Ditch Your DIY File Management and Get Data Management Right

Data management is a topic that gets written about a lot. However, with so many levels of data management, there are still many people who are lost when it comes to this topic. Some are doing nothing, assuming they can fix problems as they arise.

If you or your company are doing nothing in data management, you can use this article as a guide to get you started. If you have engaged at the minimal level, you can use this to help you select another level of commitment, risk and return that works for your organization.

Let’s start by stating that not all CAD or engineering software requires a separate application for data management. Some CAD software has this functionality built in—such as CAD-in-the-cloud, which doesn’t use individual files. The CAD data (and all other types of data) is all stored in a database.

CAD-in-the-cloud includes packages such as Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE, PTC Onshape and Autodesk Fusion 360, which are the best-known programs of this type.

Not all CAD that uses a database and CAD-in-the-cloud are one and the same. Serving the software (and the associated data) across public networks is a business choice, not a technical requirement. One American aircraft manufacturer bought into a contract with a CAD-in-the-cloud supplier and was able to implement the platform on private, company-owned and local servers. These servers are isolated from a connection to the outside world due to security concerns. Given the state of affairs with cyber security, this type of private server implementation may serve as a model for companies who have contractual obligations to avoid data and software being shared over public networks, providing more protection than firewalls, VPN and air gaps. Serving software and data from a centralized public network does have many potential benefits, but it also has risks—a downside that prevents some companies from taking this route.

In a practical sense, for now and for most of us, CAD-in-the-cloud will mean attaching to an outside server to run the software, known as software-as-a-service, or SaaS. The data will be saved in an associated database, like a WordPress blog with all of the articles kept in a database.

Most of us, however, are still using file-based CAD. Programs such as SOLIDWORKS, Solid Edge, NX, Inventor, Creo and IronCAD all fall into this category. Some of these put parts and assemblies in the same files, but they all store their data in some sort of file type on your hard drive or on a server that you can browse.

Some CAD programs come with some form of built-in PDM. SOLIDWORKS came with PDMWorks installed for a time, which was simple to start using. Solid Edge currently comes with built-in PDM with a lot of the basic functions that a user would need.

Options for Data Management:

  • CAD-in-the-cloud. No file management needed (though there are other issues for you to address). Examples include Onshape, ENOVIA, Fusion360.
  • Do nothing. Store files in local folders, mapped drives, UNC locations with some sort of method for organization and file naming, as well as a bulletproof set of rules that everybody always follows 100 percent.
  • Buy a platform tool. Teamcenter, Windchill, SOLIDWORKS PDM etc.
  • Buy a bolt-on third-party application for managing files. ProductCenter, DBWorks, DDM, etc.

The functions of dedicated PDM applications are the same as the functions of do-it-yourself processes. The big difference between dedicated PDM and DIY (aside from cost) is that dedicated PDM automates the rules. This guarantees that—short of intentional sabotage—the rules will be followed.

For the purposes of this article, the use of the word “document” is assumed to mean an individual file stored on a computer hard drive. This could be a part, assembly or drawing, or a file that contains some or all of that data.

Let’s go through the basics of file management, whether it is a dedicated PDM or a DIY setup.

Unique Filenames

A lot of CAD users contrive reasons for why their situation is unique and why they need to reuse filenames. They don’t understand that there is a better way and that their methods leave them exposed to more errors than they might imagine. Best practice dictates that you need to have unique file names for every document that you put into your system. For better or worse, the file name is the identifier. If you need some other property to be shared between files, make it a custom property or keyword that is inside the file. Filenames need to be unique. No exceptions.

There are two reasons for keeping unique file names. First, Windows File Explorer won’t tolerate identical filenames in the same folder. Even if you get around that by putting the same file name in different folders, your CAD program is going to do something you are not expecting when it finds files with the same names: it will reuse the first one it finds.

Using the same filename is simply not worth it. Protest all you want, but unique file naming is not a convention you will be able to successfully work against, especially if you have to train a bunch of people at various levels to follow these rules 100 percent of the time, or risk fouling a lot of company data.

A PDM program will generally enforce this and all the other rules of file management, although you might be able to get around the requirement sometimes. In a database-driven PDM program, there can be an identifier other than the file name. Still, unique file names are at the top of the best practice list for most CAD admins.

Further, some PDM systems have the built-in ability to automatically assign file names. Some of these can be straight sequential numbers or follow a semi-intelligent system for assigning names.

Add Properties and Keywords

After assigning unique file name for each document, you should also have other properties or keywords assigned to values that can be used in searches. For example, you might want to have a property called “material” filled out as brass, CR 1018, polyethylene, FR4 or another material. The properties you use will depend on your products and your process. You can have properties set up in templates, so they are ready to go for different types of parts or assemblies. Searches that use property values can be very effective ways to find documents. Not everybody is going to be able to precisely remember where they saved a particular file ten years from now, but may recall a particular property.

Properties not only help in searches, but also help with filling out tables and drawing title blocks on your automated templates.

Create and Follow CAD Standards

Your files all need to comply with CAD standards established for your company. This ensures that people hired ten years from now will be able to find and use the correct data. This will include file naming, feature naming, notes included with the features for equations and parametrics, custom properties and so on. CAD standards perform two main functions:

  1. Make sure your drawings and other design documentation are created with a consistent framework and that everyone inside and outside your organization can create and interpret them consistently.
  2. Because you have documented your requirements, you now have a set of requirements that make customized training and evaluation easier.

Where Used Lists

Where Used information can help you build lists of documents that need to be changed when a single part affects more than one assembly or drawing. You can sometimes coax this kind of information out of a CAD program manually, but it is much easier with a PDM application.

If a supplier has a recall on a particular circuit board, you can do a where-used search and find out which products used that part and need to be repaired. When a common part has been revised and BOMs, assembly drawings and instructions need to be updated, you can do this manually, but it can be time consuming and complicated. At some point, the earlier the better, you should entrust this function to software. One mistake in production can be more than the cost of a PDM package.


Revisions can be the most difficult function in a DIY implementation. Many CAD users will put revisions in the file name, but due to references and links between documents, this never goes well. You could potentially put the files in folders with revision names in the folder name, but this is extremely tedious and will lead to a lot of errors.

Revisions on flat files—files without references, such as AutoCAD files—is a lot easier because you can actually use the revision in the file name technique, but when you have so many references between files, it’s simply not practical.

The best way to handle revisions is through a database that keeps track of the current and former links for drawing and assembly files. Trying to track revisions on your own is just going to result in a convoluted mess.

A simple rule to remember: if the revision produces a change and the part is no longer a drop-in replacement, it is not a revision—it is a new part with a new part number. No revision should make the assembly work or be assembled differently. Automated PDM can handle the revisions, but it is up to you to make the decision as to whether it is a revision or a new part number.

Workflow, Signoffs and Process

Not all file management systems have workflow control. For those that do, it’s usually an added expense. Electronic workflow automates your document change and approval process. You won’t need to carry a pile of papers from one desk to another. Document approvals happen electronically. Each person in the process is assigned a role and the roles have various permissions. You create a flow chart with decision nodes and the documents follow the flow.

With an electronic process, once everyone agrees to the process, there is no more arguing about interpretations of how to do it. It saves time and aggravation. You won’t have to wonder where the pile of papers is or who had it last.

Non-CAD Data

Non-CAD product related data can be attached to part numbers. This includes data such as specifications, marketing images, 2D scanned documents, 3D scan data, notes from product definition, analysis data or plots and just about any other kind of data you can generate and save. In a manual process, it becomes a piece of paper in a folder in a file cabinet. With PDM installed, it becomes an electronic file saved into the database and connected to a part number.

Almost every product development process is a hybrid—between automated and manual, paper drawings and electronic data, scan data and 3D printed parts, physical prototypes and sketches. Be prepared for parts of the process that might not fit neatly. You have to come to an agreement among your coworkers of how to handle misfits. Err on the side of saving data or physical items, at least until an agreed phase.

Non-Engineering Access to Data

Engineers and document control people aren’t the only ones who need access to all of the CAD data your company creates. Purchasing, sales, manufacturing, shipping, repair and other departments need it, too. PDM generally can allow people inside and even outside your organization gain access at various levels as appropriate, in order to search, view, measure, markup, run reports or enter meta data. PDM can handle all these requests for access for you. You get much more out of a good PDM installation than just file management.


You already know how much time you can save with document management done right because you’re a smart CAD user and you’ve been doing all of the above since day one. For everyone else’s sake, do have them read this article.

After reading it, they should have a good understanding of what a document management system should be doing. It should also be obvious that electronic, automated methods are efficient ways to control the process. They save time, money and mistakes. If you’re going to upgrade from a DIY manual method, make sure to at least get someone experienced in the process to help you lay out goals for the implementation and put together a phased approach to get the most important parts such as populating the vault and setting up revisions in place first and make sure they work as expected before moving on to the next phase.

To learn more about managing product data in SOLIDWORKS and 3DEXPERIENCE, check out the whitepaper Gain Competitive Advantage with Product Data Management.

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