CAD For The Budget-Conscious

DN Staff

September 13, 2004

8 Min Read
CAD For The Budget-Conscious

Showered with a stream of new and inexpensive software releases in the last several months, engineers continue to discover that they don't have to spend big bucks to get a CAD package that will help them boost their productivity.

The so-called mid-range CAD market-where software packages retail for around $5,000 vs. perhaps $20,000 for their high-end cousins-has been taking off for the last several years. Indeed, Cambridge, MA-based analysis and research firm Daratech says that the mid-range market is growing at a rate more than double the overall CAD market (9 percent vs. 4 percent). And, the firm predicts 11-percent compounded growth in that market through 2008.

Mid-range CAD features are as attractive as the price. They're robust and plentiful-at least robust and plentiful enough.

Not every engineering project requires the mind-boggling number of CAD features found in expensive packages. What engineers need depends on what they're designing. "What's enough for me are features like loft, sweep, and detailing as well as project management capability," says Brett Long, a designer at pump manufacturer Steel Processors Inc. (Mobile, AL). "I don't need surface modeling." He uses software from Alibre.

For Casey Kimes of Esco Corp. (Tempe, AZ), who designs tooling for gas turbine blades, the single integration of assembly and parts through a common interface is important. He also needs data management capability. Kimes uses SolidWorks.

Engineer Jeff Gibson of Evapco Inc. says consistency in user interface between versions and tech support are on his list of "musts" for software. He uses Solid Edge.

Ease of use, ease of assembly constraint, the ability for others to read his data, and 2D representation are the hot buttons for Autodesk Inventor user Dick Chilton of A-dec Inc.

And Ron Wilson, senior engineer with healthcare equipment manufacturer Steris Corp., says the ability to handle large assemblies is critical at his company. Steris engineers also want a package that's scalable-one with growth potential-as Wilson puts it. The company recently chose Pro/ENGINEER Foundation Advantage after a lengthy benchmarking process.

Benchmarking is the best way to figure out which CAD system is right for you. First, though, you have to know-as Long, Kimes, Wilson, Chilton, and Gibson do-exactly what you need. In Wilson's case, he and his team checked competing products on such criteria as speed, ease of use, presence of advanced features, cost, return on investment, and whether there were a lot of engineers trained in the software, so the company would have a large pool of engineers to choose from if they started hiring.

The checklist on the following page lists some of the features the CAD vendors say they have. The checklist is a good starting point for your own research.

But, it's only a starting point.

Every vendor claims to have all or most features on the list. But, "there are differences in the subtleties," says Ken Versprille, PLM research director for analyst firm CPDA (formerly D. H. Brown).

Put differently, not all checkmarks in a comparison list are equal. Says Tom Shoemaker, director of MCAD product marketing for PTC, it's important to check the robustness of features that CAD vendors claim for their products.

Here are a few items to consider when making your choice:

  • The depth of the features will vary;

  • The process of accomplishing the same tasks will vary; and

  • Some features come from third parties and may not be smoothly integrated.

All products on the checklist get credit for having solid parts, but they may not have equivalent capabilities. Another example: The chart lists the ability to drag and drop catalog parts within the CAD environment. Every vendor has that capability. For Alibre, its Part Library contains millions of standard parts engineers can insert into any Alibre design. But there's no drag-and-drop interface. "We view drag and drop as nice to have, but by no means a requirement," says President Greg Milliken.

There's also the matter of CAD system performance. You can't judge performance by a checklist, yet it's difficult to underestimate the value of a high-performing CAD system.

And then there is the added consideration of whether it's easy to grow into a higher-end CAD package with the mid-range vendor you're using. Solid Edge, SolidWorks, and Foundation Advantage each come from vendors with mega-CAD offerings: Unigraphics NX Series for Solid Edge, CATIA for SolidWorks, and Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire for Foundation Advantage. PTC claims that Wildfire and Foundation Advantage packages are built from the same base so they have native interoperability. The others will disagree on the importance of that.

The best bet in checking out any software package is to know first what you need and then have a list of questions for the vendors you want to investigate. Sidebars with this article list some suggested questions, but you should add your own to cover your specific application needs.

And don't forget to network with other engineers. You can do that at We encourage you to go there and relate your experiences with your CAD packages and swap war stories with others. Happy hunting!

$5,000 buys a Lot of CAD

Use this chart as a starter, but remember-feature robustness varies. Test software to be sure of what you're getting.

Solid parts

Sheet metal parts

Basic parametric surfacing

Advanced parametric surfacing

Feature enhancement

Mechanism animation (show movement of assembly components)

Mechanism kinematics (define assembly constraints as kinematic joints and show motion based on constraints)

Web connectivity

Model quality verification

Windows, Unix, Linux

*Peer-to-peer design conferencing

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