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CAD Takes On New Role

CAD Takes On New Role

Nine to four.

If the competition within the CAD (computer-aided design) software market were a baseball game, that would be the score. And the win, in terms of sales, would go to the lower-price mid-range CAD players, a formerly minor-league bunch who, statistics show, have been handily beating out their expensive big-league rivals from the high-end market of late.

That, at least, is the way one of the industry's premier judges calls it. Cambridge, MA-based research and analysis firm Daratech reports that the mid-range, or value-priced, market-where software sells for around $5,000 vs the $20,000 price tag for the high-end CAD software-is growing at nine percent today while the more pricey competitors are seeing only four-percent growth. Moreover, Daratech predicts mid-range players will see 11-percent compounded growth through 2008.

Indeed, the emergence of the mid-range playing field is one of the biggest stories in engineering software in the last several years. SolidWorks (www.solidworks.com) captured the imagination of the market in 1993 when it introduced its flagship product of the same name, claiming it offered nearly all the 3-D solid-modeling muscle of PTC's Pro/ENGINEER (www.ptc.com) and other high-end players in an easier-to-use, more affordable package. Solid Edge (www.solidedge.com) emerged shortly thereafter. Autodesk (www.autodesk.com), whose origins were in the PC market, pumped up its AutoCAD package, introducing spinoffs called Mechanical Desktop and, later, Inventor. And PTC itself responded, first with Pro/Junior and now PTC Foundation Advantage.

But a funny thing happened along the way. As the high-end CAD companies recognized the attractiveness of those mid-range upstarts, some began to buy them up, turning them, in the minds of their managers at least, into kind of farm teams that might pull in new customers whom they could eventually persuade to migrate to the big leagues as their needs grew. That's another of the big stories in the market of the last few years. Solid Edge is now owned by UGS, the company that also develops the high-end NX series. UGS (www.ugs.com) also took over SDRC and its high-end I-DEAS CAD software. The French company Dassault Systemes (www.3ds.com), which develops and markets CATIA, bought SolidWorks, as well as COSMOS, a mid-range finite element analysis software package.

Simultaneously, those high-end CAD developers beefed up their own flagship products with more features, and then did something else: They changed the game by introducing PLM (product lifecycle management), a collection of software and services with CAD as one of the underlying technologies. "PLM is the big trendsetter in CAD today," says Paris Altidis, an engineer with Borg Warner Automotive.

Today, even those lower-price mid-range CAD products have some aspects of PLM as part of their feature set. And that means engineers using CAD now have more control of decisions that affect the entire product-development process than before, when they were only concerned with design decisions.

CAD, in fact, is one of the cornerstones of PLM, says CIMdata Senior Consultant John MacKrell.

"Within CAD companies, the emergence of mid-range packages and PLM offerings are among the biggest developments of recent years," says Ken Versprille, PLM Research Director for analyst firm CPDA (formerly D. H. Brown).

And, he adds, within CAD technology itself, the biggest developments have been the inclusion of peer-to-peer-conference capabilities and other collaboration techniques. "They, in fact, form a bridge to PLM," he says.

Solid Edge 16 includes a table-driven user interface for families of assemblies. It allows engineers to pick subassemblies from a pre-selected list of alternatives, or configure them on the fly.

What about advances in CAD features? Long ago, after PTC introduced parametric feature-based 3-D solid modeling to the market, its competitors scrambled to catch up and offer it too. Today, 3-D solid modeling is a staple, though the depth of solid-modeling capability varies among competitors.

"Essentially, the features and functions wars are over," Versprille says.

Of course, the right mix and robustness of features is in the eyes of the beholder. Technology Consultant Dennis Nagy told attendees at the 2003 COFES (Congress On The Future Of Engineering Software) that CAD users take advantage of only a small percentage of the features their software offers. Attendees agreed. Not every engineer needs the mind-boggling array of features found in high-end products today. Take Brett Long, for example. A designer at pump-manufacturer Steel Processors, Inc., Mobile, AL, he says he doesn't need the surface-modeling capabilities of many CAD packages. "What's enough for me are features like loft, sweep, and detailing," he says. But, he also counts as important to him capabilities for project management, which gets close to PLM.

Casey Kimes, an engineer with Esco Corp. (Tempe, AZ) who designs tooling for gas-turbine blades, says that an important feature for him is the single integration of assembly and parts through a common interface. He too says he needs project-management capability.

And Ron Wilson, senior engineer with Mentor, OH-based health-care equipment manufacturer Steris Corp., says the ability to handle large assemblies is among his most critical needs. He discovered, through benchmarking, that many software packages offer that capability. In fact, his decision to use PTC's Foundation Advantage came down as much to matters of ease of use, speed, cost, and return on investment as to features.

Certainly, the presence or absence of features will always be a factor in software choice. Indeed, from the perspective of so-called power CAD users, the feature wars are definitely not over, says freelance CAD writer and consultant Joe Greco. "CAD users are always doing work-arounds to get past weaknesses in their programs," he says. For example, he says, one mid-range CAD package until recently required users to design two different models for the same piston if they needed to show it opened and closed in the same assembly. He also thinks 2-D sketching tools need to be updated.

Greco thinks that CAD companies' moves toward PLM are a tactic for attracting new customers. He believes that lower prices are the big story in CAD today, which, relates to the emergence of the mid-range market. "Alibre," he says, "provides feature-based modeling for under $1,000."

Are Alibre's capabilities in solid modeling or peer-to-peer conferencing as robust as the capabilities in other packages for that price? Perhaps they are. But, as CPDA's Versprille says, in all software comparisons "there are differences in subtleties." Tom Shoemaker, PTC's Director of MCAD Marketing, puts it this way: "Not all checkmarks in a comparison chart are equal."

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