As traditional Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software expands with more simulation capabilities and wider enterprise data management, software vendors are meeting customers’ demands with solutions that encompass the entire product development process, from initial design through end of life. In our annual poll of executives at leading CAD software companies, we learned how CAD continues to evolve, and what some of the important trends are for 2014.

The Reinvention of CAD

Aaron Kelly, Dassault Systemes SolidWorks
The executives we polled all agreed that the definition of CAD has evolved over the years, and continues to morph into many types of solid modeling and design software. “CAD used to be an electronic means of creating and displaying lines and arcs and dimensions,” explained Aaron Kelly, Vice President of User Experience and Product Portfolio Management at Dassault Systѐmes SolidWorks. “It evolved decades ago to refer to solid modeling, 3D visualization, and related parts and assemblies. Now, the definition of CAD has evolved much further. Today, the CAD user expects much more from the promise of 3D introduced decades ago,” said Kelly. “Now there is an expectation of workflow-specific functionality. A production-ready mechanical CAD program must have sheet metal design tools, weldment tools, routing tools, plastic parts design tools, and mold design tools, or it’s destined to be overlooked.”

While there are software vendors that still consider themselves to be solely CAD companies, many of them have changed, based upon demands in the marketplace, to provide better overall process coverage across the entire enterprise, according to Brian Thompson, Vice President of Product Management, CAD Segment, for PTC. The key, added Thompson, is to offer solutions that span the time first product requirement is written, all the way through the development process and beyond.

“The term CAD is one of those terms that immediately resonates with customers all over the world,” Thompson said. “It certainly isn’t becoming antiquated, but is now a piece of the overall product design solution.” Customers, he said, are putting a high-fidelity 3D CAD model at the center of their development process, resulting in considerable efficiency gains.

Chris Randles, President and CEO of SpaceClaim, agrees that there is nothing antiquated about the term CAD, which still applies to traditional parametric-feature-based CAD vendors. “The core technology is the same, and the job function is the same, so changing the name for it is a semantics exercise. We see CAD continuing to be an important step in many companies’ product development process,” said Randles, “but the use of 3D is expanding rapidly, while the use of traditional CAD is not.”

John Fox, Siemens PLM Software
The most important role CAD must still play is to increase engineers’ productivity, according to John Fox, Vice President of Marketing for Siemens PLM Software’s Solid Edge and Velocity Series products. “A big part of that is 3D design — what’s traditionally been called CAD. We believe CAD provides a central functionality, but we’re now more focused on a broader set of capabilities addressing the whole product lifecycle,” said Fox.

The Present and Future of Mobile Design

As more designers and engineers need to work anywhere, anytime, they are looking to mobile devices such as tablets to follow the route of the laptop and gain enough computing power to support full-function 3D modeling. The question is how software vendors will keep up with such demands.

“Mobile devices have a role in both the creation and consumption worlds,” stated Kelly. “Mobile devices today enable users to access anything connected to the Web. Computing power on a mobile device is less important if the computation is done on servers. That being said, mobile devices help people share design data in places where they could not in the past.” Kelly added that he has seen an evolution from the workstation to the laptop, and now to the mobile device to access data in the field, and it’s up to the vendors to leverage new user interactions for design software to offer more value on mobile devices.

Fox agrees that mobile devices tend to be considered more appropriate for content consumption, rather than creation, but that perception will begin to change quickly. “Some mobile devices are already bridging that gap. A bigger viewable area helps visualize and increase the efficiency of content creation — easily addressed by a bigger device or an added monitor.”

Chris Randles, SpaceClaim
While Randles explains that SpaceClaim users can edit models created in any CAD system or design 3D models from scratch on a tablet, “the question is how far can we push that capability. We are working to provide remote users the power to access a shared modeling session on phones, tablets, or PCs, and work together with colleagues to edit geometry,” he added.

“Access to models is not to be dismissed lightly,” Randles noted. Many companies are looking toward real-time collaboration as the next big step in speeding their workflows. To be nimble, companies need to incorporate feedback and intelligence from people across the organization as quickly as possible, and with an increasingly mobile/remote workforce, and that often means accessing that intelligence on the device employees have with them.”

Currently, world-class 3D CAD systems are built to take advantage of the best computing resources available, and these resources tend to exist in workstations or laptops. Said Thompson, “For the near future, our customers are specifically asking for a richer interaction with their 3D CAD models on mobile platforms, but they stop short of asking for full-fidelity modeling capabilities. They want to use today’s fairly powerful mobile devices to view, mark-up, collaborate, and perform other functions of the everyday engineer, and the fact that these devices can support those activities is already great evidence of progress.”

A Competitive Edge

Brian Thompson, PTC
Simulation and analysis software has improved drastically over the past few years, becoming easier to use and also becoming a necessity for manufacturers seeking a competitive advantage. As part of its reinvention, CAD software needs to follow suit.

“It can be easy for vendors to get complacent, to look at a software technology like traditional CAD that’s been around a while and say, ‘that’s good enough, let’s move on to the next thing.’ But there’s often a better approach, and we feel that’s the case with CAD,” said Fox. “There’s a lot to be gained when you step back and rethink old approaches.”

Old approaches are still being used, according to Randles. “Speaking strictly of CAD, no, it has not followed suit. CAD companies have not abandoned the core technology that makes it impossible for their software to be used by non-experts. CAD is deeply embedded into the processes of many companies, and at the same time, unadoptable for the majority of engineers,” he said. “One interesting trend we’ve seen recently is the expansion of 3D beyond product design, analysis, and manufacturing. While 3D design is increasingly necessary for companies to keep up competitively, that does not imply growth in CAD use, which has been, and will likely remain, relatively flat.”

The integration of simulation with design software is key, said Kelly. “Simulation functionality has been proven to give customers a competitive advantage. It took a little time, but CAD has evolved to include simulation functionality.”

Trends for 2014

A common trend that has been developing, and will continue to do so, is cloud applications of design software. Engineers and designers still experience some uncertainty about the role the cloud plays, and about the security of their designs being stored online. “The concerns we hear about are more centered around where data is stored than where the software is running,” said Thompson. “Most companies are not yet comfortable with their IP being stored in a cloud server, unless that server is within their own enterprise network. Cost advantages are significant enough that many companies concerned about IP protection are likely to keep an open mind and continue to investigate ways of leveraging cloud-based technologies in their own enterprise.”

While it’s likely that companies will have concerns about the public cloud, Randles stated that it is a point on which he will not ask customers to compromise. “There is a spectrum of concern, and the challenge is meeting the security demands of the most protective companies while delivering the collaboration power sought by the most permissive.” SpaceClaim’s plans for a cloud-enabled, live 3D collaboration system are expected to meet customer expectations without violating that “prime directive,” said Randles.

Kelly explained that SolidWorks also has spoken with customers about their design data being securely stored online. “Customers, as expected, have some questions, but are open to it,” Kelly said. “Most customers discuss how they are already using company information on the cloud. Customers embrace the advantages of connectivity that only the cloud offers. We think the design software industry is trailing other categories in the move to cloud-based offerings.”

Trends in mainstream CAD and engineering also will play a vital role this year. “The trend toward systems engineering and other forces democratizing 3D will continue, requiring all parties involved in product design, testing, and manufacturing to further integrate their efforts to stay competitive,” said Randles. “The single-model, single-vendor dogma is obsolete. Manufacturing has become global, and supply chains and partnerships are constantly changing. Therefore, the CAD and engineering software environment is heterogeneous, and manufacturers have to be able to work with a variety of data, especially CAD data,” he said.

Fox explained that a recent survey showed that one of the top frustrations about current CAD offerings is that companies can’t always afford the functionality they need. “The perpetual license model will always have its place, but we’re finding subscriptions are an attractive option for some customers. We see other, smaller companies and startups using subscriptions as an easy and affordable way to get access to a level of professional CAD that would otherwise have been out of reach.”

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2014 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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