CAD systems can be a design engineer’s best friend or their worst enemy. They help engineers create better products faster, but can prove daunting and frustrating in the process.We spoke to executives at several CAD companies to find out how they are helping their customers get past issues of ease of use, collaboration, and functionality, as well as other pain points users are still facing with their CAD tools.

#1 Problem: Ease of Use

CAD vendors have made great strides in improving ease of use of their software, but the fact remains that designers and engineers still have difficulty interacting with their CAD system. With all of the incremental improvements that have been made in this area, there are still pain points that cause users difficulty. So what are CAD vendors doing to improve the user experience?

“The main pain points that customers find when using CAD are related to the complexity of the tools,” said Mike Campbell, Vice President of Product Management, MCAD Solutions, for PTC. “Simpler CAD tools on the market generally are regarded as easier to use, but have fewer, less powerful capabilities. We’ve recognized that customers often are unwilling to make this compromise.”are unwilling to make this compromise.”

The key, added Campbell, is to provide products that are usable, but that don’t compromise the power and capability designers need. “By employing an approach that allows the user to get simple tasks done simply, but still providing a path to progress the design and take advantage of more complex capabilities, we’re doing more to improve the usability of 3D CAD in general.”

Adrian Scholes, Director of Solid Edge Marketing for UGS, agrees that too much functionality is a common barrier to ease of use for many designers. “A big problem with traditional 3D programs is that they add so much functionality that they soon get complicated and unwieldy. They essentially provide you with a toolbox and expect you to work out the best tool for the task at hand.” Specifically, Scholes continued, his product provides specialized commands and environments that help users design more quickly than with general-purpose CAD modeling tools.

Simplifying features and capabilities also is key to Alibre. “We focus on providing only the features that the majority of people need and use. It’s basically the 80-20 rule — 80% of the functionality at 20% of the price,” said Greg Milliken, Alibre’s President & CEO. “As a result, we don’t focus on extremely advanced freeform surfacing, extremely large assemblies, or a lot of sophisticated and complex options. There is just less to learn.” Even so, Milliken continued, “Ease of use is still a barrier to wider 3D adoption for all 3D CAD systems, including Alibre Design.”

Productivity is another key aspect of ease of use that still hinders designers and engineers. “Making the system faster from an interaction standpoint is key,” said John McEleney, CEO of SolidWorks Corporation. People will find the system easier to use and friendlier if it’s faster. People, by their nature, are inquisitive, and they want to try things. The problem is that we, as vendors, have made it horrific for people if they make a mistake,” he explained. “To go back has been very expensive, and sometimes you can’t go back. Users want a system that’s almost fault-tolerant.”

Engineers also find productivity a stumbling block when moving between 2D and 3D CAD, as Autodesk has found. According to Andrew Anagnost, Senior Director of Autodesk’s Manufacturing Solutions Division, the company has recognized that their “customers need to support both 2D and 3D CAD, but they find it difficult to make an easy transition to 3D without losing valuable 2D data. They’ve challenged us to improve their productivity and IP reuse and access,” he stated.

While the basic user interface of most CAD systems has been improved, further simplification is always welcome by users. Said Milliken, “We currently have a project underway to make significant strides toward further simplifying the core modeling interface — things like adding simple push-and-pull commands to create solids from 2D sketches, and making the process of moving from 2D to 3D more transparent.”

“The idea of how things go together is still one of the more challenging parts of our system,” said McEleney. “That means assembly mates and mating conditions. It’s still very geometrically oriented and very challenging. There’s more work to be done.”

Another ease-of-use problem users experience with their CAD tools is interoperability. Many engineers and designers use more than one system, or use a combination of a CAD system, analysis software, and other programs. Making sure that data can be accurately and completely transferred from one program to another has proved to be problematic in many cases.

“Our users have fewer obstacles with interoperability between CAD systems than most CAD users,” said Robert Bean, Executive Vice President of Kubotek USA. “Our customers are dealing with larger, more complex files than ever before. Data is being received in various file formats created in different CAD systems. Working with those files has become increasingly important to delivering value within the supply chain.”

“We are finding that interoperability is something universally important to CAD users,” said Anagnost. “We are establishing partnerships with other players in the market to ensure that our users will not have to face the costly mistakes that accompany interoperability issues. We understand that large manufacturers may have multiple CAD programs to fit their needs, and it is our goal to make sure our software encourages integration with programs that are not in the Autodesk family.”

#2 Problem: Collaboration and the Internet

The way we obtain and share information — whether it’s CAD data or any other type of information — has changed completely since the Internet became ubiquitous. The Internet can be a valuable tool for collaboration of design and model data, but concerns about security remain. CAD users need to collaborate — with each other, their supply chain, and the enterprise — but the problem of securely sharing data is one that still exists.

“Customers need to quickly access information and easily communicate with co-workers, suppliers, partners, and customers,” said Campbell. “The Internet dramatically improves the way customers access information and collaborate by providing an efficient, lowcost infrastructure to connect people and information resources.”

Enabling users to easily access data also helps customers compete, said Jennifer Toton, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Autodesk’s Collaboration Solutions. “To compete in today’s economy, all key stakeholders — including designers, product managers, shop supervisors, customers, and suppliers — need both the access and tools to collaborate on product design information early in the process. Best-in-class manufacturers utilize digital processes, including the Internet, for collaborating at all points in the manufacturing lifecycle.”

“As the Internet became viable as a communication mechanism, technology vendors did a great job of confusing customers about the best way to use it,” said Scholes. “At first, there was a lot of talk about collaborating and designing in ‘real time.’ Now, companies are realizing that the most important aspect of collaboration is getting the right data to the right people quickly, securely, and in a format they can understand easily and interact with.”

Collaborating and sharing data quickly is an attractive prospect for designers and engineers — it’s the “securely” part that worries many. “There is a major force that drives every company to increase the amount that it communicates with other people — that’s globalization,” explained McEleney. “Sure, security concerns are there, but they’re more of a speed bump than a road block.”

That speed bump, added McEleney, is simply a cost of doing business. “Yes, there are dangerous things lurking on the Internet. But the overall benefit of connectedness is far better,” he said. “Think about when PCs were standalone systems, and then there were local area networks. All of a sudden, you could connect them, and it was amazing. Take that a step further, and you’re connecting people to the world. Would anyone ever want to go back to standalone PCs? The answer is no, of course not.”

So how are CAD vendors balancing the risks and rewards of collaboration? Milliken explained that Alibre is using a peer-to-peer architecture that lets users connect with each other if an Internet connection is present. “The peer-to-peer architecture does not require collaboration or user data to exist on our servers. All collaboration happens point-topoint, directly between users, or entirely behind a corporate firewall, so security is not really a big issue for us.”

“Security concerns can hinder the adoption and implementation of Internet-based collaboration technologies if the customer is not aware of the security technologies supported by the collaboration solutions,” said Campbell. “Internet-based solutions have come a long way over the past few years to provide secure online sessions and secure data workspaces and repositories to address this issue. Further developments in digital rights management also will help decrease security concerns,” he added.

#3 Problem: More Features

As discussed already, CAD users are looking to vendors to provide them with an easy-to-use product that lets them do their job without many pain points. Often, that means more features. “Users are looking for feature enhancements in a number of areas to help them improve both their personal productivity as well as the overall engineering design process productivity,” said Campbell. “This includes analysis, data interoperability, manufacturing, electromechanical design, visualization, and digital rights management.”

Other features users are looking for include performance improvements and analysis capabilities. To enhance performance — and continue to improve ease of use — automated tasks are key, said McEleney. “When users look at a CAD system, they want more things to be automated. One of the great compliments we get about our product is that ‘it just works.’ It’s the idea of taking 90+% of what people want to do and making it fewer clicks and more intelligent — and making it less intimidating.”

Improving performance also is an important development area for UGS. According to Scholes, “To be able to work interactively with assemblies in excess of 100,000 parts, optimal performance is essential.” But, he added, “That is a very small part of the designer’s workflow. Of greater importance is the ability to navigate, manipulate, and document assemblies efficiently and effectively.”

According to Bean, Kubotek USA is adding more power to extract intelligence from geometry — any geometry. “The workflow we have implemented links real-time feature discovery and pattern recognition to our selection approach. This allows our suite of geometry creation and editing tools to apply feature intelligence throughout the system. Our philosophy is to put the intelligence in the tools, and not the CAD file,” he said.

Front-end and integrated analysis capabilities that are easy to use and understand are on the wish list for users as well. Rather than requiring an analyst to perform simulations and analyses using advanced, and often complicated, packages, CAD-integrated analysis functionality enables designers to do much of the analysis themselves.

That type of integrated capability has been met well by SolidWorks users, said McEleney. “There is no doubt that we’ve been driving the idea of mainstream design analysis with COSMOS. It’s been accepted incredibly well — even more than our original expectations.”

Alibre also has addressed the need for analysis with add-on toolboxes. “We continue to add more analysis and simulation capabilities, and also useful tools such as engineering calculations,” said Milliken. The company offers a fully integrated motion simulation add-on, and, as Milliken explained, “We also added an EngineersToolBox, providing all manner of common engineering calculations. We also bundle FEA software and CAM software.”

For 2007, CAD vendors are promising more enhancements to speed, ease of use, and products that support Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows Vista®, and they’ll continue to address the basic needs of their customers.

“Our job at the end of the day as a vendor is to help people design better products — better-looking products, higher functioning products, and more reliable products — all at a lower cost and faster,” stated McEleney. “One of the ways we can play our small part in that is by reducing the amount of CAD overhead — the amount of time wasted playing around with the system. That’s our goal. It’s easy to say, but hard to do,” he said. “We’ve made great progress in our industry, but we have a long way to go.”


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2007 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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