What High Tech Industries Can Learn about Managing Data from the Early Days of CAD


Because I’ve been in the electrical/electronics (E/E) engineering industry for such a long time, I can still remember drawing PCB layouts manually. We would then work out the connection lengths of wire harnesses by laying out waxed cord lacing on a physical prototype. Managing design data was fairly simple: from drawings to parts lists and specifications, everything was visible and physically tangible on a paper document – though more prone to coffee spills and unintentional loss! Later, with the help of CAD Tools, engineering specifications and drawings went digital and the number of files handled grew with the performance of the tools.

Here at Zuken we’ve been listening to engineers across all disciplines, delving into their design practices to find out how we can help future-proof their engineering methods and boost productivity. We’ve asked some specific questions recently:

  • What are the requirements of development engineers in electrical and electronic engineering?
  • What challenges need to be mastered?
  • How can the documents created in electrical and electronic engineering be made available to sourcing, manufacturing and related business processes?

More about these later, but I do think there are some lessons we can learn from those early days, to help put our substantial design data challenges into context.

Back to first principles

During those early days of computer aided E/E design (“CAD”) the related data was relatively straightforward: there were design files, parts lists, specifications and the outputs for numerically-controlled manufacturing machinery (Gerber data). Later on, when CAD tools became increasingly intelligent, the number of files you needed to handle got even bigger. Then came interrelated design files (CAD data) – so no more independent pieces of data.

In E/E we differentiate between direct and indirect relationships between certain CAD files. Over time this relation- or object-oriented approach required a design or CAD file management approach to help users to organize their E/E design data, and apply rules for item identification and version control. An associated electronic data library contained 2D CAD files and other design files belonging to the CAD file portfolio, which required a completely different management approach to standard design files.

When unifying can cause more pain

When PDM/PLM systems entered the scene almost two decades ago there was a huge hype around the idea of a ‘single source of truth,’ which implied that all engineering and production data were to be managed in a single system. Many companies who went down that path – which was more or less unanimously considered conventional wisdom for a long time – invested significant amounts of money and learned some hard lessons. Often these unified or single systems became huge monoliths that were increasingly difficult to manage, because by the time the system had been fine-tuned to accommodate every data source, something had changed. That could be the company structure, a new release of one of the integrated toolsets, or one of any number of variables.

In today’s context of growing product and process complexity it becomes increasingly clear that monolithic solutions are no longer adequate. There is no single system that can manage all processes and participants in the product lifecycle. We need federated, semantic networks that link the digital models distributed across different subsystems. And that of was statistically confirmed in a recent survey conducted by consultancy firm techconsult. More than three quarters (78%) of engineers that were interviewed agreed that “a data management solution specific to electronics and electrical design that integrates with PLM/ERP would be useful or very useful”.

Download the results

Back to those earlier questions. You can find out how engineers in 163 companies responded to them, and a whole lot of other questions that take the temperature of high tech industry this year, by downloading the report Design Data Management in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, by techconsult GmbH.

Wolfgang Heinrichs
Wolfgang Heinrichs
General Manager e-PLM Business, Zuken
As the Director for Zuken’s e-PLM business in Europe and America, I oversee account and business strategy, along with strategic activities such as developing and coordinating the growth path for the solution. Outside of work I have many hobbies such as riding my motor bike and mountain bike, wind surfing and spending quality time with my family.
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