This is for the moment the last post about the difference between files and a data-oriented approach. This time I will focus on the need for open exchange standards and the relation to proprietary systems. In my first post, I explained that a data-centric approach can bring many business benefits and is pointing to background information for those who want to learn more in detail. In my second post, I gave the example of dealing with specifications.
It demonstrated that the real value for a data-centric approach comes at the moment there are changes of the information over time. For a specification that is right the first time and never changes there is less value to win with a data-centric approach. Moreover, aren’t we still dreaming that we do everything right the first time.
The specification example was based on dealing with text documents (sometimes called 1D information). The same benefits are valid for diagrams, schematics (2D information) and CAD models (3D information)
The challenge for a data-oriented approach is that information needs to be stored in data elements in a database, independent of an individual file format. For text, this might be easy to comprehend. Text elements are relative simple to understand. Still the OpenDocument standard for Office documents is in the background based on a lot of technical know-how and experience to make it widely acceptable. For 2D and 3D information this is less obvious as this is for the domain of the CAD vendors.
CAD vendors have various reasons not to store their information in a neutral format.
- First of all, and most important for their business, a neutral format would reduce the dependency on their products. Other vendors could work with these formats too, therefore reducing the potential market capture. You could say that in a certain manner the Autodesk 2D format for DXF (and even DWG) have become a neutral format for 2D data as many other vendors have applications that read and write back information in the DXF-data format. So far DXF is stored in a file but you could store DXF data also inside a database and make it available as elements.
- This brings us to the second reason why using neutral data formats are not that evident for CAD vendors. It reduces their flexibility to change the format and optimize it for maximal performance. Commercially the significant, immediate disadvantage of working in neutral formats is that it has not been designed for particular needs in an individual application and therefore any “intelligent” manipulations on the data are hard to achieve..
The same reasoning can be applied to 3D data, where different neutral formats exist (IGES, STEP, …. ). It is very difficult to identify a common 3D standard without losing many benefits that an individual 3D CAD format brings currently. For example, CATIA is handling 3D CAD data in a complete different way as Creo does, and again handled different compared to NX, SolidWorks, Solid Edge and Inventor. Even some of them might use the same CAD kernel.
However, it is not only about the geometry anymore; the shapes represent virtual objects that have metadata describing the objects. In addition other related information exists, not necessarily coming from the design world, like tasks (planning), parts (physical), suppliers, resources and more
PLM, ERP, systems and single source of truth
This brings us in the world of data management, in my world mainly PLM systems and ERP systems. An ERP system is already a data-centric application, the BOM is already available as metadata as well as all the scheduling and interaction with resources, suppliers and financial transactions. Still ERP systems store a lot of related documents and drawings, containing content that does not match their data model.
PLM systems have gradually becoming more and more data centric as the origin was around engineering data, mostly stored in files. In a data-centric approach, there is the challenge to exchange data between a PLM system and an ERP system. Usually there is a need to share information between two systems, mainly the items. Different definitions of an item on the PLM and ERP side make it hard to exchange information from one system to the other. It is for that reason why there are many discussions around PLM and ERP integration and the BOM.
In the modern data-centric approach however we should think less and less in systems and more and more in business processes performed on actual data elements. This requires a company-wide, actually an enterprise-wide or industry-wide data definition of all information that is relevant for the business processes. This leads into Master Data Management, the new required skill for enterprise solution architects
The data-centric approach creates the impression that you can achieve a single source of the truth as all objects are stored uniquely in a database. SAP solves the problem by stating everything fits in their single database. To my opinion this is more a black hole approach: Everything gets inside, but even light cannot escape. Usability and reuse of information that was stored with the intention not to be found is the big challenge here.
Other PLM and ERP vendors have different approaches. Either they choose for a service bus architecture where applications in the background link and synchronize common data elements from each application. Therefore, there is some redundancy, however everything is connected. More and more PLM vendors focus on building a platform of connected data elements, where on top applications will run, like the 3DExperience platform from Dassault Systèmes.
As users we are more and more used to platforms as Google, Apple provide these platforms already in the cloud for common use on our smartphones. The large amount of apps run on shared data elements (contacts, locations …) and store additional proprietary data.
Platforms, Networks and standards
And here we enter an interesting area of discussion. I think it is a given that a single database concept is a utopia. Therefore, it will be all about how systems and platforms communicate with each other to provide in the end the right information to the user. The systems and platforms need to be data-centric as we learned from the discussion around the document (file centric) or data-centric approach.
In this domain, there are several companies already active for years. Datamation from Dr. Kais Al-Timimi in the UK is such a company. Kais is a veteran in the PLM and data modeling industry, and they provide a platform for data-centric collaboration. This quote from one of his presentations, illustrates we share the same vision:
“……. the root cause of all interoperability and data challenges is the need to transform data between systems using different, and often incompatible, data models.
It is fundamentally different from the current Application Centric Approach, in that data is SHARED, and therefore, ‘NOT OWNED’ by the applications that create it.
This means in a Data Centric Approach data can deliver MORE VALUE, as it is readily sharable and reusable by multiple applications. In addition, it removes the overhead of having to build and maintain non-value-added processes, e.g. to move data between applications.”
Another company in the same domain is Eurostep, who are also focusing on business collaboration between in various industries. Eurostep has been working with various industry standards, like AP203/214, PLCS and AP233. Eurostep has developed their Share-A-space platform to enable a data-centric collaboration.
This type of data collaboration is crucial for all industries. Where the aerospace and automotive industry are probably the most mature on this topic, the process industry and construction industry are currently also focusing on discovering data standards and collaboration models (ISO 15926 / BIM). It will be probably the innovators in these industries that clear the path for others. For sure it will not come from the software vendors as I discussed before.
If you reach this line, it means the topic has been interesting in depth for you. In the past three post starting from the future trend, an example and the data modeling background, I have tried to describe what is happening in a simplified manner.
If you really want to dive into the PLM for the future, I recommend you visit the upcoming PDT 2014 conference in Paris on October 14 and 15. Here experts from different industries will present and discuss the future PLM platform and its benefits. I hope to meet you there.
Some more to read: