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PLM Integrations with Adobe Illustrator – Keep It Simple!

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In his eighth guest blog with us Dan Hudson, of E-Spec, discusses the need for keeping it simple when integrating PLM with Adobe Illustrator. 

Too Tight

In 2005 a client asked us to provide an integration between Adobe Illustrator and a PDM (Product Data Management) system. The integration was to solve two issues:

  1. Provide a alternate file format that the PDM system’s UI could display;
  2. Reduce the number of keystrokes required to get the Illustrator file imported into the PDM system.

For the last 10 years we have been a strong proponent of helping “creative users” provide their images to the required business systems in the most efficient method. Most PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) vendors have embraced this as a way to gain system acceptance among the creative user community. What we have seen develop recently is the advent of “tight” integrations; integration so closely coupled with a particular system that the creative users become burdened with data entry. The integration causes the exact issues that they were meant to resolve.

A recent integration I saw was meant to make the importing of images into a PLM system easier by letting the user remain in Illustrator. The users were not required to open the PLM UI in order to upload images. This was typical years ago when workstations did not have enough RAM to have both applications open at the same time. This caused the user to close Illustrator, open the PLM application and then close PLM in order to return to Illustrator and their next image.

With today’s more powerful hardware this is not the case, in fact many users now have two monitors allowing the user to easily operate both Illustrator and PLM at the same time.  Simply staying in Illustrator should not be the objective; reducing keystrokes and steps to make the user more efficient is the objective.

In this particular integration the user was required to do the following in order to integrate their images with the PLM system:

  • Open integration plug-in from the menu
  • Use a dialog to logon to the PLM system (Enter system name, username and password)
  • Enter information (metadata) in another dialog (Division; Manager; Style #; Description; Project Parent; Master Product; Template)
  • Navigate a tree structure for each artboard to “place” the images
  • Navigate a tree structure for where the image database record is located
  • Submit

Assumptions Made

How is this easier than having both systems open on the same workstation? The vendor essentially recreated the PLM system’s UI within a plug-in in Illustrator.

This integration also assumes that the multiple images contained in the single Illustrator file exist on individual artboards. This is not always the case; there can be multiple images on the same artboard. The image may be needed with and without the text callouts. Multiple colorways may exist on a single artboard but the PLM system will need each colorway as a separate image. This integration made the user responsible for replicating images across multiple artboards – dictating how the user organizes their Illustrator content.

Adding Unnecessary Steps

By providing such a “tight” integration, there is an assumption that the PLM system is the only destination for these images. They have “locked” the Illustrator output within a single system. The creative users are also responsible to provide images to many other destinations; websites, e-commerce systems, marketing departments, sourcing systems, even labels and retail signage. All of these steps will require additional steps/clicks by the user. This integration is counter productive as the users will now see it as adding effort, and not reducing it.

Also, this type of “tight” integration doesn’t allow for varying roles among different sized companies. In small companies, one creative user may be responsible for all data relevant to the image. In larger companies teams of creative users will have artists responsible for the graphics, and designers responsible for the product incorporating the graphics. The data and workflow for these users is different. Tight integrations are not flexible enough to make everyone’s job easier.

Doesn’t Fit the Workflow

Other  “tight” integrations we have seen allow the user to create a complete BOM while in Illustrator.  Again, this is replicating the PLM system’s UI for their raw materials database within Illustrator. The keystrokes are almost identical. The advantage of not opening the actual PLM application is offset by the rigidity imposed on the workflow.  When a sketch is ready for sharing with PLM users, it is not yet time for a complete BOM. All that is required is a family of fabrics and some suggested colors from the seasonal palette. The exact thread, the specific fabric and the packaging information are not required to get an image in PLM. In the seasonal workflow of a designer, many sketches and images are generated early in the season; only some will reach the point in the workflow where a BOM will be required. Many times it is a design assistant or a tech designer who completes the BOM; the person might not even open Illustrator. Tight integrations make assumptions about the duties of the users and the product’s workflow that may not fit the particular implementation.

It seems that “tight” integrations also make the assumption that every consumer of the image needs access to the original editable version of the image. In reality not all users need or want the large original file at their disposal. For previous architectures this may not have caused problems but as more and more applications become cloud based, providing everyone with the large original image is unnecessary overhead. Some users and systems only require an adequate representation of the image in order to view, comment, review, include on a report and possibly print. If a change is needed, in most cases the original author of the image is asked to make the change.

Limiting the image integration to Illustrator is also a problem. The same users will have images that do not originate in Illustrator. Forcing the user to import those images into Illustrator in order to use the integration is counter-productive.  JPGs from cameras, output from Photoshop and Light Room as well as other digital applications must all be easily integrated with the business systems.

Keep it Simple, Silly

A better solution is to provide a more flexible “generic” integration; one that focuses on the image or asset rather than the system’s data. Use of standard and custom metadata to drive the integration makes the image the link between users and data. It enables multiple systems to access the same images. It allows representative versions to be “tied” to the original file. It allows the image to support the desired workflow rather than having an integration dictate your business processes.

PLM users get very frustrated with some of the Illustrator integrations out there. The most common reaction I have observed is that the user stalls as long as possible before submitting the image to the PLM system.  Designers have used AI files, Excel spreadsheets and e-mail to get their samples made and then, only after sample approval, do they use the Illustrator integration to place the image in the PLM system. They then just backfill the required data and the PLM system misses an entire step in the workflow.  That can’t be the intention of the vendor’s integration.

Things have changed in the last 10 years and are changing at a faster rate. It’s time for a new approach on how to use images in the enterprise. One thing is for sure: we need to try to keep it simple.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.