When aftermarket executives talk about Product Information Management (PIM) solutions that are available today, there isn’t much agreement on what they mean by PIM. Some believe PIM is essentially a parts management application; others believe it focuses primarily on catalog and publishing capabilities; and still others may confuse it with a PLM solution (engineering-oriented software).

None of the PIM-type solutions available today are equal in their overall capabilities, architecture, implementation timeline or price.

So it is critical to understand what PIM is – and isn’t – and how, with the right vendor, it can be implemented as a total end-to-end solution, or in stages as “chewable chunks.” This article segregates the types of systems available into appropriate categories – Good, Better, Best — and provides a self-assessment scorecard to help determine your ranking in terms of a PIM strategy.

First, What is PIM?

We define a complete PIM solution as one that includes all four functional “pillars” of profitable, efficient product information management. Having all four of these functionalities – working synergistically and collaboratively as one integrated system (even with legacy mainframe systems) — is critical to executives of light and HD parts companies who must achieve tough revenue goals and respond quickly and efficiently to ever-changing market conditions and customers.

The Good Approach – Business as Usual (Where many aftermarket parts companies are now)

Like many of the legacy systems in use today, businesses can find themselves entrenched in their current approach to product information. At the “good” level, the job of distributing product information to the market is getting done, catalogs are getting produced, but the processes used are manual or ‘homegrown’ and are slow, inefficient, error-prone and unwieldy. Visibility to product information across the business is compartmentalized, as are the processes for creating it. And as specific functions are entrenched and hidden within the different “compartments” of the business, the problems this creates do not gain management visibility because problem resolution is likely built into system as well.

The Good Approach may take into account gaining efficiencies through the update of ERP and Warehouse Management Systems to streamline the flow of supplies and products, but generally takes the approach of “if it ain’t broke” when it comes to product information. And, given the state of some companies, this may be, in the short term, an acceptable approach!

The downside of this approach is that the inefficiencies that are built into the system, including overhead for product exchange and credit notes, and slow time to market for new products, are a significant competitive disadvantage and will result in shrinking margins, profits, and markets. Typically, it takes a cathartic event, such as the loss of a major customer, to bring the problem to the attention of management where it could and should be resolved.

The Better Approach – Do it For Me (DIFM) Systems

With the cost and complexity of many IT systems today, smaller companies have been left out. To remedy this, some companies have adopted a do-if-for-me hybrid approach where a third party provides some outside services to the client company. For many smaller companies, this is a vast improvement over a business-as-usual approach. There are a number of companies in the market today, known as ‘data providers’, who promote this approach by either offering Software-as-a-Service (where a client uses a combination of online tools to create part or all of its product information), or by offering Service-using-Software (where the data provider uses tools to create part or all of a client’s product information).

The upside of a DIFM system is that it provides a smaller company with a means to participate and provide product information to the market. But, while pricing models for these services may seem attractive to larger corporations, the usefulness is limited to the ‘point solution’ approach of the providers. In other words, most DIFM solutions offered by the data providers focus on only one or two of the “pillars” of PIM, and other inefficiencies persist.

Companies incorporating this Better Approach benefit from improved capability to convey product information to their trading partners, without taxing human or financial resources. The DIFM approach is certainly better than Business-as-Usual, as it provides a demonstrable improvement to the process of providing “compliant, acceptable” data to the trading partner.

The Best Approach – A Complete PIM System

In an earlier series of articles in this newsletter, a comprehensive PIM system was defined as a central repository with toolsets to manage pricing, product/part information, cataloging/publishing, and data synchronization (see “Introducing the ‘Four Pillars of PIM’ to the Aftermarket”, V.1, #1). Further, the best PIM system would maintain product history, contain management reporting tools, and be available online to enable collaboration across the enterprise and through the selling chain.

More than simply a central database, a comprehensive PIM system takes into account the processes related to the creation of all information related to a part or product, used internally for product release and support, and externally for product sales and transactions. Internal workflow, audit trails, and data integration are inherent features, as are external cross-media publication and data matching and synchronization capability. And, the very best of best systems, will have the flexibility to enable a company to “stage” its evolution into a PIM system, by allowing it to deploy or implement by functional area, or all at once.

Companies incorporating this Best Approach realize the best returns on investment, the highest quality commercial data content, the quickest time-to-market for their product information, the highest degrees of customer satisfaction, and the best opportunities for sales and margin growth through true collaboration in the selling chain. This is the direction the aftermarket is moving – albeit slowly – and is what most major distributors and retailers today are demanding of manufacturers.