If a picture is worth a thousand words, wouldn’t a 3D image be all the more priceless? That logic belies the recent flurry of activity among CAD vendors to leverage Microsoft Corp.’s new Vista operating system and Office 7 productivity suite. They see the platform as a way to proliferate 3D design data to mainstream users who are integral to the product development process, but not necessarily part of the traditional engineering and design organization.
On the heels of Microsoft Vista’s release this January, most of the leading CAD software providers, including UGS, SolidWorks Corp., Autodesk Inc., and Dassault Systemes, are readying new versions of their programs that go beyond basic support of the operating system. Specifically, the new crop of CAD programs, most to be available later this year, will tap into Vista’s improved search, user interface, security, and performance enhancements to make the 3D experience richer and more productive, not to mention, accessible, at some level, to the typical productivity worker using Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office suite.
UGS, for example, is working to make its Teamcenter Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) platform directly accessible from the new Office 7 suite so non-engineers involved in product development — say, procurement specialists or sales reps — can gain access or provide early input on product designs without having to leave the comfort of their standard applications and without requiring them to purchase and learn a 3D CAD tool. Some vendors like SolidWorks are optimizing Vista’s built-in search functions to work with 3D CAD models with an eye toward promoting parts and design reuse, while others like Autodesk are tapping XML and 3D functionality in Vista to facilitate the sharing and markup of lightweight 3D models.
“We are seeing an increasing need for 3D across all industries,” says Simon Floyd, technology strategist for PLM, with Microsoft’s Enterprise Partner Group, which is part of the Redmond, WA-based software giant’s Manufacturing Industry Group. “3D speaks so well to people; rather than being restricted to CAD, medical applications, and games, we’ve taken some of the benefits those people have traditionally gotten in their 3D environments and put them into Vista.”
Opening up (or as some vendors say, democratizing) CAD data so it’s accessible across the enterprise and not locked away in a proprietary engineering system is absolutely essential in today’s global product design climate. Companies need tools that make it easier to share 3D models and iterate on designs with far flung suppliers and engineering partners who don’t necessarily have or need their chosen CAD tool. In addition, many functions outside of engineering — marketing, procurement or manufacturing, for example — need to weigh in during the design process, and a full-blown CAD environment can be overkill, both from a training and cost standpoint.
While Microsoft’s Vista and new Office platform certainly help CAD vendors unlock the intellectual property stored in their systems, it’s just one of many efforts underway to make product design and development more of a cross-functional process. “This is all part of the evolution of opening up CAD data,” says Mike Burkett, vice president with AMR Research Inc., a market-research firm in Boston. “Vista provides an incremental path these guys were headed down anyway — that is, to be able to interact more effectively with the non-engineering environment.”
Couch Potato, No More
Getting more people in an organization plugged into the rich set of product data is what UGS has been pursuing for some time with its open PLM strategy, according to Chris Kelly, UGS’ vice president of partnerships and platforms. Like many of its competitors, UGS offers lightweight visualization capabilities for allowing non-CAD users to view, rotate, and perform basic markup tasks on 3D models, and its Teamcenter Community offering builds on Microsoft’s SharePoint platform to facilitate collaboration around product-related data and tasks across an extended design chain. UGS’ support for Vista and its work-in-progress to integrate Teamcenter with the Office 7 environment are additional steps in that same direction, these giving non-CAD users the ability to create 3D data, not just consume it.
In Teamcenter 2007, slated for delivery in the second quarter, product-related documents or spreadsheets created in Word or Excel would be automatically routed to the appropriate Teamcenter workflow, where they could be acted upon, Kelly says. So, for example, if a service rep encountered a particular problem with a product, they could write up a report and a suggestion for a fix in Word, and that input would automatically be feed into the Teamcenter repository where it is immediately accessible to the engineering team. “With PLM, we’ve been talking for years about getting data outside of engineering and manufacturing, and all the talk so far has been more of a consumption push,” Kelly explains. “Office gives us a way to deliver tools to non-expert users, allowing them to actively participate rather than be PLM couch potatoes.
Vista’s 3D graphics engine and the XML Paper Specification (XPS) provide another avenue for CAD vendors to facilitate more widespread sharing of 3D CAD data. In this vein, Autodesk announced a collaboration with Microsoft to integrate its DWF (Design Web Format) technology into Vista, allowing users to view and manage the highly compressed and detailed DWF files without having to download the free viewer. For its part, Dassault has worked with Microsoft on the development of its 3-DXML, a lightweight 3D file sharing format, to make it fully compatible with XAML, the 3D language used by Microsoft Vista.
“Vista helps make DWF on par with other standard file formats in the PC world, like GIF,” notes Kevin Wandryk, senior director of marketing for Autodesk Collaboration Solutions, in San Raphael, CA. Previously, non-Autodesk users would have to download Autodesk’s free viewing and editing tools over the Web in order to make use of DWF files. With Vista, Wandryk explains, users won’t need to take that extra step to view DWF files.
Improving the CAD Experience
Beyond opening up CAD data to the masses, Vista ushers in a variety of functionality that can help improve the overall CAD experience, including a new desktop search function. In its 2007 release, due out this quarter [NOTE: Q1] SolidWorks is leveraging its knowledge of how 3D CAD users work to add intelligence to Vista’s Instant Search feature, making it easier for CAD users to browse and find designs for reuse. “There’s a lot of data locked into CAD systems in different formats, which presents a big barrier for design reuse or repurposing,” says Austin O’Malley, chief technology officer at SolidWorks, in Concord, MA. “People haven’t had a good way to categorize data or define the data they want to reuse — it’s easier to find something on the Internet than on your laptop. Vista’s comprehensive search makes it easier to find data based on entering key words or terms.”
Vista’s new Aero Interface – which touts slick capabilities like translucent windows, dynamic reflections, and smooth animation—is much better suited for 3D use, experts contend, enabling CAD users to focus on their content, not their tools. Aero is just one element of Vista that Dassault is leveraging for its next-generation CAD and PLM products, according to Kendall Pond, vice president of business development for the Surenes, France, company. In the forthcoming Enovia 3D Live product, currently in beta test and due out later this year, Dassault is taking advantage of its work around Service Oriented Architecture as well as tapping into Vista’s new interface, search, security, and collaboration capabilities to allow individuals to instantly search for and navigate design information, regardless of location, source or format, Pond says.
Vista’s new UI capabilities support better desktop organization for CAD use. “There are more capabilities for customizing the desktop to maximize real estate,” Pond says. “This lets you have information at your fingertips, but not in your face.”
Other vendors, while intrigued by Vista’s capabilities, said the operating system is by no means the panacea for unleashing CAD data. Alibre Inc., which markets a sub-$1,000 CAD tool, is focused on making high-end CAD functionality more accessible to the traditional engineering environment, while PTC, of Needham, MA, maintains a PLM backbone, not tight integration to Microsoft technology, is a better route for spreading design data to more users, officials there say.
“Providing 95 percent of CAD functionality at one-fifth the price and opening up your data model — those are the things that push CAD data out, not necessarily a new platform,” says Greg Milliken, CEO, of the Richardson, TX, firm.
There are other challenges to the plan to democratize 3D data, particularly if the vehicle is Vista. Like with most new operating system platforms, analysts expect a slow ramp up for Vista adoption over the next three to five years. In addition, there are cultural obstacles and ownership issues related to design engineers’ traditional reticence about sharing their work-in-progress with non-engineers as well as a lack of real understanding of how to best leverage 3D design data across cross-functional business processes. “While we’re seeing features that open up CAD data to the mass market, the mass market still requires more education on what it can do for them,” AMR’s Burkett says.
Even so, today’s greater emphasis on global product development, outsourcing, and extended design teams are fueling companies’ desire to scale all of these hurdles, one step at a time. “The whole process of collaboration and sharing design work with other partners or parts of the business is being seen today by engineering as more of the way to do business rather than being viewed as a danger,” says Ken Amann, director of research for CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, MI, consulting firm specializing in the CAD and design market.