PDM vs. PLM: What’s the Difference?

Written by: Jeff Zemsky

Read Time: 6 min

Important tools of modern discrete (as well as process) manufacturing, product data management (PDM) software, and product lifecycle management (PLM) software may seem to overlap in significant ways—even, perhaps, to the point of redundancy. In fact, some manufacturers choose between one or the other, at least to begin with. But a more in-depth understanding reveals that while operating in the same general domain, PDM and PLM have distinct jobs to do, and properly deployed can be powerfully complementary.

What is PDM?

PDM is a design and engineering tool focused on managing and controlling product data related to those specific phases of the product’s lifecycle. CAD files, documentation, bills of material and other related assets fall within the purview of a typical PDM system. It helps organizations connect, synchronize, communicate and collaborate with accurate product data, whether the team is globally distributed or working from a single site.

What is PLM?

PLM, on the other hand, embraces a more holistic approach that encompasses the product lifecycle from conception through retirement. In this respect, PDM is often considered a subset of PLM. Reaching beyond design and engineering, PLM covers manufacturing, supply chain, in-service support, and even product retirement. It seeks an end-to-end integration of people, data, processes, and enterprise business systems. PLM can be described as a company’s “product information backbone.”

What’s the difference between PDM and PLM?

As described above, the principal difference is in scope. PDM, as its name suggests, is focused on organizing, centralizing, synchronizing, and managing product data, particularly during the design and engineering phases. PLM—the foundation of the digital thread—has a much broader purview and therefore more influence and impact on the whole enterprise. PLM often contains or integrates PDM within the larger, end-to-end-lifecycle framework.

How are PDM and PLM used in product development?

Within the product development phase of a product’s lifecycle, PDM is mainly a design and engineering tool, managing all associated data as a product is conceived, designed, and specified for production. It should manage all types of data, including heterogenous forms from tools that may differ across the organization and its supply chain. Today, many widely accepted definitions of PDM describe it as a subset of PLM.

Accordingly, PLM is used during the product development phase more strategically: to assess the requirements and implications of the product and its manufacture to the enterprise. It’s deployed to manage the whole lifecycle of the product for maximum profitability while maintaining quality standards. In this respect, it’s a true enterprise system like an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or a manufacturing execution system (MES).

PDM process

The PDM process can be understood as a series of both concurrent and sequential activities within engineering. During the initial design phase, engineering is at the forefront and uses PDM nearly exclusively for engineering purposes. Prototyping is done quickly and more informally as part of this process (and may even be done offline.)

Release to manufacturing involves the sharing of CAD and bill of materials files to manufacturing, where they may be transposed into PLM or ERP systems. The engineering change notice (ECN) process is isolated within engineering, until approval and subsequent transfer to the manufacturing organization.

PLM process

Within a PLM system incorporating PDM functionality, the same activities occur, but with more comprehensive participation and visibility across all product stakeholders. The design engineer creates and manages the product within the PLM system. Prototyping is more formalized, but also more efficient, with users promoting a design into the prototype stage electronically.

In a PLM environment, testing engineers have earlier visibility into the design and specs earlier. Manufacturing also has more complete visibility throughout the lifecycle, and bills of materials can be created automatically. As well, the ECN process is more robust, because a much wider audience can see, assess and report problems or concerns with the developing product.

PDM vs. PLM: Relative costs and benefits

Superficially, the benefits of PDM alone may seem appealing, especially to organizations with limited budgets, limited resources and little time for technology initiatives beyond just getting a great product out the door. But for manufacturers with a longer-term, strategic outlook, PLM has the potential to deliver a much higher upside. Let’s consider the benefits of each approach.

The benefits of PDM


Because the functional jurisdiction of PDM is so much narrower than that of PLM, it’s a significantly less expensive investment. For these reasons—relative simplicity and cost—PDM may also realize quicker time to value. Of course, because the organizational scope of PDM is relatively limited, that value also reaches its natural limits faster.

Easy to maintain

Even the most robust PDM system is easier to maintain than a PLM system—it does less and contains fewer lines of code. Because its reach is limited, maintenance activities are also generally confined in their impact to fewer departments and teams.

Less training

New software systems can only live up to their potential if all users are brought up to speed effectively. Training must not only transfer knowledge about how each role should use the system, but also incentivize and motivate those trainees to adopt the new system with enthusiasm. The larger and more complex the system, the greater the training burden—in time, money, and the opportunity cost of taking those users “offline” for training. PDM systems, being less complex, have fewer users to train, and they’re trained on fewer capabilities.

The benefits of PLM

Prevents mistakes

Because PLM provides a more holistic overview of the product’s lifecycle overall, it keeps all documentation that defines or otherwise affects the product up to date and accurate for all users. That visibility means that quality control becomes less of a single point in the lifecycle and pervades the entire process —preventing errors and the wasted personnel and materials costs of rework.

Streamlines design and ECM processes

Even though PLM has a broader sphere of influence than PDM, it does not neglect engineering. In fact, the integration of PDM functions within a PLM environment improves engineering’s ability to realize shorter design cycles and more efficient engineering change management processes.

Improves efficiency

This kind of efficiency also compounds the enterprise value of the design and engineering functions, beyond levels available to pure PDM solutions.

Allows enterprise-wide visibility

PLM, as we’ve seen, addresses a much wider horizon than PDM, allowing many more interested stakeholders, with broader concerns and more specialized skill sets, to see, respond and adjust as the product passes through the stages of its lifecycle. As a result, new efficiencies infuse and benefit other teams and departments connected by the PLM “information backbone.” Business value is amplified across the organization.

How to choose between PDM and PLM

Choosing between an engineering-focused PDM and an enterprise-ready PLM isn’t always clear cut. However, the careful consideration of several critical factors can help inform the right decision.

Scale of operations

For larger, widely distributed operations with multiple internal departments, long supply chains and many partnerships, the power and reach of PLM are essential. PDM systems may suffice for smaller operations with smaller teams and fewer departments needing access to critical data.

Product complexity

PLM’s the clear choice when manufacturing complex products that require extensive cross-enterprise collaboration across the whole lifecycle.


For companies with hard budget choices to make, regardless of their aspirations, stand-alone PDM can be an effective first step toward broader scale solutions. Many PDM systems, though addressing a narrow aperture of the lifecycle, are excellent at addressing that focused need.

Growth plans

PLM can lay a stronger and more resilient foundation than PDM for companies with plans for significant growth or diversification, and those whose products may increase in complexity over time.

Existing IT infrastructure

PLM, being bigger and more complicated, needs a more robust IT environment in which to operate than PDM.

Is Windchill a PDM or a PLM?

It’s clear that PDM and PLM are two different (if closely related) manufacturing solutions. Choosing one or the other can involve costly tradeoffs either way. But PTC’s Windchill eliminates the need to make a binary choice. Windchill includes PTC’s PDM solution, designed specifically for enterprise PLM. In fact, while available as a stand-alone function, PTC’s PDM is seamlessly integrated into PTC’s powerful and comprehensive Windchill PLM solution. That means Windchill lets businesses start where they are in introducing PDM, and scale up to full PLM functionality as they grow.

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Tags: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Windchill Digital Thread Digital Transformation

About the Author

Jeff Zemsky

Jeff is the VP for Windchill Digital Thread. His team leads Navigate, Visualization, Windchill UI and Digital Product Traceability. Prior to joining PTC, Jeff spent 16 years implementing and using PLM, CAD and CAE at Industrial, High Tech & Consumer Products companies including leading the first Windchill PDMLink implementation in 2002. He was active in the PTC/USER community serving as Chair for the Windchill Solutions committee and on the Board of Directors for PTC/USER helping to bring voice of customer input together and create a community where people could network for tools and processes. Jeff attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Lehigh University.