I would go with #1 or #2. It's a little bit less overwhelming/confusing when looking in the vault not having to look at thousands of folders at the top level. That being said, it doesn't really matter if you're using the search cards.
I have ours set up like #1. Main category\Product\sub folders (CAD folder, data reports, SOPs, Marketing specs, test fixtures, tooling). The main category and product variables get populated to our drawings. It also helps with searching by narrowing down by category, product, and then a generic definition. If we didn't have the category and product, it would pull up a lot more files if searching a generic definition.
We do #3. (C:\Vault\DesignCAD\<product>\subfolders)
We make a relatively small number of products that we keep making for years. We make changes and develop new products.
I can't really judge the value of your categories, but it is annoying to browse a really deep structure, so don't use the categories if you don't need them. Do make at least a few sub folders, especially for the ones with more files. If you have just 50 files for a certain product then don't use subfolders, add them later if you ever need them.
Besides the Product folders I have Vault\DesignCAD\CommonCAD with shared stuff and bolts and electronics connectors...
1000 files in a single folder is certainly possible, but if you have some clear way to break it up, that is helpful for browsing. Can be really simple divisions, just think about what would make the largest groups. We usually have these same folders under each product.
I don't really like the idea of mixing other file types in with SolidWorks. That was certainly a bad practice before PDM (searching thru lots of junk, more difficult to move folders, where-used takes longer, etc), but maybe in EPDM it doesn't really matter. We use search a lot to find things - so the folder structure is less important than it was without PDM.
Also think about how you want permissions to work. Even though the Mfg Engineers have the same product folders - we duplicated the structure for them (instead of mixing in their files with the Design folders) so that it was easy to set permissions by group.
Expect change - good file management is an ongoing thing.
Ok thanks much guys, good to know I'm not doing something bonkers. Can't mark both your answers as correct...
We're going with #1, which is aligned with both of your posts. We have a lot of varied products and a straight list would be hard to navigate and find similar products. Hate it when I catch my guys redesigning something we've already got done. =)
Agreed that if we had a simpler product line #3 would be preferable.