why it can be called evil, but it really comes down to this… It is typically hard to use.  What?  I thought it was supposed to do stuff for me and manage stuff and make my life easier.  Well it does in some ways but doesn’t in other ways.  Let me explain.  While it can manage all your CAD files and control access, there is a very wide definition of the word “integration” when it comes to the authoring tools (CAD).

System integration is defined as bringing together two or more different systems and making them appear as one.  What typically happens with PDM systems is that the above definition gets replaced with “we can manage your CAD links”.  Separate commands are used to do the PDM stuff (find, open, save) and the CAD commands remain disconnected from the PDM system.  Now, I’ve heard that CAD connectors are really a loss leader type of application.  You got to have it to get the business, but you can’t sell it for what it actually costs to develop and still make a profit.  This being said, it’s clear as to why many PDM companies don’t put much effort into proper integration.  The net result of this is that the typical CAD user now has to jump through more hoops to get his job done and it’s much more complex because you end up doing a lot of things twice (find the file in PDM, download it to the local workspace or cache, find it again with the CAD system, perform the action you wanted in the beginning (create a drawing).  This isn’t a joke or an exaggeration.  Most PDM systems are like this EXCEPT if your using one developed by the same company that makes your CAD system.

Now I’m going to switch gears and talk about something new called Insight XT from Siemens PLM.  Insight XT is a new product that was introduced at the Solid Edge ST5 launch during the Solid Edge University 2012 event on June 12th.  It is one of 4 PDM/PLM solutions that Siemens PLM offers which can manage Solid Edge data. They are:  Insight, Insight XT, Teamcenter Express, and Teamcenter.  The two Teamcenter products are very similar if not the same underneath and support multi-CAD.  What makes them different is that Teamcenter Express is made to be easily deployable using only a Microsoft technology stack with preconfigured “best practice” templates and typical “PDM” functionality while Teamcenter has many more options making it a full fledged PLM system and thus requires much more configuration.  Both use the Solid Edge Embedded Client to integrate with Solid Edge.  Insight has been around for a decade and is based on SharePoint from Microsoft.  It is not what I would consider a full fledged PDM system, but is a very good CAD data manager for Solid Edge.  Insight XT is completely new and is also based on SharePoint.  It does offer all the things you would expect from a PDM system except multi-CAD support.  Where Insight XT really shines is in it’s integration with Solid Edge… It is seamless and thus a “true” integration.

To turn on Insight XT, Solid Edge uses a toggle option


Once it has been turned on you will be able to identify it by the words “Insight XT” on the background page and the application’s Window header.  Now, all commands in Solid Edge that browse, search, open or save data are Insight XT aware.  No duplication of commands and no additional non-value added steps in the process.

Open shows the form below.  It defaults to the storage sites set up on the Insight XT server by default and only allows navigation into an between those sites.  Search also only searches those locations.  Note the revision rule combo box which is how PDM systems configure the revisions you open, and the Open as read-only option.


Insight XT’s primary object is an Item which holds any number of Item Revisions which each hold the Data Sets as shown below.  Notice the Revision filter on top.  To open a Solid Edge file, simply select the correct Item Revision or the Data Set.


Solid Edge attempts to Check-out any file that you specify it to open unless you set the Open as read-only option.  If the file is checked-out by others or is release or otherwise in a status that you do not have edit privileges, it does not perform a check-out but does show you the Read-only assistant dialog where you can optionally make a copy or create a revision depending on the circumstances as to why it is read-only.

When saving a new file or closing an existing file that you had check-out and modified, Solid Edge displays the Common Properties Dialog as shown below.  This dialog allows you to edit meta data properties and, if a new file, select the Insight XT storage location and assign an Item ID (either auto-generated based on rules an admin has set, or if allowed, typed in).  Note the columns marked with an asterisk, those are “required” properties and you are not allowed to check-in a file unless they are filled out either using an admin set list of values or if allowed, a typed in value.


Once an Insight XT managed file is opened in SE, it is business as usual with one exception.  Assembly Pathfinder shows the check-out status of the components as well as their current status symbol (In Work, Released, Obsolete, etc…) as shown below.


Something typical of most PDM systems is the presence of a local cache or working folder.  Insight XT is no different, but the beauty of Insight XT is that it is managed automatically for you.  Based on the revision rule that you select when opening files, it will insure that existing cached files are kept up to date so you are never working with stale data unless of course that is your deliberate choice.  Insight XT does provide a utility called Cache Assistant that allows you to review the files in your cache and manage them by either using a shortcut menu on selected items or en mass using the buttons along the top.  You can do such things as synchronize your cache with what is on the server, check-in any checked-out files or download files to your cache which is really helpful if you work over a slow link and want to pre-populate your cache over night so it’s there and fast in the morning.


The net result of this is that you get a full fledged PDM system for Solid Edge that provides the value added features you need without the non-value added baggage that you don’t all in one easily deployable and configurable package.  This in turn makes it intuitive to use and thus easy to train people on which removes yet another roadblock that other PDM systems have in their way.

Insight XT has a another side to it that is outside of the Solid Edge environment and that is the SharePoint site with the Insight XT web parts as shown below.  I’m not going to get into detail on this part of it, but it has a clean UI and some pretty cool tools.  It supports ECR and ECO workflows with several that come by default and has an interesting Shopping Cart utility that allows collecting multiple objects to process as one.  The crown jewel however is the Structure Browser which allows navigating assembly trees and CAD references but also ECR and ECO objects as well as a bunch of other items.  If I have time, I may cover this in more detail in the future if no one beats me to it.


Thanks for reading.

Design Better!