CAD software has come a long way in terms of ease of use, interoperability, speed, and capabilities. But there is still a long way to go. We spoke to executives at leading CAD software companies to find out what’s most important to their users, and what the next revolution in CAD software will be.

Migrating from 2D to 3D

Engineers and designers who use CAD software have seen quantum leaps in ease of use, speed, and features in the past few years. Programs are more compatible with each other and with other types of engineering software, and the availability of increasingly faster hardware has improved productivity. But with all the improvements, there still is a barrier to using 3D CAD for many customers. For many, it’s the initial investment and the training involved, and for others, it’s simply the fear of change.

Image“People have to get out of their comfort zone and realize that they can be more effective in 3D,” said Jeff Ray, CEO of SolidWorks Corp. “There’s a fear — and it’s been perpetuated by CAD vendors — that it’s a big deal to go from 2D to 3D. For as many people as there are out there still using 2D, I hear that many reasons why they’re doing it. The fact is, once people start using 3D — assuming they’ve been trained and they’re getting support — they never go back to 2D. You talk to people who have made the change, and they can’t even tell you whether or not it was hard. It’s intuitive, it’s the way the brain thinks, and it’s the way human beings communicate,” he added.

Ease of use and cost also remain barriers to the switch from 2D to 3D. A significant learning curve is still required, even with improvements to the products. “Despite the significant advantages of 3D versus 2D modeling, some of the barriers to adoption exist, including the learning curve, ease of use, and cost,” said Sandy Joung, director of product marketing for PTC. “Modeling in 3D versus 2D requires a different cognitive process — similar to the difference in sculpting (3D) versus painting (2D). This change in user behavior, in addition to the learning curve required to use new software, results in a barrier to adoption,” she added.

ImageThe cost barrier exists primarily for smaller companies — how does one justify the investment? “It’s the ‘if it works don’t fix it’ mentality,” according to Kris Kasprzak, director of Solid Edge product marketing for Siemens PLM Software. “Measurable benefits are often adequate to demonstrate that 3D is superior to 2D. Ease of use is really no longer an issue for the educated consumer,” he said. “Today, the transition is easier than ever before with great migration tools and the ability to reuse existing geometry.”

Until recently, moving from 2D to 3D also involved interoperability issues. That’s changed, according to Simon Bosley, Inventor product manager at Autodesk. “Making the move was hard because of concerns about reusing existing investment in 2D drawings. This has changed with better DWG interoperability. Now that users can incorporate legacy data into the 3D model, they are much more willing to adopt 3D methodologies,” he said.

But some of the blame for the barriers to 2D-to-3D migration should be placed at the feet of the vendors, according to Greg Milliken, CEO of Alibre. “The vendors are fat and happy and have no real desire to see anything change. CAD vendors typically are hostile to their customers, locking them into proprietary file formats, charging an arm and a leg, and focusing on highend features that are more focused on their competition than their customers,” he said. “Most people just want good value, customer service, and simplicity. Give them that, pass on the bells and whistles, charge a fair price, and stand behind your product, and watch just how fast the barriers to 3D come down,” Milliken added.

Importance of Analysis & Simulation

ImageAs CAD programs continue to improve, users expect more capabilities in their core packages, including analysis and simulation. But how important is integrated analysis and simulation to the CAD user? Do they expect a certain level of analysis in their CAD software? “We believe analysis and simulation are becoming core aspects of CAD,” said Milliken. “While CAE has become somewhat of a standard offering in most production CAD systems, I believe it’s a long way from mainstream. Even vanilla 3D CAD has a significant way to go before ‘everyone’ has it, and unfortunately, no CAE vendor is really thinking outside the box. Most CAD vendors bundle the technology as a checkbox feature to say they have it, rather than really trying to change things,” he said.

Bosley agrees that integrated analysis and simulation have become increasingly important, and that basic finite-element analysis is well-understood and widely used. “More advanced forms of analysis are being conducted more often, although perhaps not yet mainstream in our market,” Bosley said. “People are under increasing pressure to understand the behavior and performance of their designs at an early stage and eliminate problems before manufacturing. That is driving adoption of advanced simulation and analysis tools,” he added.

ImageWith integrated analysis and simulation in the CAD program, “CAD users can increase their productivity and get their products to market faster by utilizing simulation and other analysis earlier in their design process,” according to Joung. “Users expect basic model analysis capabilities in a CAD product, as well as the ability to quickly analyze designs with add-on simulation modules or other products that are integrated seamlessly into the CAD application.”

The importance of integrated analysis and simulation has increased in the past five years, according to Kasprzak. “The scope of engineering is expanding more into analysis,” he said. And while most CAD users don’t expect built-in analysis, “they find it refreshing to see areas like static and modal analysis being delivered as part of the core CAD offering. Model associativity between CAD and analysis ensures that updates ripple through the process,” Kasprzak added.

“If CAD users don’t expect a certain level of analysis capability yet, they certainly will as this becomes the more accepted way to design,” stated Ray. “Market forces are pressuring them to do that because they have to reduce the time to market, reduce the number of prototypes, engineer higher quality and reliability into the product, and find ways to substitute materials that are less costly without sacrificing the ultimate user experience intended for the product,” he said.

Pros and Cons of PLM

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) continues to be a point of contention between users and vendors. It has advantages in easily managing CAD and other data, but users often find it confusing and are not sure how to effectively implement it while staying productive. Kasprzak believes that most, if not all, companies understand the concept of PLM and its advantages. “The confusion generally arises in understanding available offerings and the best way to implement them. Companies should implement in stages, trying not to do too much, too fast, and select a vendor they can grow with,” he explained.

The problem with PLM, said Bosley, is that PLM decisions involve extremely large corporate-level investments in complex systems and deployments that are difficult to implement with long ROI payback periods. “Individual CAD users probably have little say in the overall decision and adoption of PLM,” Bosley added. “They are along for the ride. What CAD users care about is their productivity — most CAD users are probably not concerned with the PLM issues unless it impacts their individual productivity.”

Milliken believes that “everyone is confused by PLM — even those who tout it. I bet you could ask a selection of executives from any CAD vendor — even those with PLM in their name — and you’d get a different explanation of what it is from each of them. PLM is one of those CAD vendor acronyms that was created to sell software and services — lots of services. We think of it as standing for ‘Pay Lots More.’”

Ray agrees that CAD users continue to be confused by PLM. “As many different users that are looking into PLM, there are that many different views of what PLM is and what it isn’t,” Ray said. “It can be very frustrating to someone who’s just trying to get their product out to market. What we find is a high percentage of CAD users out there are really looking for more effective ways to manage design data, which doesn’t necessarily have to come in a CAD file format. It can be PDFs, Word documents, or PowerPoints — all of these need to be captured and included in the design data.”

Usability versus Capabilities

ImageSo, are CAD users ultimately unwilling to compromise between usability and capabilities? Why are users required to choose whether they have an easy-to-use product, or one that provides the capabilities they require to do their job?

“Users are not willing to compromise between usability and powerful design capabilities,” Joung stated. “Product design is continually increasing in complexity, and global competition is putting pressure on discrete manufacturers to deliver better products faster and cheaper. CAD users need the power to complete their entire design task, and they want those capabilities easily accessible,” she said.

The next major step — either evolutionary or revolutionary — in the CAD market should be accessibility, according to Milliken. “What if any engineer in their day-to-day work saw something that could be improved, and they went back to their desk, whipped out a quick conceptual design, did a quick first-pass analysis, and then output a PDF file containing both 3D and 2D data that could be sent around for feedback and discussion? The next step for CAD,” Milliken added, “is less about the features or user interface, and more about getting it out from behind the barriers erected by CAD vendors. Put it in everyone’s hands, keep it simple, and get out of the way.”


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2008 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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