The Easiest Way to Simplify PDM for Your Design Team


PDM tools offer plenty of benefits for large engineering teams — but taking advantage of those benefits can sometimes be a challenge.

3D CAD software is arguably the most essential tool for any design engineer. But for many large engineering teams, product data management (PDM) tools follow closely behind.

PDM software allows teams to seamlessly collaborate on designs, often by “checking” files in and out of the application. That way, users can access the latest versions of design files without interrupting or saving over someone else’s work. Several major companies offer PDM tools that integrate with their CAD software, such as Autodesk Vault PDM and SOLIDWORKS PDM Professional.

When several design engineers are working together on a project, using PDM software can increase productivity, save time and costs, and spare a lot of headaches. However, using PDM software properly requires some knowledge that is outside the scope of a typical engineer’s job description. This can turn PDM into more of an obstacle than a useful tool. Engineering managers should be aware of the difficulties of PDM — and how to address them — so their teams can be prepared to get the most out of the software.

When PDM challenges get in the way of its benefits

There’s a lot of potential for PDM to make CAD managers’ lives easier — but sometimes it ends up making projects more difficult. In fact, in a recent product development survey by Onshape, they found that 72% of companies using PDM/PLM systems wish there was a better way to prevent data management errors. On top of that, nearly half of product development teams that use PDM software say it slows down the design process and blocks access to design data when they need it.

So how can a program that’s designed to alleviate slowdowns and data mismanagement cause those very same problems? More often than not, the simple answer is that many designers find PDM software to be tricky and convoluted because they just don’t understand how to use it properly.

Browsing Files in PDM Autodesk Vault

Browsing files in PDM software Autodesk Vault

Using PDM properly requires a different skillset

Working efficiently in CAD software takes training and experience, and PDM is no different. However, managing files and understanding vault architecture aren’t typically the kinds of skills that you would expect from a design engineer. This is especially true for recent graduates, new hires, and even experienced engineers that have primarily worked for smaller companies or workshops. PDM is very rarely taught in schools or apprenticeships because there simply isn’t a need for it unless you’re working at a larger company that uses PDM.

Checking files in and out can cause bottlenecks

PDM software allows teams to collaborate on designs in a central place, or vault, often from an add-in right within their CAD software. While this is much easier than using a separate cloud storage system or emailing files back and forth, it creates its own set of problems. When one CAD user has a file checked out, no one else on the team can access it. This is done for an important reason — it prevents files versions from being lost and avoids creating duplicates.

But when engineers are keeping files checked out for long periods of time (often by accident), this can harm productivity and cause bottlenecks. Other designers must wait until the files are checked back into the vault to access them. Without systems in place and a common understanding of how the vault architecture works, design teams will be prone to these delays with PDM. Larger teams and more complicated design processes can escalate these problems, too.

Get Started: Discover Autodesk Vault PDM and how it works >>

Ideas and iterations can get lost when using PDM

With PDM software, you can keep track of previous file versions and then go back and access these versions at any time. It’s common for many engineers to save their designs often to avoid losing any work, but PDM software only keeps track of file versions that are checked into the vault. If an engineer has a design file checked out and is working through numerous changes and saving along the way, only the final saved version will be checked into the vault.

If engineers aren’t in the habit of regularly checking files back into the vault, this can cause confusion if the next designer tries to decipher all of the changes made by the previous engineer. That’s why it’s important to use PDM as a tool to keep track of design decisions and milestones, and not simply a storage location for files.

The easiest solution? Train your engineering team to use PDM

Despite these drawbacks, PDM is an extremely valuable tool for engineering design teams, especially large teams. Choosing the right PDM software for your team’s needs can help mitigate some of these issues, but if you’re already committed to one tool there’s an easier way to avoid PDM pitfalls: make sure your team is trained on how to use it!

Perhaps that sounds like a no-brainer, but your PDM training should be more than just an initial onboarding session and an email. As we mentioned before, using PDM software requires different skill sets and it’s unlikely that many of your entry-level new hires (or even some seasoned designers) will have had prior experience with PDM. This means two things for you as a manager or department lead:

  1. It’s up to you to make sure your team knows how to use PDM. It’s not taught in school, it’s not a requirement for most engineering design roles, so in order for your team to succeed with PDM — it’s on you! That doesn’t mean you need to play teacher, but make sure you evaluate and invest in training tools that will give your team the support they need.
  2. Your design team will need to master new PDM habits — and unlearn old ones. A lot of success with PDM comes down to habits. Many engineers will be accustomed to saving and sharing their work in other ways, and changing these behaviors will take some reminding and repetition. To help designers get in the habit of using PDM best practices, it’s worth considering regular refresh training sessions, or even better, an online training platform that allows your team to reference their PDM training at any time.

Interested in learning more about online training for PDM software? Check out these video-based courses on Autodesk Vault PDMSOLIDWORKS PDM Professional, and SOLIDWORKS Workgroup PDM in our Library.

Claire Juozitis
About the Author

SolidProfessor commercial content writer and unironic classic rock record collector