What's the Difference Between a PLM System and a Design Engagement System (DES)?

Meagan Campbell

August 24, 2022


min read

Other than your CAD program, a product lifecycle management (PLM) system is one of the most fundamental tools for engineering teams today. PLMs are especially crucial if you’re part of a large organization or you’re working on products with complex mechanical design. The more stakeholders involved during the design process, the more chances there are for miscommunications or mixups.

That’s why PLM software was created as a way to organize and manage product data throughout the entire product lifecycle. It’s your system of record. It’s how multiple people and departments are able to independently access information about a product with any level of confidence that the information is accurate and up-to-date—even as that product moves from initial concept to detailed design to released and in-market.

And PLM software has been around for a long time. The earliest systems date as far back as the 1980s. For over 30 years now, more and more products in the market have been built by teams using a PLM system alongside their CAD tool.

Which brings us to today, and the next wave of digitization that’s happening right now in engineering. PLM has proven to be vitally important as a system of record. Yet there’s rapidly-growing demand for an equally robust system of engagement, one that’s tailored to the unique needs of mechanical engineering teams and the challenges of collaborating on complex 3D design.

So what is a Design Engagement System (DES)? And how is it different from a PLM system? Read on to find out.

PLM is the system of record for product data

The way engineers work together has changed continually over the past 50+ years. In the 1960s, the first commercially-available CAD systems were being used by large aerospace, engineering, and information technology companies like Lockheed, General Motors, and IBM. Over the next 2-3 decades, CAD software steadily replaced pencil and paper as the standard for product design.

But it didn’t take long for the volume and versions of CAD files to become difficult to manage. This led to the development of product data management (PDM) systems, an early step toward creating better ways to organize and manage critical design data. Yet while a PDM system helps with version control and version history for CAD, it’s limited in its scope and functionality.

Building on top of the core PDM functions, PLM software was developed to manage and track more than just CAD data. In fact, PDM is now widely viewed as a subset or component of a PLM solution. Beyond the product design data itself, a PLM system also includes a wider range of product data—meaning CAD data is tracked alongside other relevant information about manufacturing, documentation, inventory, sourcing, and distribution.

While PDMs are essentially an engineering tool used during the product development phase, PLMs have a broader role within an organization and across a product’s lifecycle. PLM systems are still rooted in engineering and manufacturing, but they’re ultimately a business tool. PLM software was developed to help businesses speed up new product development (NPD) and capitalize on the advantages of bringing new products to market before any competitors.

To do that, PLM systems needed to bring a certain level of rigidity and control for managing and tracking product data. Once a design is shared outside the engineering team—with other internal teams, suppliers, customers, etc—any changes after that point will impact other stakeholders. Because of that, any information that gets entered into PLM needs to undergo extensive review first.

As a shared system of record for product data, your PLM captures the formal results of product decisions made by teams during the design process.

Product decision-making happens in conversations outside PLM

Yet the rigidity and structure that makes PLM effective—it’s also what makes PLM so confining during that messy, fluid, decision-making portion of the design process. When engineering teams are working through the collaborative parts of product development, going back-and-forth to get multidisciplinary input and supplier feedback, PLM isn’t the right environment for those discussions and iterations to happen. Plus, it’s not always feasible to give PLM access to every person who needs to give input on a design.

So what happens instead? Design conversations happen in places that aren’t tracked or captured by PLM. 

Out of necessity, engineers go outside of PLM to get feedback on design files. Historically, this might’ve happened during an in-person meeting. But increasingly, it happens using whatever generic comms tools get the job done: emails, chat messages, video calls, slide decks, screenshots, screenshares, spreadsheets, PDFs, shared drives, you name it.

This stopgap, makeshift approach has been an industry-wide status quo since the early 2000s. Now, however, engineering companies face higher expectations than ever to do more with less. 

Products are more complex and involve a greater level of multidisciplinary collaboration. Teams are more globally distributed and shifting toward remote or hybrid ways of working. External factors like inflation and supply chain disruptions are creating added pressures. And on top of it all, leaders are being asked to achieve drastic reductions to product development timelines—getting to market faster, while still delivering on quality and reducing costs.

But without a dedicated system of engagement to support the design process, engineering teams are running into common issues:

  • Design conversations are scattered across multiple tools and hard to trace
  • Meaningful engagement with design files is difficult and/or time-consuming to foster
  • Design review and collaboration processes are largely unstandardized and not scalable
  • Decision-making channels are not integrated with PLM, so there’s no anchor back to the system of record

Since PLM systems were built to effectively manage and track the outcomes of product decision-making, they’re inherently ill-equipped to also manage and track the conversations that lead to those design decisions. That’s where a Design Engagement System comes in.

Introducing: the world’s first Design Engagement System

Given the reality that some level of communication and collaboration is always going to need to happen outside your PLM system, more and more engineering teams are looking to implement a centralized system of engagement that can link back to PLM.

A Design Engagement System brings the structure and organization of PLM to your design conversations. It works with PLM systems, giving engineering teams a central place to have the type of meaningful, productive discussions that help to catch preventable mistakes and get to market faster. Comments are connected directly to the 3D model or 2D file, so design feedback always happens with full mechanical context right there where you need it. Reviews are easier and less admin-intensive, so stakeholders can be brought in earlier and more often. And, just by doing the work within your DES, the history of your design decisions is automatically tracked for you.

Conceived by two mechanical engineers who were frustrated by the status quo of long email threads and DFM PowerPoints, CoLab is the world’s first Design Engagement System. Used by industry leaders like Johnson Controls, Hyundai Mobis, and Kraken Robotics, CoLab helps engineering teams deliver better products, faster.

There are three core pillars of functionality that make CoLab an effective Design Engagement System: secure file sharing, contextualized feedback, and automatic tracking.

Secure File Sharing

For any serious engineering company, IP security is paramount. Yet, because of this, simple file sharing can be cumbersome and frustrating. Although it should be easy to share design files with the people you need feedback from (without compromising IP security or shelling out for extra CAD/PLM licenses), most teams don’t have a simple and secure way to share CAD outside their team or organization.

A Design Engagement System solves this problem. It gives engineers a painless way to securely push drawings or models from CAD or PLM, set the appropriate permissions and access, and then use simple link-sharing that lets anyone open and view files—right in their web browser. Any revisions get associated with the original file, clearly marked, and updated in real-time for everyone. So no more 19-minute FTP exports, no more long email threads with outdated attachments mixed in, and no more worrying if everyone has the latest version.

Contextualized Feedback

One of the most challenging aspects of getting feedback on complex mechanical design is providing the right context to anyone who’s reviewing or collaborating on a design. It can be difficult to communicate design intent in a way that’s clear and concise, especially when doing so virtually and/or asynchronously. And this difficulty gets compounded when there are language barriers (or even slight differences in terminology).

But with a Design Engagement System, you can pin issues and comments directly on any 2D or 3D file. When you’re reviewing in 3D, you can even tag feedback to specific geometry on a model. That means design conversations always happen side-by-side with the full mechanical context, so there’s no confusion anymore and it’s easier for reviewers to give high-quality feedback.

Automatic Tracking

Engineers’ time is valuable. And although there are tons of tools out there for managing projects and tasks (including old faithfuls like homegrown spreadsheet trackers), there’s always a trade-off between the value the tool provides and the time it takes for engineers to keep it updated. If your engineers are spending nearly as much time in Excel as they are in CAD, that’s a problem.

Instead of duplicating efforts, a Design Engagement System automatically tracks and organizes your work as you’re doing it. It eliminates the need to manually compile design feedback and decision histories, capturing a more complete digital thread without any extra effort. But it also makes ongoing reviews and feedback easier to manage—autogenerating an overview that can be filtered, sorted, and displayed in easily customizable ways. So for every design review you do, you always know at a glance what’s happened already, where things stand now, and what needs to happen next.

How a Design Engagement System enhances your PLM

A Design Engagement System is not a replacement for your PLM, and your PLM on its own can’t replace the need for a Design Engagement System. The two systems work together, creating a tighter connection between your product data in PLM and your product decision-making that happens via many separate design conversations. Your PLM is your system of record; CoLab is your system of engagement. 

And when you have both, your engineering team has a repeatable and scalable way to collaborate on design and engage in meaningful, productive conversations. It allows your engineers to spend less time on non-value-add work, catch more mistakes, and ultimately move faster. Which means you deliver better products, in less time.

So when it comes to hitting your product development goals, your PLM isn’t the answer—because your PLM isn’t the problem. All the clutter and chaos is coming from work that happens outside PLM, when you’re collaborating in emails and meetings and documents. But a Design Engagement System lets you use the right tool for each job, so you can make the most of your PLM while simplifying the rest.

Want to talk with a real, live friendly face from CoLab about your team’s needs and goals?

Book a quick intro call!
July 25, 2022

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