The reason why a company may decide to adopt a document management system is obvious: it must allow operators to find a document when they need it. But as an old proverb says “easier said than done”, the system implementation is not so easy and immediate.
Archiving is not an exact science and as far as I know it has never been a common school subject. For years this issue has been treated as an internal procedure and its management has always been left to the “goodwill” of the person responsible for this activity. As a consequence the archiving methods are potentially infinite, since a method that is excellent for an office, may not be equally valid for others.
The problem becomes more difficult to solve when the material to be archived consists of quite complex digital documents, such as, for example, the 3D CAD assemblies, for which, to be able to process them over time, any external references to other models must be kept intact. These documents are reviewed and changed more times during their life cycle by different operators, who often work in offices far from each other or even in different countries.
The common practice of archiving files in shared hard disks does not facilitate their retrieval or processing. As a consequence, saving the digital documents in structures of folders and subfolders is not the best approach. In fact, to tell the truth, in some respects, this worsens the situation against the traditional management of paper folders, on the cover of which various information (in the digital universe we call them metadata) can be handwritten. On the contrary, the classic digital archiving method relies only on the name of the file or the folder, that, among others, are by force very short because of the limited number of characters that can be used for this operation. Moreover this method does not prevent the concurrent access to the model documents, since the latter are always available virtually.
But, finally, the modern PLM applications have evolved, by overcoming the file/folder paradigm and facilitating the archiving of the technical documentation. In the previous issues of this newsletter we have already widely spoken about the ability of the PLM systems of managing structured information, data and processes. In this occasion we will analyze in deep the documentation management.
Let’s see how the most widely used technique works in practice: the vault.
To begin with, a PLM system, to be defined as such, must surely contain a sophisticated core module to manage digital documents, otherwise any reasoning, made so far, about a better management of data, processes and resources related to the product lifecycle, would be vain. The availability of a powerful support tool for all the documentation, produced in the various offices using any software for the generation of CAD and Office documents, videos, photos, etc.., is, for our discussion, the basic and necessary assumption.
Inside the PLM systems, the vault is the module used for archiving the documentation. It can be implemented in different ways: in the classical file/folder structure, as a BLOB (Binary Large Object) database or in a modern cloud storage space, etc.
In any case, it is important to understand that this space is not directly accessible by users who do not have a universal access key and do not even know the actual location of the documents within this strong-box.
Each time that a user needs to change a document, the PLM system, before allowing access to that resource, verifies the user’s identity and checks the relating access rights and mode (read-only, change , etc.). If this check is positive, i.e. the user is “in order”, the system proceeds with the check-out operation, extracts the document from the vault (safe) and transfers a copy of it to the workstation of the user who made the request.
I want to highlight that this extraction is only a virtual operation: the document never leaves the vault. The system registers this operation and if another user, with similar access rights, tries to extract the same document from the vault, the system alerts him/her that the document is already managed by someone else (in reserved check-out mode) and makes the resource available in read-only mode.
Once the first user has finished making changes, s/he delivers the resulting document to the vault: this operation is called check-in and from that moment the document becomes newly available for changes by other authorized users.
In the most sophisticated PLM systems, this mechanism is so well integrated that it is almost transparent to the user. It ensures confidentiality of data, while avoiding, at the same time, the conflicts resulting from the concurrent editing operations by more users.
Besides the said advantages about security, the vault greatly simplifies the backup operations and can handle with success structured files such as referenced CAD models.
Last, but not least, the technology on which the vault is built, can be perfectly integrated with cloud applications, the promising bet on the future of Information Technology.
We’ll talk about this in the next issue. See you soon!