A product data manager (PDM) is a tool to help businesses organize product data and development from the earliest phases of design to production and shipping. PDMs combine the functions of documents, technical data, engineering data, and image managers to organize and control all the data and information required to design, manufacture, support, and maintain products. They are complete software systems that work over a LAN or WAN to provide structure for documents and files including configurations, part definitions, CAD drawings, images, manufacturing process plans, NC part programs, and multimedia annotations. PDMs can also be used to manage facilities, processes, and assets.

There are three basic elements to a PDM: A data repository or "vault," a set of user functions, and a set of utility functions. These elements allow the software to distribute and control access to product information. Though documents are created in other applications, the PDM assumes the roles of file access and saving through embedded commands.

The data vault controls access to product information through password protection and access levels. Documents cannot be opened without going through the PDM. Users need not even know the file structure or location of a document, since all this information is also managed by the PDM’s data vault. Information can also be organized in different ways for different purposes. For example, while an engineer needs design drawings and test data, a warehouse manager might be more interested in knowing which products require a certain size screw so that he knows how many of that part to stock. Different organizational systems can show structural relationships, manufacturing processes, documentation, financial information, support and repair, or sales and shipping information.

A PDM also assumes utility functions like data transport, image translation, system administration, task management, and even communication and notification. When a file is created or revised, the PDM will route it through a user-defined review process, notifying the workgroup of required actions and new revisions via e-mail throughout the process. The workflow of each file managed by the PDM is saved so it can be audited to ensure the product data is up-to-date, correct, and protected from damage. Previous versions of the data are also stored, allowing users to revert to earlier revisions if necessary.

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