Several years back, the CAD market started to shift. It was clear that SolidWorks had pretty much run its course, and it was time for something new to take over as leader. We saw Synchronous Technology appear, then the creation of Creo (remember the “jailbreak” dramatization?), the appearance of Fusion 360, rumors of a fuzzy something in France, and a new CAD development team that looked a lot like the cast from The Expendables.
So we arrive today with the CAD world in a bit of chaos. But the chaos isn’t like 20 years ago when we shifted from Pro/ENGINEER being the king of the heap to mid-range CAD starting to grow up. Back then the big question was if you were going to learn history-based solid modeling or not. Today your attention is divided between a couple of camps when you’re talking about new CAD software:
- flavors of direct modeling
- “free” CAD
- Lost in Technology
Some of the packages have some overlap, but let’s start talking about these groups.
Flavors of Direct Editing
Years ago there was CAD software called ME30 made by HP, which later became SolidDesigner, and then CoCreate, and then Pro/Direct, and then Creo. This has been a mainstay in the direct edit market. I used it when it was called SolidDesigner. It did some things well, and was connected to ME10, which was a fine 2D drafting package. It ran on a unix workstation. There are some others such as Iron CAD and KeyCreator (formerly CADKEY).
There are also some newer direct edit packages like Autodesk’s Fusion. New CAD packages are hard to come up with. The functionality and quality expectations for CAD are very high. If you can’t do everything, you might as well stay home.
Eight years ago it was trendy in the CAD media to claim that Direct Edit techniques were going to take over the future of CAD. The “future” claims were largely driven by a new CAD package called Spaceclaim, which was controversial because it lacked some basic functionality. It looked more like a geometry pre-processor for analysis tasks. Eventually it was bought up by one of the 3D print companies on an acquisition binge. It still exists, but the new owner doesn’t seem bent on using it to achieve CAD world domination.
This period of optimism for direct edit techniques was when Siemens PLM was bringing Synchronous Technology to the market. No one knew what it was or how it worked, but they were all positive it was part of “the future”.
One thing the latest era of technology has taught us is that the best way to sell something is to give it away. This seems maybe a little self-contradictory until you realize that something as complex as CAD requires some sort of a trial, and trial software is essentially free. So calling it “free” or “trial”, well, if we play word association games, “free” wins every time.
When I worked for CAD resellers, the one sure way to get your buddy the sales manager to turn red and blow smoke was to tell him that so-and-so customer wanted a free license of software. It was this totally irrational knee-jerk reaction that I would sometimes trigger just for the wonder of watching it again with my jaw hanging limp and eyes squinted with a lack of comprehension. “Free!” and watch them freak out.
Anyway, these are no libertines. Free is never free. Free is just a word that is used as smelly bait to lure people who want stuff but are unwilling to pay for it. So call it free, or call it trial. One word attracts folks under 30, the other folks over 30. That’s the only difference I can find.
So what CAD is “free” (not)? Onshape. Fusion360. Sketchup. ProgeCAD???? You get the picture. CAD that doesn’t make drawings. CAD that’s experimental or derivative. CAD that’s simple enough for non-engineers/designers. CAD that puts what you design into the public domain. Anyway.
Lost in Technology
These guys are betting big. They are throwing the hail-mary pass to beat all hail-mary passes. Their vision is – who knows – 20, 40 years out? Not that that’s a bad thing, but I just don’t think its something that engineers can buy and use as CAD software today. Or tomorrow. Yes, of course I’m talking about Dassault and PTC. Dassault’s vision is so futuristic that they’ve been clarifying it for the press for the last 5 years. Every now and then you’ll hear some press wonk say they understand it. Or did for a minute. It’s one of those things you have to look at out of the side of your eye. It’s not just mechanical design. It’s fashion, mining, towing icebergs to Africa.
And PTC is so disinterested in CAD and mechanical design that they are headed for the IoT: Internet Of Things.
And the cloud? The cloud is great for some stuff. Like this blog. This blog runs on software on the web, and all the data is stored on the web. It checks all the boxes to be called “cloud”. I can write from my phone, tablet, PC, regardless of OS, device, screen size, race, religion or creed. But this blog is stuff I want to share with every body. And it gets hacked from time to time. Can you say the same about your CAD data?
Plus, the cloud doesn’t do anything for your mechanical design. Let me say that again. The cloud does nothing for mechanical design. The cloud is just an IT thing. Is that really where you want to invest? Don’t you want your CAD provider to be innovating design tools? Shouldn’t real CAD be able to make 2D drawings? Cloud isn’t related to CAD anymore than glossy magazines are related to muscle cars.
So Wachu Gonna Do?
Your old CAD package is still as good as it always was, but we’re smarter now than we were 20 years ago. Now we know that history-based CAD has some major gotcha’s in it that we didn’t fully understand back when we bought into the concept. Recipe-based dependency feature trees don’t stand up to changes unless you are very careful, or you never improve your designs much from the original idea. You don’t always make changes the way you thought you would when you first modeled that part.
In-context design, what seemed oh-so-valuable after the original demo, turns out that it’s full of traps, it slows you down, prevents you from reusing parts, and makes file management a nightmare.
When you prepare to move away from software that can only work in history-based mode, you’ll need to consider a tool that can transcend that. You need CAD that is primarily a mechanical design tool, not an exercise in cloud. You need to work with a company that looks to its users for what their needs are, not one that imposes a pet solution. You need software that’s flexible enough to give you options (history or direct) rather than forcing you down one rut or the other.
It’s time to change.