Despite significant changes in the ways we work, research, and design products today, the CAD packages we use have remained fundamentally unchanged ever since Parametric Technologies (PTC) transformed the industry in 1989. Those of us who worked with CAD for a while may remember names like Computer Vision, CALMA, and Cadre, names that didn't survive the last transition. The companies that did survive have done so by adopting the parametric feature-based approach defined by PTC.
Since about 1995, the CAD status quo has been set by five industry titans: Autodesk, Siemens, PTC, and Dassault Systemes. These companies have dominated the CAD sphere for so long, their names are virtually synonymous with the process. But change is on the horizon, and as before, existing companies will have to either adapt or face extinction.
This next great change is what I like to call Distributed CAD, or DCAD, (a takeoff from PTC's MCAD) which is powered by the same disruptive forces that have powered the changes we've experienced in home entertainment, communications, and finance. It's no great secret that the Internet has radically changed almost everything it's touched in our lives; from how we work and play, to how we shop for and consume products -- most notably with music.
Until now, CAD has been left mostly unaffected by the Internet. Office or business tools have been revolutionized by the advent of Google Docs, Dropbox, Salesforce, and Zuora, yet CAD has continued along the same vector set in 1995, despite how the Internet has changed how we access other content and applications. As a designer, I see a great opportunity to change how a team accesses and works on parts and assemblies.
The decentralization of design and production, and the outsourcing of both, are market trends that have created an environment of change that will drive the adoption of DCAD. Every design team knows the challenges of dealing with file-based design tools across a geographically distributed team. Necessities such as file transfer, versioning, file synchronization, and design reviews all add layers of difficulty on top of the already difficult process of designing functional parts.
Problems with these processes arise from the fact that the design tools we use today still rely on traditional files that must be passed around, synchronized, and versioned. It would be great if multiple users could access the same part design at the same time, like we do with Google Docs.
There have been attempts to rectify these problems with PLM, PDM, or other collaboration tools, but they all failed at solving the synchronization or collaborations issues, leaving most teams stuck with email and/or Dropbox, especially when team boundaries cross organizational boundaries.
The existing solutions where a user, application, and files are locked to a specific machine, is simply broken. To solve the issues inherent in these systems, our design solutions need to become distributed. Content, and the applications needed to perform tasks should be delivered in a device-independent manner, where features such as versioning and collaborative editing are integrated into the software from the beginning. Accessing the content and applications needed to accomplish an objective should be just a URL away.
The maker trend can be seen as the ultimate decentralization of design. Although admittedly small and certainly not a threat to the big brands today, it's a trend that can't be ignored, and a community that will embrace DCAD. They're already changing the way products are made today -- witness the GE/Quirky Air Conditioner; a project initiated by a crowd-sourced effort. Makers will require on-demand design, manufacturing, and marketing solutions. Current CAD packages, which rely on top-down distribution channels, are overly complicated, poorly integrated, proprietary, and don't serve this market well. Should this movement continue to grow, it would be a prime influencer in the future development of DCAD.
This is because DCAD is more than geometry. In the past, tools have been built that improve a segment of the development process. Parametric modeling did great things for modeling, but provided no value for other aspects of the product's life cycle, such as marketing or distribution.