Multi-CAD: Still An Albatross To Effective Design?

Whether a company is a cog in the automotive supply chain or a behemoth manufacturer of industrial equipment, dealing with multiple CAD packages and, specifically, diverse 3D model types is just the reality of the modern workplace.

Most companies use, on average, 2.7 different CAD tools internally and that doesn’t account for programs used by suppliers, customers, and other partners central to the product development process. Maybe your firm inherited a collection of CAD thanks to a recent spate of acquisitions or perhaps, your customers are dictating use of one particular package. Increasing product complexity and growth in global design outsourcing has also boosted the number of CAD flavors in use in an engineering organization at any given time.

Whatever the genesis, there’s no escaping the need for companies to collaborate on a single product design using a variety of CAD applications. Yet despite being a pretty universal design requirement today, it’s still a struggle for many organizations–especially being able to do so in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

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For years, working with multiple CAD files has largely been a manual exercise with a lot of heavy lifting on the part of engineers. It’s not uncommon for hours, even days, to be devoted to importing and exporting files and converting them to intermediate formats like STEP and IGES. In lieu of all this dirty work, some organizations alternatively sunk lots of money into third-party translation tools in the hopes of freeing up their engineers.

While these approaches have addressed some of the multi-CAD data-sharing challenges, they’ve also created a whole mess of other complications.  Because 3D geometry is handled differently by different CAD applications, it is rarely imported cleanly, thus requiring engineers to do a lot of clean up and translation work. Also, 3D models are often exported from their corresponding CAD programs without features or design intent, which means engineers are left to figure out the geometry on their own, sometimes even having to recreate features from scratch.

All of this futzing around with CAD files makes for a whole lot of busy work and downtime that companies can ill afford. A PTC survey on CAD complexity found that nearly 60% of respondents had trouble modifying imported models from other CAD tools while 49% simply struggled to import models from any number of CAD programs. Even those using the same CAD tools were not immune to the struggles related to multi-CAD. Thirty-nine percent said they encountered difficulties modifying models created by others even if they were using a common CAD application.

There can be other complications. Think about all of the files that are renamed, revised, copied, and moved as a result of all this import and export activity. There is always a risk that users lose the ability to track and maintain complex CAD relationships as files are moved around, and the whole process can generate ample inconsistencies resulting from the myriad file versions. PDM and PLM can help mitigate some of the inconsistencies, but the even with these technologies deployed, the issue of multi-CAD remains a persistent thorn in the side of many companies.

A United Front

After years of ignoring and then mainly paying lip service to the issue, vendors have finally initiated some note-worthy work related to solving the multi-CAD challenge. Many now address CAD interoperability through integrated visualization tools, which function as import facilities tailored specifically for each CAD application, making it easier to get imported geometry that’s clean. Other technologies drive associativity to imported models when the original model is changed in a different CAD application. This helps minimize the burden on engineers to get their hands dirty with manual workarounds while ensuring design intent doesn’t suffer.

For its part, PTC is helping customers address the multi-CAD problem with both new technologies and design best practices. One of its more recent technology advances is Unite, a new capability for PTC Creo that lets users work with and consolidate files from competing CAD programs like SolidWorks, CATIA, and NX. Introduced in PTC Creo 3.0, Unite is important because 40% of PTC’s North American Creo users actually work with another CAD system, according to Mike Campbell, who runs the CAD business.

With the Unite technology, users can create a PTC Creo assembly and insert another part or subassembly created in another CAD system directly into the design without translation and without needing access to the original authoring CAD system. There is also no requirement to create any extra files or business objects.


PTC Unite technology supports working on multi-CAD projects


Technologies like visualization tools, PLM enhancements, and PTC’s Unite may have been a long time coming, but they are just what the doctored ordered for finally taking the multi-CAD issue off the table. Vendors may never give up hope that their CAD offering will be the center of their users’ design universe, but they are finally facing reality and rolling out solutions that will actually facilitate better products—even if they’re designed with the help of competing CAD tools.

I call that progress.