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CAD migrates to the web

CAD migrates to the web

The market is filled with software products calling themselves "collaborative design solutions," but each has a different definition of the term. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that hardly anyone is using them yet.

"Everyone is wired with the high speed 'Net, but the engineering team is still relying on the Fed Ex dropbox as its main collaboration tool," says Solidworks CEO Jon Hirschtick.

But as OEMs buy and sell materials at online exchange sites in 2001, engineers will discover that the Web doesn't bite, and will begin to experiment with online collaboration.

"Collaboration is a misused word, covering a multitude of sins," says PlanetCAD's Bruce Morgan. But this will be the year of using private exchanges for materials procurement-such as SupplierMarket.com, and the automobile industry's Covisint-and that pressure will sort the survivors into increasingly specialized niches.

"To the degree that private exchanges become more real, companies will have to deal with the communication of engineering data; both product CAD files and bills-of-material type metadata," he says. "And that's not being done yet."

Part of the reason for engineers' reluctance to become cyber-designers is that many collaborative solutions make them change their work practices to do so. It's the difference between "allowing" collaboration and "forcing" collaboration.

Collaborative CAD packages will gain widespread adoption only when they stop being desktop tools and start being Web-surfing tools, says Jim Heppelmann, executive VP and GM of PTC's Windchill Netmarkets. The successful solution will allow engineers to use their familiar CAD tools to tap into new information sources such as Web sites, exchanges, remote suppliers, and e-catalogs.

Like Morgan, he says the engine behind this change is the growth of business-to-business (B2B) exchanges, such as Exostar in the aerospace industry, and the materials industry's buyplastics.com. Another change engine could be Groove, the peer-to-peer, decentralized communication and file-sharing network designed by Lotus Notes founder Ray Ozzie.

As more people use such tools, they'll realize: "It's not just for purchase orders, but for intellectual property," says Heppelmann.

So which collaboration tools will come out on top? The winners will offer the smartest software (so all you need is a browser), and will wrap the most talented people and services around that software, says John DiLullo, VP and GM of MSC.Software's engineering-e.com.

Too many software providers assume that engineers are chomping at the bit to share their ideas online. "I don't know if engineers are collaborating, or if they ever did," he says. "They're certainly learning how, because they've never had the opportunity before."

SDRC's Bill Carrelli agrees: "The trend in e-business so far is based almost purely on transactions-buying and selling goods, and exchanging bids-but it's different to actually develop products." Carrelli is VP of corporate marketing and business development.

His company will offer two specific solutions by mid-year: first, a product codenamed Web I-DEAS will bring SDRC's flagship CAD product into the Web environment with a new set of product development tools and technology. And second, a knowledge-based product called Slate will use customer preferences to shape specific product requirements and specifications.

Solidworks is also aiming at ease-of-use. "A lot of press releases are filled with buzzwords, and I don't understand them," Hirschtick says. Instead, he promises large advances in Solidworks' ease-of-use and data exchange in 2001. "Many others are moving on to the Internet, but we're continuing to fix the fundamental problems in 3D CAD-it's still not easy enough to use, it's not fast enough, it's not powerful enough, and it doesn't exchange drawings well enough."

Research firm DARATECH's Bruce Jenkins also says that many software providers need to get back to basics, both on collaborative engineering in general and on some subordinate issues, such as building intelligence into CAD systems, improving data interoperability, and offering software sales through Web-based ASP models.

In short, he says, "There are a lot of lessons to be learned; not all of them pleasant."

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