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ENGINEERING AUTOMATION REPORT

Auto-trol's CENTRA 2000® PDM/EDM:

Excellent Customer Service With A Strong, Implementable System

Auto-trol Technology Corporation is a veteran from the earlier days of the turnkey CAD industry. Since then, the company has narrowed its energies to selling just several software products. One is a network management system called KONFIG® NM while another is their industry-leading Tech Illustrator electronic publishing line. The biggest development effort inside Auto-trol until recently had been a project called Mosaic that was intended to become a next generation, parametric, solids modeling program.

During 1994, Howard Hillman, the president of Auto-trol, encouraged and funded an outside startup called CENTRA 2000 Inc. to develop and market what has become the CENTRA 2000® PDM/EDM system. In 1995, Centra became a subsidiary of Auto-trol but retained its operations and founding staff in Houston. Early this year, the Mosaic project was canceled, and the vast majority of the company's attention focused entirely on its CENTRA 2000® product and the goal to become profitable again without reckless decisions.

Auto-trol is no longer in the CAD business except for long term customer support obligations. The commitment to customer service is apparently a very embedded one. Every Auto-trol CENTRA 2000® customer we spoke with considered Auto-trol's support the best they had ever encountered in their careers without exception. This is particularly heartening since the company is deriving its primary revenue from software sales with only a small portion of revenue coming from implementation services and training.

Will CENTRA 2000® Make Auto-trol Profitable? Probably

Auto-trol has not made a profit in quite a few years but the shareholders are holding steady. The immense Hillman Trust still owns over 90% of the company stock, and Howard Hillman says the company now has enough momentum to soon shed its dependence of his golden nest. If you had told Hillman three years ago that his company would hang the bulk of its existence on his outside venture, he probably would have laughed.

From Disaster Arose A Vision

The inception of CENTRA 2000® revolves around three key people: Susan Floyd, Jim Shirreffs, and Judy Carrell. Susan Floyd worked for Lockheed at the Kennedy Space Center where she was the person responsible for the space shuttle data processing management system when the Challenger disaster occurred. As her team checked to see if they had missed anything, she became astonished to find that configuration checking was still manually intern sire. Floyd set out to automate the system but found that the available technology (based on mainframes) required substantial changes in how NASA would operate.

Floyd left the shuttle program alter a while to take charge of data integration for the space station Freedom. She set out to find software that could handle data in many formats in a structured manner. She found what she was looking for in a library program called NELS (NASA Electronic Library System). NELS did not require substantial changes in how an organization already operated. The original designers of NELS, Jim Shirreffs and Judy Carrell, intended the system to handle general data management problems.

Meanwhile, Bill Brett, who had been Auto-trol's vice president of engineering in the early 1980s, had returned to Auto-trol after working for Lockheed and overseeing Floyd's work. Brett urged Hillman to contact Floyd regarding the work she was doing. Hillman ended up offering Floyd funding to bring a data management product to the commercial market. She then approached the developers about commercializing their work. They agreed and received copyright permission from their then current employer Barrios.

The core people set three main goals. The software was to maintain data integrity, not require immense changes in how organizations worked, and put processing power into the hands of the users (anti-mainframe and mini-computer).

The original program met (and still does) NASA's reliability requirements, but its user interface was far below what is expected in the commercial sector. During the first year most of the work was spent improving the user interface. After the first twelve months they were running out of money and Hillman merged the fledgling venture with Auto-trol in June 1995.

PDM and EDM Background

CENTRA 2000® essentially provides the functions of PDM (product data management), EDM (enterprise or electronic document management), and work/low in one integrated software system. Workflow capabilities, structured and ad hoc, are becoming the norm among both PDM and EDM applications, but providing real EDM and PDM capabilities in the same system is not.

Furthermore, PDM and EDM systems are usually sold by different vendors to different customers although they both organize data and documents into electronic vaults. The cover story for the February 1997 issue of EAReport PDM vs. EDM, Yet Again) talked about those differences and the ongoing marketing battle between the traditionally two separate camps of vendors.

During Floyd's quest at NASA to build a general-purpose configuration management system, she and the others designed a foundation that has proven capable of handling both EDM and PDM simultaneously. This happened as a result of their vision not being impeded by what many others had already defined as boundaries.

Auto-trol told us their EDM capability is only intended to satisfy the EDM needs of technical departments at manufacturing companies. They indicated at least one customer is using CENTRA 2000® for this purpose alone. Nonetheless, Auto-trol said it would not participate in solicitations from EDM users such as pharmaceutical companies, purchase order departments, and legal firms. Considering the vertical market focus and dominance of various other EDM firms in these areas, this makes sense.

An earlier EAReport column by PDM expert Wayne Collier at D.H. Brown divided PDM solutions into two distinct camps: product-centric and process-centric. CENTRA 2000® was placed in the process-centric camp which Collier said focuses on operational requirements between manufacturing and design but does not require an overhaul of a company's design process. Product-centric products require that overhaul in order to capture all design elements and related information. This is a lot of work for companies that clearly understand what they are already doing; it's close to suicide for those that don't.

In addition to those functional camps, the PDM market is usually segmented in scope between department level packages and enterprise level systems. The first group is cheaper and easier to implement but often at the price of scalability (functional and user population). Programs in this group are usually ready-to-run, off-the-shelf systems that require absolutely no programming. Instead, customers tailor the systems to fit their needs within the scope of options the program comes with. These systems don't usually allow any custom programming if they don't have what users want, but they work very well for many small to mid-size companies.

The second group can be very customized through programming and is very scalable. However, implementing these systems is often lengthy since they shoot for a completely product-centric foundation. More than 70% of the enterprise PDM systems deployed or in pilot today have not progressed beyond vaulting to product structures and configuration management which are the reasons for using PDM instead of EDM.

CENTRA 2000® Overall Strengths

Auto-trol asserts that CENTRA 2000® is different from other systems because it provides rapid implementation, full scalability ("no glass ceiling" as they put it), and veteran support teams. Those first two claims taken together have traditionally been conflicting desires. Thus, Auto-trol's marketing position is that they can deliver all three simultaneously for a reasonable price.

In response to one of our questions, CENTRA 2000®'s product manager Dave Peverley replied that within the first year of purchase more than 50% of their customers implement CENTRA 2000® beyond document vaulting to handle some degree of configuration management. This is significant for three reasons: the systems are being used for real work (not just pilot programs), the time frame is within 12 months, and the percentage beyond vaulting is better than the industry average which typically has taken several years.

Rapid Implementation

CENTRA 2000® starts as an empty shell but set-up is relatively quick since it is performed through existing menus instead of programming. This process includes defining users, data classes, data structures and other items for an ORACLE 7 database. Populating the controlled and uncontrolled storage vaults with documents, files and related information is also done via menu selections.

Making changes after initial setup is relatively easy according to users. This is important since improved ideas for doing things always occur after the first setup for all systems of this kind. Even so, your company has to clearly understand what it is already doing before it can start down this path.

CENTRA 2000® is primarily an off-the-shelf system, yet some custom programming is usually required to make a satisfactory fit for the customer. Usually this is done by Auto-trol.

Examples of this programming include writing batch loading programs to intelligently transfer legacy data into the CENTRA 2000® system. Another would be custom programming for little enhancements such as inserting a trackable drawing number with a company's special nomenclature inside every new CAD file's title block. One client asked and received modifications necessary to link an older version of an ORACLE database they did not wish to upgrade.

Another service appears to be a firm guiding hand to prevent some customers from chasing overly lofty goals laid out by well-intentioned consultants. Even so, 50% of Auto-trol's prospects are brought to them by consultants. According to Auto-trol, its 30 PDM customers are all in production (not pilot) as a result of realistic planning.

This is very commendable, yet easier implementations are a distinct trait of process-centric systems. Auto-trol did not entirely agree with Wayne Collier's classifying as a process-centric PDM vendor. However, we believe they were largely concerned that the word "process" would be incorrectly interpreted to suggest their system was not appropriate for discrete manufacturers. Eighty-percent of the companies using CENTRA 2000 are discrete manufacturers, 17% are petrochemical processors, and the remaining 3% represents a high-end technical publisher.

Auto-trol agreed with Collier on most other things including these two: many potential users erroneously believe they should adopt product-centric PDM wholesale, and the future of the PDM industry depends on vendors who "help their users make manageable, incremental moves from operational, process-oriented configuration management to product-centric PIM." Note: Collier prefers the acronym PIM (product information management) to PDM.

Scalability and Customer Service

Scalability should mean that the system can readily accommodate greater levels of functionality and/or number of users without substantial limitations. NASA continues to use CENTRA 2000® today (as well as the predecessor NELS systems in some areas) and plans to do so for the foreseeable future. Some of the users we spoke with already had large deployments, and they reported that the current version 3.2 of CENTRA 2000® was fast as well as being very reliable. The previous version bad some bugs although none of them were considered major by the users.

Auto-trol is very forthcoming about the strength of its customer service being a direct result of its retaining veterans from its turnkey systems days as well as all the major players responsible for creating CENTRA 2000®. When we asked user administrators about Auto-trol's support and interaction, we only heard things such as "excellent," "incredible," and "I've never seen anything like this in 25 years. It's wonderful."

One specific thing customers liked was the direct access to CENTRA 2000®'s developers. This greatly reduces the communication errors and lag time that occur when a non-technical gatekeeper is constantly kept between the technical staff at the vendor and the customer.

Most but not all CENTRA 2000® users start with pilot programs before moving to actual implementation. Every prospect that has tried a pilot has become a full customer. Pilot programs average between 30 to 90 days. We learned of a notably longer one but found the customer was requesting some fairly exotic software developments Auto-trol considered useful for the next general release.

Features

Auto-trol reasonably asserts that what differentiates its system lies in other things besides features. "At some point," a company white paper asserts, "all products will have sufficient features to work." Even so, it's worth taking a brief look at some of the notable capabilities.

  • EDM - The EDM capability is decent compared to other EDM-only systems which in turn makes it nicer to work with than what many PDM-only systems offer. The interface, which is easy to understand, uses the standard folders and files paradigm. The folders go beyond what you find with your operating system in that attribute data can be attached to the folder itself and folders linked together- Reference files shared by several drawings are managed as compound documents.

    CENTRA 2000® has the usual data vault for revision management and security control. One notable enhancement is the ability for several people to check out registered copies of one file. The system then facilitates the manual consolidation of results for the person with the master document before check-in is permitted. This does not apply towards CAD files but we'll talk about that in a moment. A non-vault environment is also provided so files (objects) can be located in other parts of the computer network.

    Browsing and search functions include attribute searches, full text search inside files (not just their names or keywords), and opening folders. Images, or portions of them, can be set up with hyperlinks to other images (more detail for instance), data in a database (such as a bill of material), or files such as a spreadsheet or multimedia demonstration.

  • PDM - The PDM portion of CENTRA 2000® focuses on configuration management (CM) and all the things that go with it including product structures, classes, and data objects. Note: You have to be careful with the configuration management term because it can mean different things to different vendors. Data objects such as parts and assemblies are individually managed in a component library.

    Multiple check-out of a CAD file remains something of a Holy Grail among CAD users pursuing concurrent engineering despite the serious synchronization problems it creates. CENTRA 2000® provides a good solution by reframing the problem. A user can register an interest in a drawing and then be notified immediately when it has been checked back in and is available. This is an improvement over constantly checking the system to see if the file you want is ready yet.

    Other abilities include change management, revision control, effectivity, and a utility that shows where product components and attachments have been referenced.

  • CAD Interfaces - CENTRA 2000® has options for direct integration with AutoCAD and Pro/ENGINEER. Users of either of these systems essentially use CENTRA 2000® functionality from within their CAD application menu structure. This includes basic capabilities such as check-in/check-out as well as workflows and notifications when other files you want to modify are available. As a result, AutoCAD and Pro/ENGINEER users do not require the client application others do for using CENTRA 2000®.

    Other CAD system users must access CENTRA 2000® with one of the separate client programs. This works fine. We asked Peverley about additional CAD integrations. He responded that Auto-trol is now "planning a new scheme to support multiple data sources in an optimal fashion."

    CAD integrations by any vendor today are achieved by a considerable amount of adjusting that cannot be reused for integration with a different CAD system, This is further complicated when either system changes to a new version since calibration is often required.

    Auto-trol's plans apparently are focusing on developing a new scheme that would allow them, and perhaps others, to leverage integration by introducing modularity between and with the programs. This way, CAD data will work with the PDM system only when it reaches a certain level of revision and is needed by others,

  • Distribution Functions & Workflow - CENTRA 2000® offers a nice workflow system that handles structured and ad hoc (make it up as you go) workflows. In addition, CENTRA 2000® provides several pre-configured distribution functions that work without any of the set-up fuss workflow typically requires.

  • Infrastructure - Unfortunately we don't have more space to cover the enabling technology behind CENTRA 2000®, but we did take a good look at it and concluded it was strong and without significant weaknesses. The only two things we did not find in the current version, dynamic information via Web browsers and fully distributable metadata, will be included in the 4.0 version of CENTRA 2000® that will be released in September 1997.

    One user installation complained about broken Windows OLE links between documents, but the network enabling of OLE is an issue for Microsoft that may end up being solved with Web-based technology.

    CENTRA 2000® version 3.2 works with numerous client and server operating systems in the Windows and UNIX areas. CENTRA 2000® requires a separate ORACLE database, and a network using a TCP/IP protocol suite.

Conclusion

We would be very surprised if Auto-trol did not once again become a successful company considering the great application and the numerous people supporting it. This time, Hillman has a winner.

Reprinted from Engineering Automation Report, April 1997, Volume Six, Issue Four.
© 1997 Technology Automation Services.

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"Every Auto-trol CENTRA 2000® customer we spoke with considered Auto-trol's support the best they had ever encountered in their careers without exception."