2009: PTC’s New Windchill ProductPoint is Facebook for PLM

PTC introduces Windchill ProductPoint, a new product data management product based on Microsoft SharePoint. It is the first product ever built from scratch on top of the SharePoint technology stack, and becomes PTC’s new “Social Product Development Platform.” Originally published in CADCAMNET January 2009.

By Randall S. Newton

January 15, 2009—PTC (Nasdaq: PMTC) is now shipping Windchill ProductPoint, a new product data management program based on Microsoft SharePoint, the fastest growing product in Microsoft history. PTC calls ProductPoint its “Social Product Development Platform” and expects it to be popular in small and medium business (SMB) environments which are already using SharePoint in other departments. We at CADCAMNET think it is Facebook for product development.

In October 2007 CADCAMNET described SharePoint as a “PLM Trojan Horse” and speculated on its adoption by the leading PLM vendors. Since then a variety of small engineering IT software vendors have introduced products that connect to SharePoint, primarily to integrate CAD viewing into existing SharePoint environments. (Because of its complexity and because of the many competing formats, SharePoint and CAD have not played nice in the past.)

Small engineering IT vendors including Actify and Information Graphics have introduced SharePoint-compatible viewers. Bentley Systems, the number two CAD software vendor in AEC, has integrated much of its data management product line with SharePoint. Siemens PLM uses SharePoint technology in pieces of its Velocity Series, aimed at the SMB market. But PTC is the first major PLM vendor—in fact, the first vendor in any software genre—to build a new product from scratch designed on the SharePoint technology stack.

Social Product Development
PTC calls ProductPoint a “Social Product Development Platform.” Because it is built natively on the Windows SharePoint server, PTC claims it can extend the general use of SharePoint into PLM in a way other products cannot. The product allows users to capture, handle, and share product development information, adding multi-CAD data and 3D visualization support to their existing engineering IT environment.

Before the public announcement of its availability, I talked to PTC VP Lee Garf about ProductPoint. “Many of our customers already have SharePoint,” Garf says. “And a large percentage of corporations are investigating it. We think it could be the next predominant architecture infrastructure. SharePoint is potentially the next generation of Windows in IT dominance.”

Because of its size and the nature of the project, PTC was given top-drawer treatment by Microsoft for ProjectPoint development. PTC is among the small percentage of software companies granted “globally managed ISV” status. One of the benefits is a full-time Microsoft employee on the PTC case. “We worked closely with Microsoft,” Garf says, “and we needed their help.” Even though Microsoft positions SharePoint as a collaborative infrastructure and a platform for web-based application, Garf says Windchill ProductPoint is the first real application built literally on top of SharePoint. Thus, ProductPoint is the new top layer of a Windows infrastructure stack, with Windows SharePoint Server (WSS) on the bottom, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS) in the middle, and Windchill ProductPoint on the top.

The Attraction of SharePoint
Microsoft SharePoint is a huge product. It is undeniably an enterprise product that meets many needs. It combines simple file sharing with collaboration, revision control, social networking, portals, enterprise search, content management, workflows and forms and management intelligence. It was started in 2000 as a general business application that was bundled with the Windows Server software, from which companies simply started to use it. In many companies it was a stealth application, deployed without the IT department’s approval, the way spreadsheets were in the 1980s. Further enhancements in 2003 and 2007 made the product yet more powerful, and it has become a basis for many company operations, regardless of their vertical needs. It makes sense therefore, for manufacturing companies that use SharePoint to desire their design, product data, manufacturing data and, ultimately product retirement data to be handled on SharePoint. After all, who wants to invest in a totally separate PLM system when you already have a functioning file collaboration system in place?

SharePoint can grow with an organization, offering increasing functional depth. For example, search can scale from team sites to also include data from external sources such as line of business systems.

Even better, the rise of Software as a Service (SaaS) now means that highly functional SharePoint servers are within reach of small and medium-sized businesses that previously could not afford this kind of business software. As a subscription-based hosted service, SharePoint is now available to the smallest start-ups who need to share data.

SharePoint works as a portal to share data of any kind. For the end-user, it is accessible via password-protected Internet browser; on both the internal server and hosted application versions it allows access from anywhere via the Internet. It boasts inherent revision control, ‘check-in/out’ functions, and with its more advanced Microsoft Office SharePoint Server provides content searches, business process automation, and business intelligence functions. All forms of SharePoint can manage integration with internal Wikis, blogs, Outlook, and many other tools of trade. In all, SharePoint is achieving many of the basic integrated functions that companies have desired.

“SharePoint is excellent at presenting information in context according to a person’s role,” says PLM relations manager Simon Floyd at Microsoft. “This makes SharePoint a strategy for the enterprise not just the department. You get value and scale with SharePoint when it services multiple departments – for example, design, procurement, manufacturing, legal, human resources, marketing, and so on.”

PTC’s key selling points to the end-user include:
• Instant access to colleagues via presence detection
• Personalization of workspaces to organize relevant content
• Sharing of rich product information throughout the company and with customers
• Quicker and more accurate search for the latest versions of the right files
• Extending access to engineering content throughout the company
• Deploying Web 2.0 capabilities such as blogs and wikis
• Quick deployment
• Minimal learning curve, due to the familiar user interface and integrated environment.

SharePoint and Engineering
Out of the box, Garf says, SharePoint works great with office documents. But its defining limitation is that it only handles one document at a time. Engineering workflows deal with sets of information and documents with complex inter-relationships. “PTC is adding value [to SharePoint] by providing a structure to information, like in a CAD assembly,” says Garf, “enabling SharePoint to be useful in the world of product development.”

Since PTC was starting from scratch with ProductPoint, it made sure it was a broad-ranged tool. In addition to Pro/E data, Garf says ProductPoint will be good for users of PTC’s Arbortext, Isodraw, and MathCAD product lines, as well as a variety of competing CAD/PLM applications. “Product development people use a wide variety of tools. We have designed it to support any structured information.”

Garf says there were four guidelines for ProductPoint’s development:
• Improve structured data management
• Enable rich visualization
• Enable “web parts”
• Become a Windchill PLM connector.

The first two are necessary and important, but sound like marketeering on the surface so we’ll move on. The last two are more intriguing. Garf says the fundamental value of SharePoint to developers is in not having to reinvent the wheel. For example, web parts in ProductPoint means a user can view information from other parts of a company’s Windchill installation. If you have used iGoogle or Facebook to assemble a custom web page (a personal portal, if you will) you get the idea of web parts in ProductPoint. The syndication of multiple inputs is a powerful technology, allowing each user to create a custom interface to product development information. And a user can do it without calling on an IT admin.

The “Windchill PLM connector” concept means ProductPoint can exchange structured information between PLM systems, i.e., ProductPoint on one end, something else on the other. “When information leaves the system and returns it is recognized,” says Garf. “No conflict resolution required. The information exchange is at a high level between PLM systems.”

ProductView Lite, part of Windchill ProductPoint.

How to Sell ProductPoint
PTC has been reorganizing its sales in recent years to give more emphasis to the reseller channel. The PTC direct sales force handles the largest accounts, and its network of approximately 450 resellers reach the rest. The reseller channel is currently the fastest growing segment of PTC’s business, and Garf says it will take the lead with ProductPoint. “We will be selling to smaller customers, who now have no data management. They generally have network drives. SharePoint takes over network drives.”

Microsoft is pushing for network drives to go away as SharePoint takes over managing data. Exchange folders have already been replaced by SharePoint folders. Data that in the past was stored in a network file are now stored in a SharePoint file environment. As SMB firms realize this transition, and that much of the infrastructure is already in place, they will be more willing to consider ProductPoint, Garf reasons.

Garf sees the “huge installed base” of Pro/E users who rely on nothing more sophisticated than shared folders as top candidates for ProductPoint. “Better yet, for our channel, Autodesk, Dassault, and Siemens also have many customers in this ‘shared folders’ space. It is a nice product for our channel, one that will open doors now closed to PTC.”

CADCAMNet Comments
PTC is shaking up the status quo in Big PLM with this product. The SMB engineering firms who have resisted the existing approaches to PLM make up a huge market. And most of them are 100% Microsoft. If a company deploys ProductPoint and the underlying MOSS/WSS stack as its PLM infrastructure, it doesn’t need to spring for the custom infrastructure required to run Windchill, ENOVIA, or Teamcenter—or the team of consultants it takes to get it all running. As Microsoft’s Floyd says, “This offering sets PTC apart from other PLM providers, specifically within the SMB market, as it is the first to offer this type of solution.”

PTC’s reseller channel can knock on new doors, and the direct sales force has a new reason to visit existing PTC sites. PDMLink users will be able to add functionality instantly with ProductPoint, if they already have the MOSS/WSS stack in place (as many do). “This will let them see stuff with one click instead of three,” says Garf of combining ProductPoint with PDMLink. Ask any manager in a PLM environment, and they will agree that data three clicks away is often one click too many for some people.

To properly explain Windchill ProductPoint, we have to use the ‘d’ word—disruptive. The use of Microsoft infrastructure is way overdue in “Big PLM,” and PTC has taken the lead. Teamcenter and ENOVIA are oil takers in the PLM seas—large, purpose-built vessels that take forever to change course. Both Siemens and Dassault Systèmes have lite PLM solutions, but they don’t want their major customers getting near them.

By comparison, ProductPoint is a PT boat, and one that companies of all sizes will find intriguing. Autodesk could make inroads in this emerging market of Facebook-like PDM/PLM, but they can’t seem to make up their minds about the role of data management in product development.