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Bill of Materials

Managing Bill of Materials - What's the best tool?

By     NOVEMBER 11, 2016

Bill of Materials

What is the best tool for managing bill of materials at your company – Pencil, spreadsheets, Google Docs or PLM?

Companies engaging in product development agree that the bill of materials (BOM) is an absolutely critical document in the product development lifecycle, but these same companies probably don’t agree about the right solution. That’s in part because every company has a different philosophy about BOM management, but also because not every solution works for every company, every kind of product, and every process. It’s important that a company beginning its product development lifecycle be aware of their options and what benefits—or baggage—comes with each.

Let’s take a look at some of the common options – pen and paper, Excel, Google Docs/Sheets, and PLM – to see how they stack up against each other.

BOM Management

Pen & paper: poor. Ensuring that the BOM is up-to-date and that everyone knows exactly what’s happening is difficult at best, and likely to cause failure. Collaboration is impossible, unless stakeholders are in the same room with each other.

Excel: poor. It’s difficult at best to make complex associations with BOM items to other assets, like CAD drawings, and collaboration from the Excel file can cause technical hiccups with version control.

Google: decent. While suffering from many of the same control issues as Excel, a Google Sheet does offer real-time collaboration from disparate stakeholders, and has a degree of revision history capabilities.

PLM: excellent. PLM creates a single repository for the BOM that is synchronized across the enterprise so that any stakeholder can access it and maintain control of various changes, including revision history.  Fusion Lifecycle handles this beautifully with a cloud based BOM tool, complete with change orders, BOM compare, and more.  See the datasheet for a list of capabilities.


Pen & paper: free. Well, minus the cost of pens and paper.

Excel: free. Excel is purchased via licenses for the whole Microsoft Office suite, which contains software used for many other business functions. This makes it functionally free, but it’s important to recognize that there is a cost. Open-source options are also available, making it actually free, but these might cause compatibility issues.

Google: free. Google’s offering comes packaged as part of its suite of cloud services, and that comes with certain degrees of cost. It can be as low as $5 per user, but more complex organizations will find that they might need more comprehensive plans to accommodate their needs.

PLM: varied. Some PLM systems are installed on an enterprise’s internal servers, requiring infrastructure investment, while others are cloud-based—even these require licenses or a varied subscription cost.  Fusion Lifecycle offers a subscription service web app that doesn’t require any infrastructure or hardware. 


Pen & paper: poor. A pen & paper BOM management system is only as secure as your entire facility or office, at least when it comes to internal risk. Sharing elements of this BOM with contract manufacturers (CM) or third parties leaves a manufacturer open to IP theft due to the lack of hierarchy or subassembly viewing.

Excel: poor. An Excel sheet is only as secure as your intranet—unless you have high-level security people on staff, a determined person could breach the system. Because spreadsheets are easily reproducible, a CM could easily collect information without a company’s knowledge.

Google: decent. Google’s own networks don’t get intruded upon often, as far as the general public knows, likely due to the security talent they’re able to hire. When data is lost via Google services, it’s usually due to a user installing malware or being victim to social engineering. The format still suffers from Excel’s replication vulnerability.

PLM: excellent. The PLM software designers are responsible for security, and have the economies of scale to make it work. Because these BOMs are complex, they can be intelligently shared with CMs, leaving the business in control.  Check out the security document for Fusion’s PLM.

Learning curve

Pen & paper: easy. Unless the BOM management system is needlessly complex, it should be easy to onboard new employees or train-up current ones. Keeping it managed and maintained, however, is another issue.

Excel: moderate. Most people have some familiarity with spreadsheets, meaning they won’t require much training to do simple data entry. More complex equations, however, might require training or searching online, and programming in Visual Basic often requires more dedicated technical employee.

Google: moderate. Much of the same applies with Google Docs, although instead of Visual Basic, Google’s programming uses Javascript—a much more common language these days, potentially reducing the technical overhead.

PLM: moderate. These BOM management tools will be more difficult to handle, due to the wide range of their features, but if a company partners with the right PLM provider, they’ll offer a certain degree of training and technical support.

There are many more facets of the debate between these different faces of BOM management, but these are some of the biggest concerns that stakeholders might worry about as they start to investigate the possibilities. They might want to also consider revision control, ramp-up time, how to deal with compliance issues, and change management. That said, every organization must do the legwork to make the decision that’s right for their business and their product—no one solution is the wrong one, as long as it works.

If you decide that it's time to give PLM a try, check out this video on how Fusion Lifecycle can help you manage your bill of materials.

– Tyler Beck