Before touchscreens, the internet, and the many other technological developments that have occurred over the past 20 years or so, managing your product’s data was a simpler proposition. Design files were 2D, instead of 3D; parts lists and specifications were relatively simple; and the manufacturing and distribution landscapes made cross-departmental collaboration less important.

As the possibilities for product design have become more complex, however, with 3D CAD files becoming the norm and the advent of products, like smartphones, that can perform a huge array of tasks, managing product data has become both more important and more confusing.

Product lifecycle management (PLM) and product data management (PDM) software have both been developed as a solution to this problem. While each has an important place in the product development cycle, not every product requires both. How do you know which one you need?

PDM: Managing your design files

If you’ve worked with computer-aided-design, or CAD, files before, you know just how complex they can be. CAD files are used to make everything from rapid prototypes to the actual product that comes off the assembly line, so they must be maintained clearly and consistently in your system.

In addition, CAD files can have multiple attached elements, like 2D drawings, parts files, and assembly files. These must remain connected for the files to be of any use.

PDM systems are designed to manage these files so that nothing falls through the cracks – assembly files stay with the parts lists they’re supposed to stay with, 2D annotations remain with the 3D files they’re meant for, etc. PDMs also offer version and revision controls, allowing you to see the history of your product’s evolution and ensure that everyone is working with the most current design.

Finally, PDM can encourage collaboration among designers and engineers. Since multiple users can work on a single project at one time, one engineer might work on an assembly file, while another updates parts lists, and another creates an updated 2D drawing.

In general, PDM software is a necessity for any organization working with design files. If you’re an independent product designer, you’ll probably be outsourcing your prototyping and manufacturing – rest assured that while you may not have access to a PDM system, those companies will undoubtedly be using them.

PLM: Managing your entire product

While PDM is focused on managing the specific design files that go into creating your product, PLM allows you to manage every aspect of your product, from its conception to its retirement or obsolescence (in other words, the product’s full lifecycle).

PLM is essential for highly complex products. Take something like an electronic ballot reader, which we at Pivot recently redesigned for a client.

This product featured components like an optical scanner, paper transport assemblies, software, and circuitry, not to mention the outer plastic coverings and instructions for use. Each of these things required different CAD designs, and the design of the entire product required the use of several different software systems.

Many of these things require different types of documentation that can be related to one another. This is where PLM comes in. PLM software can handle multiple document types, as well as manage approvals and other processes associated with bringing a product to fruition.

Not every product designer or company will require a PLM solution, but they do make managing your product’s development much easier – especially if there are lots of different departments working on a single product.

Could your product design process benefit from a PDM or PLM solution? Find out more about how Pivot can help with both here.