A Stagnant Market?

A number of the executives we polled indicated that the CAD market has become a “mature” market, meaning that the number of truly innovative improvements in the technology has leveled off. “For several years, the CAD market had been on a fairly steady and maturing path, with incremental improvements to how CAD tools operated,” according to Joan Hirsch, vice president of product design solutions for Siemens PLM Software. “However,” she added, “over the past few years, there has been somewhat of a revolution taking place. While it may have seemed that the introduction of breakthrough technologies was over for CAD, we believe recent advancements like synchronous technology have opened a new chapter in how products are designed.”

Chris Randles, president and CEO of SpaceClaim, agrees that while the market has not generated revolutionary technologies in the past few years, that trend is changing. “Although it’s true that the traditional CAD market has become stagnant, recent innovations are changing the role of CAD. Direct modeling, properly packaged, enables 3D to be used by entire engineering organizations, not just highly trained CAD professionals,” he explained. “Everybody shares the vision that someday engineers will edit and pass around 3D design ideas as easily as we do Word documents today,” said Randles.

“If we agree that a mature market is defined by the absence of significant growth or innovation, then, yes, I think the CAD market has matured and become stagnant, with no significant new technologies recently introduced,” according to Brian Shepherd, executive vice president of product development for PTC.

PTC sought to address this problem by introducing last year its Creo® software, which Shepherd predicts will “reinvigorate this market and unlock a new wave of growth. Something needs to change the way people work with CAD tools.”

But other executives disagree that the CAD market has been in a slump, and believe that innovation has been continuous throughout the past few years. Said Jeff Ray, CEO of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp., “The market definitely is not stagnant. Even in a down economy, we saw a vibrant market with growth in our subscription model. And there continues to be opportunity to address the real business needs of our customers as they continue to expand and evolve.” Last year, SolidWorks indicated that they would be supporting three new platforms for the future: the desktop, online, and mobile. “We took a fresh look at our users’ demands, and are liberating them once again with the option of a new platform that will enable them to get their jobs done faster and easier,” explained Ray.

Grant Rochelle, director of industry management for Autodesk’s Manufacturing Industry Group, agrees that the CAD market has been evolving through digital prototyping advances. “The broader CAD market has been anything but stagnant,” he said. “I travel the world talking to all size manufacturers, and from what I hear about today’s global competitive environment, 3D is not enough for product designers to compete and win anymore. The ability to work with digital prototypes sets apart the companies who are best in class.”

Optimizing the User Experience

The experience of learning and productively implementing CAD tools has been less than pleasant for users for many years. But improving ease of use seems to be another area in which our executives share much optimism. By incorporating new platforms and focusing on customers’ processes, today’s CAD tools are helping to optimize the user experience.

“Any skill worth learning requires passion, persistence, and perspiration,” said Paul Grayson, chairman and CEO of Alibre. “People forget how much effort they put into learning to ride a bike, become a good swimmer, or learn a second language. That said, I expect touch- and gesture-based interfaces to represent the greatest improvement in ease of use as they become pervasive in future generations of computers,” Grayson said. “As these interfaces become increasingly available, CAD developers will rely on them to make their products more accessible and easier to use.”

Complexity of the software has always been a barrier to ease of use, according to Randles. “Most CAD systems are designed with all of the capabilities required to fully detail and document designs for manufacture, encompassing an extremely intimidating range of geometry creation tools and annotation tools. We’ve overcome that by creating a user interface that makes the easy part easy, while unobtrusively placing the more advanced capabilities a few clicks away.”

The importance of mastering 3D CAD is paramount, and software company executives recognize that making 3D easy to implement is essential. “The vast majority of users come from a 2D background, so it is important to present them with workflows that are very comfortable and familiar,” explained Rochelle. “No matter what application they use, everything should have a common look and feel, and be highly interoperable. It comes down to packaging and deployment. We provide users with a way to bridge easily from 2D to 3D, and then to lots of other applications.”

According to Ray, 3D CAD tools can break the ease-of-use barrier if provided in a more intuitive way on a familiar platform. “The move online is a good example of how we can break down the barriers to learning and implementing 3D CAD tools. Anytime, anywhere access to online tools will certainly help make engineering and design communication easier,” he said. “When considering how best to develop our online offering, we took into account the human factors, usability, and workflows.”

Said Dan Staples, director of Solid Edge product development for Siemens PLM Software, “The effective use of synchronous technology has provided a significant leap forward in the intuitive nature of 3D CAD design. By providing all the productivity benefits of a history-based approach with the flexibility of explicit modeling, synchronous technology removes the barriers to ease of use by freeing the user to focus on product design and innovation, and not on how the CAD tool works.”

While he sees ease of use as a barrier to learning and implementing CAD, Shepherd also sees other issues that need to be resolved; specifically, interoperability, assembly management, and technology lock-in. Eliminating technology lock-in, for example, enables companies to use the CAD software that is best suited for their needs. “Many customers are trapped by legacy tools. The inability to easily translate data between systems makes it difficult to retire old tools and migrate to a new technology, application, or vendor,” he explained.

The New Face of CAD Users

As the economy continues to recover, more organizations are required to do more with less, which often means that design engineers are taking on more varied duties, meaning they often have to learn new skills. So, the “typical” CAD user of a few years ago has changed significantly.

“There is a significant cultural shift underway in modern economies where all workers are expected to be generalists that easily shift to new skills,” explained Grayson. “Technology-driven change is accelerating around the globe, and no worker has the luxury of learning a skill for life. The CAD industry,” he added, “is heading toward the ‘consumerization of manufacturing.’ The tools of factory production are increasingly available to individuals and small companies. As a result, the creation of physical prototypes is becoming analogous to the development of modern software — a couple of guys with laptops, an idea, and some expertise can conceive, design, test, and make physical products rapidly and at low cost.”

Staples agrees that global competition will continue to drive companies to change the role of the design engineer. “Global competition to get products to market faster while reducing cost are some of the driving factors in demanding more from less. One way to achieve this is to use computer-aided engineering (CAE) simulation and analysis tools early in the design process to help optimize material usage and increase design efficiency.”

The ultimate key to helping today’s design engineer be more productive with increasing responsibilities is streamlining tasks and helping them get more out of their CAD tools. “It’s true that our customers are very busy,” said Randles. “The most successful are focusing on performing as much value-added work up-front as possible. They strive to understand what knowledge gaps introduce risk, and eliminate those gaps before making significant investments in time-consuming activities such as detailed design in traditional CAD systems.”

Rochelle agrees that an investment in new technology is key. “Our customers tell us that since the downturn began, many jobs have gone away, and they are being asked to take more cost out of current products, and drive more innovation with fewer resources. So, this requires them to invest in new technologies for their design communities, such as simulation, visualization, and electrical controls design.” He added that, “you have to squeeze more out of your existing product lines. Small teams are responsible for not just design and engineering, but for really great visualization so the idea gets to production.”

“What our customers really ask for are ways to speed up and streamline everyday tasks that make up the bulk of their work, and to deal with the challenges of engineering in one location and manufacturing in another,” explained Ray. “At the same time, we recognize the fact that engineers are constantly expected to address more aspects of the complete product design.”

According to Shepherd, doing more with less means PTC needs to enable them to be as creative and efficient as possible in the product design process. “To do this, we need to deliver technology that gives our customers the right tool for the right user, at the right time. This enables everyone in the organization to participate in the product development process and can result in unlocking new ideas, creativity, and personal efficiency.” But, Shepherd added, it can’t stop there. “People need more than just the right tool — they need the flexibility to switch between modeling paradigms, the ability to incorporate data from any CAD system, and the power and scalability needed to create, validate, and reuse information for highly configured products.”

Trends for 2011

While the past year has been focused on recovery, this year the focus is on innovation and new technology. New trends in social media, cloud computing, online CAD, advanced computer hardware, and affordability are in the forefront for 2011.

“The big news last year is that all the major vendors — pressed by their customers — finally recognized that their CAD tools are not able to deliver usable 3D to engineers and other non-CAD experts,” stated Randles. “The self-serving mantra of a single CAD tool for all is something of the past. 3D will become increasingly pervasive.”

Said Staples, “While the economy is still struggling, it has shown significant signs of recovery from a year ago. Companies continue to selectively invest in technology that can make them more competitive. Manufacturers will continue to push for ways to be more efficient without complex systems that require a lot of training and overhead.”

Hirsch added that an important trend for 2011 is being able to harness the massive amount of data generated by IT tools throughout product development, and to leverage that data. “Product development organizations need a way to quickly visualize a situation at any moment in time. A CAD model provides an image of the product, but the need exists to dive deeper into the information behind the geometry to evaluate how the product will perform, what it will cost to produce, and what it will take to manufacture it.”

Leveraging data also involves accessibility to the data, and managing the tools — both software and hardware — necessary to access it. “The trends that will have the greatest impact are based on the core values of accessibility and affordability,” said Grayson. “These include powerful, low-cost laptops; pervasive, high-bandwidth Internet connections; free and low-cost business and personal productivity solutions; low-cost design and analysis software; and access to low-cost and scalable manufacturing technologies such as 3D printers and outsourced manufacturing services.”

For Rochelle, software platforms are a major trend for 2011. “Users are increasingly mobile and using mobile apps and devices, and there are new generations of design software users with different expectations of design software. They expect zero learning curve interaction.” Cloud computing, he said, will continue to grow in importance. “Our view is that desktop software and online services will interact, and the lines between desktop applications and Web applications will blur.”


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from this issue here.

Read more articles from the archives here.