Navigating PDM vs PLM

Acronyms are prevalent in the technology sector, and they can cause some confusion. This is one reason Product Data Management (PDM) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) are used interchangeably. While they are both systems for storing information, the differentiator is what type of information. Let’s break down what each solution provides and how they compare to each other.

What is Product Data Management (PDM)?

With the parent-child relationships found in CAD tools, companies needed a way to manage their data. In its simplest form,  modern PDM systems are ways of managing product CAD Data. These systems are database driven and provide their users both revision control and history. This helps ensure engineers don’t accidentally overwrite each others work or break associated links by functions, such as moving files. PDM systems also provide a useful revision history to reference and compare previous versions. A key consideration for an organization looking to deploy a PDM system is how its vaulting capabilities help protect an organization’s intellectual property (IP).

Once that data is stored in the system, it needs to be searchable. Sometimes, especially if it’s the original designer, a part number will do. Attribute information is very useful, however, even to the original designer. A PDM system captures meta data, such as material, from the CAD tool and then maps it to an attribute. Users can search across the system by attributes and other functions including “created by”, “modified,” etc. This functionality speeds along new product development and can even reduce part duplication.

Some key features found in most modern PDM Systems:

  • CAD management
  • Document management
  • Revision history
  • Revision control
  • Attribute management
  • Attribute search

Many businesses are using a PDM system of some sort, but some still manage their data on a network drive, most commonly a Windows File System (WFS). Managing files this way was easy to use when only one or two engineers accessed the files, but it certainly isn’t a scalable solution, especially with the complexity of modern products. Some customers I’ve worked with had the mindset that the control provided by a PDM system would “slow them down.” Or, the fear of migrating years of design data paralyzed them from taking action.

I can see their point of view. In the short-term, adding controls can initially impact release. However, with proper training, short-term efficiency improves because the system is automating file management procedures that users should have been following. And, the customers’ slow-us-down rationale ignores the long-term benefits for new product introduction (NPI). Legacy data migration is, in fact, a larger issue to consider. Fortunately, modern migration platforms allow for importing and enriching data from multiple sources. I’ll be exploring those solutions in a future post.

What about Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)?

Product Lifecycle Management refers to the management of all product process and data from “cradle to grave.” This constitutes ideation — the cradle — through the final recycling of the physical good — the grave. Organizations looking for scalable growth require consolidation of product lifecycle history into a single management system. From a functional standpoint, having a fully defined engineering bill of material (BOM) that shows all parts with associated material, in addition to the modeled CAD structure, is a key component of a PLM system. The product structure for each part may contain any information such as:

  • Mechanical CAD parts and assemblies that were used to model the product
  • Electrical CAD data
  • Software such as firmware
  • Lightweight visualization that allows quick reference to the product without the need of a heavy engineering workstation
  • Change objects
  • Documentation
    • Material specification sheets
    • Test results
    • Art files
    • Quality documents
    • Work instructions
    • Etc.

Breaking down silos by connecting departments with PLM “Silos” often describe how different departments are isolated from each other. PLM and Change Management systems are the information bridge between departments, allowing all groups to not only work together, but better.

I constantly look for ways to reduce duplicated effort, and tell my clients that a great value driver is allowing design information captured from the CAD data to be the starting point for the BOM. Then, change management pushes the BOM to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) System. Continuous improvement is spurred through efficient processes and functionality such as full-product search and impact analysis.

From a functionality standpoint, PLM systems should have PDM functionality:

  • CAD management
  • Document management
  • Revision control
  • Revision history
  • Attribute management
  • Attribute search

And, additionally provide for:

  • BOM management
  • Product structure
  • Change management
  • CAPA and Non-conformance
  • Variant configuration management
  • Requirements management
  • Classification
  • Project Management


To recap, PDM manages the product design data while PLM additionally manages the entire lifecycle of the product. PDM vs PLM isn’t a one or the other proposition. PLM is an evolution, and builds off the foundation laid down by PDM, which grew from network drives and even physical storage. The idea of having two separate systems for PDM and PLM doesn’t make sense. In most situations the PDM and PLM systems should be the same. The modern business world requires companies to support multi-CAD data management through either the use of suppliers or acquisitions. With that being the case, I don’t think the old idea of having the same PDM vendor as your CAD tool holds true.

From a solution standpoint, walk before you run. My first priority with Small Medium Businesses (SMB) customers using Windows File System (WFS) for data management is to streamline them into a PDM solution with a roadmap to full PLM capability. This way the PDM environment becomes a great springboard to full PLM environment. As an organization’s development process matures, and the need for mature processes increases, we can then transition to a more robust stage for digital transformation and go to full PLM.

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