Not so long ago, CAD—computer-aided design—was a 2D affair, and though it certainly helped engineers it didn't help them as much as it could have. Then came 3D solid modeling. But at first, 3D solid modeling was in the toolboxes of only a chosen few engineers at large companies that could afford the big price tag. That's changed in a big way, as McEleney relates.
You've talked about the democratization of CAD. What do you mean by that? 3D used to be for the elite, but now, partly because the price has come down, the average engineer in the average company can use it. It's similar to the way typesetting in the publishing industry gave way to desktop publishing. In engineering, few people use manual drafting anymore. Customers are demanding features in products—like aesthetically pleasing dashboards in cars, or better-contoured remotes—that you can't design without 3D. Demands for shorter cycle times also lead engineers to use 3D. All the market drivers are there to make 3D the tool for the masses.
Is CAD getting too feature-laden? No, and in fact, we need more features. But it's also true that the way software companies present features in their programs can cause overload. The important thing is that we have to make it easier for engineers to deal with the complexity that comes from more features in software. We have to present functionality so people can digest it.
How do you do that? The graphical user interface is part of it. Standards are too. Ten years ago, no one had a consistent tool bar. Windows gave us a level of standards. Now, everyone knows how to print a drawing. The cryptic stuff is gone. We vendors also have to look at how users actually use software. What do most people do most of the time? That's what we should give them, and put other features off to the side on the computer screen so people can use them when they need them. Vendors also have to see if there's a more logical way to present functionality that makes the functions easier to grasp and use.
Will 3D ever replace the paper napkin for roughing out ideas? In the absolute extreme, no. But, 3D will continue to grow as a digital paper napkin for concept development. We are on the verge of 3D becoming dominant. Maybe in the next year or two, we'll see engineers choose 3D because they have to keep up, and that's when there will be non-linear growth in its use. No one would start a company without a PC and a website today. We used to debate the necessity of a website here. But, it's a necessity today, not an advantage, and 3D will get to the same point. That will drive adoption of 3D as a conceptual tool.
A mechanical engineer with a graduate degree in manufacturing systems engineering, McEleney held management positions at Raytheon and Computervision before joining SolidWorks in 1996.