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  • CFO Magazine

Dream Catalog

New software presents a single, up-to-date version of product information.

Kenneth T. Flynn, vice president and corporate controller at Proliance International Inc., an automotive heating-and-cooling products maker, fairly radiates confidence. That’s because whenever a customer needs to check the price or specifications of something like a heater core or an air-conditioner condenser, Flynn is certain the information will be both accurate and current. What makes him so sure? Product information management (PIM) software.

Like a growing number of manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, New Haven–based Proliance has turned to PIM technology to ensure that the entire enterprise — employees, customers, and suppliers — is working with the same, updated product data. “We want everyone to see the exact same thing, with no confusion,” says Flynn.

PIM software surfaced about three or four years ago, when vendors began merging print-catalog management programs with automated Web product-listing tools. The combination created a new software family that combines the structure and visual quality of print products with the Web’s interactivity and immediacy.

Product information management aims to bring a single “truth” to online product listings. The technology eliminates the need to check for the most recent catalog versions, or to find editions tailored to a specific market or region. And with all relevant information about each product presented in a single place, users no longer need to switch between price lists and spec sheets.

A PIM product typically consolidates and organizes data stored in other applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management systems. Says Andrew White, a research director at Stamford, Connecticut-based technology advisory firm Gartner Inc.: “It becomes the central repository of product information, serving anyone who needs good, clean data about products.”

Like Proliance. “Previously, a person in marketing would use an Excel data sheet that had certain data fields while a colleague would see other fields — or maybe the same fields but with different data,” says Flynn. “PIM allows us to have all the information in one spot, so we can exchange information such as pricing, packaging specs, digital images, and so on.” By linking the PIM software to its existing JD Edwards ERP system, Proliance can now share updated product information as soon as the data enters the system. “When we make the change internally, the customer instantly has access to those changes,” says Flynn.

Vendor Glut

The PIM market really started to take off last year. Today, upwards of a dozen vendors offer PIM products or have added the technology to existing software suites. Several bigger vendors, including Oracle, SAP, IBM, and i2, offer PIM as one of their so-called master data management tools, according to Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research Inc., a Boston-based technology advisory firm. Some of those vendors acquired small PIM specialists to enter the market; SAP, for one, bought A2i in 2004.

Meanwhile, several of the remaining independent PIM vendors have begun targeting their wares at businesses in specific industries. For example, Redwood City, California-based Comergent Technologies Inc. offers a solution tailored for automotive companies, while Wayne, Pennsylvania-based FullTilt Solutions Inc. has a product suited for the health-care industry.

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