In my previous post describing the various facets of the EBOM, I mentioned several times classification as an important topic related to the PLM data model. Classification is crucial to support people to reuse information and, in addition, there are business processes that are only relevant for a particular class of information, so it is not only related to search/reuse support.
In 2008, I wrote a post about classification, you can read it here. Meanwhile, the world has moved on, and I believe more modern classification methods exist.
Why classification ?
First of all classification is used to structure information and to support retrieval of the information at a later moment, either for reuse or for reference later in the product lifecycle. Related to reuse, companies can save significant money when parts are reused. It is not only the design time or sourcing time that is reduced. Additional benefits are lower risks for errors (fewer discoveries), reduced process and approval time (human overhead), reduced stock (if applicable), and more volume discount (if applicable) and reduced End-Of-Life handling.
Classification can also be used to control access to certain information (mainly document classification), or classification can be used to make sure certain processes are followed, e.g. export control, hazardous materials, budget approvals, etc. Although I will speak mainly about part classification in this post, classification can be used for any type of information in the PLM data model.
Depending on the industry you are working in, there are various classification standards for parts. When I worked in the German-speaking countries (the DACH-länder) the most discussed classification at that time was DIN4000 (Sachmerkmal-liste), a must have standard for many of the small and medium sized manufacturing companies. The DIN 4000 standard had a predefined part hierarchy and did not describe the necessary properties per class. I haven’t met a similar standard in other countries at that time.
Another very generic classification I have seen are the UNSPC standard, again a hierarchical classification supporting everything in the universe but no definition of attributes.
Other classification standards like ISO13399, RosettaNET, ISO15926 and IFC exist to support collaboration and/or the supply chain. When you want to exchange data with other disciplines or partners. The advantage of a standard definition (with attributes) is that you can exchange data with less human processing (saving labor costs and time – the benefit of a digital enterprise).
I will not go deeper into the various standards here as I am not the expert for all the standards. Every industry has its own classification standards, a hierarchical standard, and if more advanced the hierarchy is also supported by attributes related to each class. But let´s go into the data model part.
Classification and data model
The first lesson I learned when implementing PLM was that you should not build your classification hard-coded into the PLM, data model. When working with SmarTeam is was very easy to define part classes and attributes to inherit. Some customers had more than 300 classes represented in their data model just for parts. You can imagine that it looks nice in a demo. However when it comes to reality, a hard-coded classification becomes a pain in the model. (left image, one of the bad examples from the past)
1 – First of all, classification should be dynamic, easy to extend.
2 – The second problem however with a hard-coded classification was that once a part is defined for the first time the information object has a fixed class. Later changes need a lot of work (relinking of information / approval processes for the new information).
3 – Finally, the third point against a hard-coded classification is that it is likely that parts will be classified according to different classifications at the same time. The image bellow shows such a multiple classification.
So the best approach is to have a generic part definition in your data model and perhaps a few subtypes. Companies tend to differentiate still between hardware (mechanical / electrical) parts and software parts.
Next a part should be assigned at least to one class, and the assignment to this class would bring more attributes to the part. Most of the PLM systems that support classification have the ability to navigate through a class hierarchy and find similar parts.
When parts are relevant for ERP they might belong to a manufacturing parts class, which add particular attributes required for a smooth PLM – ERP link. Manufacturing part types can be used as templates for ERP to be completed.
Think part of the challenge moving forward is we’ve always handled these as parts under different methodologies, which requires specific data structures for each, etc. The next gen take on all this needs to be more malleable perhaps. So there are just parts. Be they service or make/buy or some combination – say a long lead functional standard part and they would acquire the properties, synchronizations, and behaviors accordingly. People have trouble picking the right bucket, and sometimes the buckets change. Let the infrastructure do the work. That would help the burden of multiple transitions, where CAD BOM to EBOM to MBOM to SBOM eventually ends up in a chain of confusion.
I fully agree with his statement and consider this as the future trend of modern PLM: Shared data that will be enriched by different usage through the lifecycle.
Why don’t we classify all data in PLM?
There are two challenges for classification in general.
- The first one is that the value of classification only becomes visible in the long-term, and I have seen several young companies that were only focusing on engineering. No metadata in the file properties, no part-centric data management structure and several years later they face the lack of visibility what has been done in the past. Only if one of the engineers remembers a similar situation, there is a chance of reuse.
- The second challenge is that through a merger or acquisition suddenly the company has to manage two classifications. If the data model was clean (no hard-coded subclasses) there is hope to merge the information together. Otherwise, it might become a painful activity to discover similarities.
SO THINK AHEAD EVEN IF YOU DO NOT SEE THE NEED NOW !
Modern search based applications
There are ways to improve classification and reuse by using search-based application which can index archives and try to find similarity in properties / attributes. Again if the engineers never filled the properties in the CAD model, there is little to nothing to recover as I experienced in a customer situation. My PLM US peer, Dick Bourke, wrote several articles about search-based applications and classification for engineering.com, which are interesting to read if you want to learn more: Useful Search Applications for Finding Engineering Data
So much to discuss on this topic, however I reached my 1000 words again
Classification brings benefits for reuse and discovery of information although benefits are long-term. Think long-term too when you define classifications. Keep the data model simple and add attributes groups to parts based on functional classifications. This enables a data-driven PLM implementation where the power is in the attributes not longer in the part number. In the future, search-based applications will offer a quick start to classify and structure data.