The Dirty Little Secrets of Engineering Document Management

Do you always turn slightly to the left when someone takes your picture, because you think you are showing your “good side”? (I don’t turn my head, but I do lift my chin just a little.) It is human nature to try to put ourselves in the best possible light. Software vendors also do that, so to speak. Every product on the market has strengths and weaknesses. It requires careful study to select the right product when there are competing solutions.

For managing engineering information, three types of programs are competing for market share: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Product Data Management (PDM), and Engineering Document Management (EDM). PLM companies love to talk about how they integrate all product information into one database to deliver “one version of the truth.” PDM companies extol the virtues of managing access and use of all CAD data. EDM companies talk about streamlining enterprise business processes and making all engineering documentation secure, shared, and accessible. There is considerable overlap between the functions of the three, as well as distinctive elements in how each type of program operates.

I have seen companies come and go during my 30 years in the engineering software industry. Some of them disappeared because they were terrible at marketing. Some died because technology changed and they didn’t. And some died because too many users found out the hard way there are flaws and limitations that the product vendors don’t reveal. Like the right pose for a photo, companies do their best to avoid revealing those dirty little secrets.

What exactly do I mean by dirty little secrets? They are embarrassing facts, troublesome bits of information someone — or in this case, some software company — would rather keep hidden. In the world of engineering, I see three dirty little secrets haunting the industry.

Dirty Little Secret #1:

Installing engineering information management solutions does not have to be time-consuming, expensive, and aggravating.

There are plenty of stories floating through our industry about failed installations. For a time, one large vendor used the slogan, “no customer left behind” because there were too many horror stories about failed PLM installations. I know the inside story of one large automotive company with a global footprint. They invested 18 months and a very large sum on implementing a PLM solution. The consultants installing the software had completed about 25% of the job, when the project was stopped; it was cited as too expensive and too complicated. It took five years before this company tried a second time with PLM, starting over with another vendor. I estimate this company spent more than $2 million before they started to gain any benefit from their software.

In any installation, there are several steps involved; setting up a usage plan, installing the software, implementing business workflows, importing legacy data, training users, and more. Any one of these can “go south” if not planned for in advance.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of all is when companies decide to invest in an information management solution without working through internal processes first. Each department that will be using the new system needs to have an internal champion, who represents his or her department in the planning, training, and implementation of the new software. These people should not only be intimately involved in the implementation, but should also be trained as administrators and super users who train others and make sure the software is rolled out in well-planned sequences. As the company moves from exploring the need to reviewing vendor options, to preparing and executing an implementation, these departmental champions will be a key resource.

Many companies start by looking at PLM and PDM, but then realize what they are really looking for is engineering document management. In the case of Synergis Adept, they discover features that solve problems in many departments, not just for the engineering team. Adept replaces the chaos of hundreds of file folders in Windows — nested 10-20 levels deep on a network drive not everyone can reach — with an organized centralized repository of engineering documentation. CAD drawings, change orders, email messages, and more become accessible, secure, and kept accurate and current.

When Gillig Corporation decided to modernize its engineering document management, it started with an in-depth internal analysis. The maker of transit buses realized it needed a solution that would work for Sales, Accounting, and Publications, as well as Engineering. After meeting with the Synergis Services Team, they knew they would need a one-time customization that would mix elements of Adept with an automated in-house part-numbering system that was a key element of the company’s business processes. Because Gillig took the time to unite all stakeholders, and to discuss the need to maintain existing business processes with the vendor, the actual installation of Adept — including data migration and installing the customizations — took place over a single weekend.

Dirty Little Secret #2:

Engineering data does not have to be scrambled, encrypted, or removed from its original form to be useful.

An entire industry has formed around PLM for the single purpose of providing data migration. Why? Because all the information in all the various CAD files, spreadsheets, PDF files, BOMs, forms, and other documents must be extracted from its source, cleansed to eliminate inconsistencies with legacy systems, converted into a proprietary format to be understood and secured by the new PLM system, and imported into the new PLM database. This is a complicated process and one that data consultants charge dearly for. And, what do you have at the end? Data that only works within the PLM system. The database table for Parts, for example, is not labeled “Parts,” but is instead given a random code created within the PLM program, unreadable elsewhere.

Synergis Adept takes a completely different approach to data import. It uses a vaulting method which essentially wraps around the existing file structure (and all the engineering documents) without encrypting or otherwise scrambling data, filenames, or file structure. Data is preserved it its native format, making it easy to access, move, or recover in the event of a system failure.

The data available to Synergis is at once organized and accessible, not just locally but globally. Adept’s vault replication feature allows multiple geographic locations to access files while sharing a common Adept Vault. Adept also offers a technology called binary differencing, where only the changes between files are recorded, not the entire file. This speeds up data transfers and reduces network bandwidth.

One potential Adept client sat through a demonstration of how Synergis does data migration. One part of the demo was a short presentation on a utility app which examines existing (legacy) data and file structure, looking for naming convention issues and duplicates. When the customer realized this would all happen before the data was imported, they were blown away. “Why doesn’t anybody else talk about this?” was the astonished response.

Dirty Little Secret #3:

Small vendors can solve problems for big clients.

There seems to be an unwritten rule floating around the industry, saying the largest engineering companies should only work with the largest engineering information management companies. But company size is a lousy metric for evaluating software; if it were, IBM would still be king of software and personal computers. Utility and value have to be evaluated by better metrics than company size.

Dow Chemical Company is a global, diversified company with more than 54,000 employees and operations in 160 countries. After years of acquisitions, it had bought or inherited a wide variety of engineering data management systems. An internal Six Sigma study revealed significant gaps in the data management of as-built documents. For a company like Dow, with chemical plants around the world, as-build documentation is a key resource. There were usability issues around limited access, and myriad inefficiencies based on inability to access information in a timely fashion. The hodgepodge of multiple document management systems was a negative force within the company, especially as the company had adopted a goal of creating a globally consistent single point of access to engineering documents.

Beyond integrating document management into a single comprehensive solution, Dow Engineering Solutions (the department tasked with solving their data problems) had announced a long-term vision for integrating engineering design and construction work processes and to expose the resulting information in an “asset view” as opposed to a “document view.” This approach, Dow decided, would allow employees to find all the relevant information about a specific piece of equipment by making a single query.

Instead of picking one of the existing in-house solutions, Dow began a fresh selection process, listing 85 critical requirements based on what they saw as the best aspects of all the existing in-house products and methods. They started with eight vendors, cut the list to four, and asked two for a proof of concept. One of them was Synergis Software, a small player compared to its competition.

Each vendor was required to load 100,000 existing Dow documents. The competitive product struggled, taking weeks. Synergis Adept did the same task in a few days. At the end of the two-product trial, Dow went with Synergis Adept.

Dow initially had some concern about Adept’s ability to handle the massive data set and their global scale. They were also worried because Adept cost one-fifth of the competing solution. But technically it was the superior solution for Dow’s needs.

Dow’s initial plan was to use Adept to manage as-built plant documents. But when the installation took place, Dow also needed immediate document management support for a large capital project. Synergis was able to deliver a complete system in six weeks, from start to finish. “It was a big surprise to people how quickly we could deploy something to solve their problems, and we did it all ourselves,” says Dow’s Gregg Schuler, Product Manager for Data Integration and Engineering Document Management.

Dow has continued to roll out Adept in other divisions, including Capital Projects and Purchasing. “Adept met our functional requirements, was easy to configure/maintain, and the cost was right,” notes Schuler.

If Dow had followed the conventional wisdom and went with the larger vendor and its five times more expensive solution, it might still be searching for that one right way to handle its engineering document management needs.

Expose those dirty little secrets

I’ve exposed three dirty little secrets about engineering information management, but I’m sure there are more — including ones specific to your company’s needs and plans. If solving document management challenges is important to the future profitability of your company, don’t walk into a selection process blind and naive. Make sure you are getting all the information you need, in order to make the best decision. Visit the Synergis Software Resource Center for eBooks and whitepapers to learn more.


Randall S. Newton is Managing Director of Consilia Vektor, a research and advisory service in the engineering software industry. He contributes to a variety of industry publications, and is available for confidential consulting.

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