by Ryan Hunt
Computer Aided Design (CAD) has been changing, read as "improving", since its debut in 1957. There have been some major milestones along its timeline. Although, the most significant overhaul was when the ability to move out two dimensions into the third came about in the 1990's when personal computers became powerful enough to process 3D models. This ability rapidly changed the way engineers and designers create and design products. Among the forefront of companies that provide 3D CAD software is Dassault Systemes who make SolidWorks, which helps engineers and designers think and model intuitively in 3D. The ability to do this saves time and and improves design clarity by allowing users to visualize their designs the way they would in the real world and then convert them to manufacturing documents. Dassault Systemes didn't stop there. With increase in file creation and the need for teams to share files, they acquired a solution to help manage workflows, file revisions, and versions. They called it Product Data Management (PDM) and built it into a solution that helps teams, small and large, create designs that were previously unfathomable.
SolidWorks 3D CAD modeling is based on parametric modeling principles. Parametrics allow a model's geometry to be changed at any time by changing a single dimension. These dimensions are called attributes. Attributes are not only limited to dimensions but also allow a user to define model properties such as materials. Once a model is fully defined, both geometrically and with materials, these attributes allow SolidWorks users to run simulations to determine how the model will function in the real world. This ability save engineers and designers a large amount of time compared to making prototypes.
To assist teams with file sharing along with parallel working conditions, SolidWorks purchased a 3rd party solution called Conisio and rebranded it to "Product Data Management" or PDM for short. PDM is a conglomeration of a SQL server and a proprietary archive server (still called Conisio). These two servers work in conjunction to manage metadata for files (SQL) and all file revisions and versions (Archives). All files are available in what is essentially a network share called "The Vault". A vault administrator has control over creating a variety of rules that allow and deny users from tainting files in the archive. An administrator using these controls by creating Data Cards, Group and User Permissions, as well as Work Flows that control the states files move through that help different departments with approvals and automated tasks.
Data cards are essentially graphical user interfaces that prompt the user for information (or provide it) as they work with the vault. For example, if a user were to create a new project they may see a Data Card that asks for a the client's company name, filename, description, and automatically assigns a serial name from a list. Once completed that information would be saved in SQL and an automated task would create a folder structure and save the new file to the archive server. The administrator can assign Users to Groups and assign permissions for what either the user or the group are permitted to do in the vault. They can also assign permissions for different workflow states. A workflow in PDM is a graphical flow chart that is made up of states and transitions. The goal of a workflow is to ensure that the product meets process guidelines from creation to completion. Group/User permissions can be assigned for each state or transition to start and stop each process. For example, a state might be "Approval" where a manager is the only user with the permission to send the file to next state.
To manage files amongst a team, PDM utilizes a check in/out system. If a member of the team is working on a file they must check it out. Once they have completed the work they must save and check it back into the vault. This creates a new version of the file. The version can be rolled back at any time to the previous version if an error or a change needs to be corrected. All file versions are stored in the archive server and all of their metadata stored in a SQL server. Once a file moves through a workflow it is assigned a revision, which increments each time a new revision of a product or part is designed. An example of this could be designing a chair, the first revision might be a chair with a manual footrest, and the revision would be adding a motor to make a motorized footrest.
SolidWorks use of parametric modeling principles coupled with attributes allow engineers and designers to save vast amounts of time compared to manual drafting, 2D CAD software and even other 3D CAD applications. It's use of hierarchical and associative file references allow part designs and changes to take less time and be more detailed than ever before. Coupling these features with a solution that manages file revisions and archives while allowing large groups of people to work together makes SolidWorks 3D CAD and PDM a very powerful combination that can save organisations large sums of money, while getting their products to market as fast and reliably as currently possible.
Working knowledge of SolidWorks and PDM was referenced from my experience working with the software