One of the great challenges for hardware engineers and designers lies in getting all of their product’s component, part and assembly data into a central repository that will eventually become a Bill of Materials (BOM). As stated in “How to Build a BOM” from Fictiv’s “Hardware Guide”, “An effective BOM doesn’t have to be generated by sophisticated software — it can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet.” This, for the most part, is true. However, any successful engineering product development company eventually arrives at a point where spreadsheets can begin to cause more harm than good.

While spreadsheets offer ease of use, they greatly lack the ability to identify and correct problems, track changes among team members and enforce industry standards. A more robust, centralized system, like a PLM-based bill of materials software package is needed to better manage data and ensure companies don’t face development crises or manufacturing errors and delays. But when do you know when you’re ready to move off spreadsheets? The following is a list of signs that indicate you’re ready for Bill of Materials Software.

How to know you’re ready to move from spreadsheets to PLM

1. You’re starting to release product revisions

The benefits of a spreadsheet-based BOM quickly end once revisions to that BOM begin occurring. Spreadsheets lack the tracking functionality that allows for revision control and peer review, especially across internal and external teams. Revision management, or change management, is best done in a centralized, secure and controlled platform such as a PLM tool where proper tracking and documentation is inherent to the underlying operation of the tool.

2. Your product team is larger and more dispersed

Managing a BOM or product data through spreadsheets is relatively easy when it’s just you (or a small team working in the same room). But when you’re coordinating across a larger team in different locations or on different work schedules, things can get can get out-of-sync fast. In this common setup you need a centralized hub where changes are automatically tracked and time-stamped. Of course this can be enhanced with built-in stakeholder notifications, task scheduling and an easily-accessed change history record. These elements are very difficult to design into a spreadsheet-based system and are necessary to prevent miscommunications, file errors and product development and manufacturing issues. The centralized nature of a PLM platform allows teams to operate efficiently with the confidence that all efforts are tracked, managed and shared with the team in one place that can be quickly referenced at any point in the design process.

3. You’ve started working with external suppliers, vendors, CMs or partners

External suppliers, vendors, contract manufacturers and partners represent important touch points for your company. The information that these parties receive needs to be accurate and well-organized otherwise you risk costly errors and delays. While it is feasible to send spreadsheet-managed product data to external parties, it’s fraught with risk. Data that is shared externally should first be reviewed and approved by all required team members. A proper PLM platform is arguably better for organizing cross-team accountability for data reviews prior to sending data to external parties.

Of course many designers and companies try to put off transitioning to a PLM tool to avoid any extra costs and the perceived burden of learning yet another software tool. However, what they often fail to account for are the costs of hiring outside consultants to review and clean up BOM’s prior to manufacturing or the ultimate death wish, errors in manufacturing. The reality is that with today’s much simpler and more integrated software tools, it’s really never too early to jump into a PLM solution.