Product Design

Low-Cost 3D CAD: Could It Happen?

8 Nov, 2005 By: Robert Green

A look at the marketplace and its challenges

In the past two editions of CAD Manager's Newsletter (click here for archives), I discussed AutoCAD's prominence in the 2D world and talked about 2D products that could challenge AutoCAD.  Now I'll turn the discussion toward 3D and ask the same sorts of questions, including:

  • Is there a de facto 3D standard program that has the market dominance AutoCAD has in the 2D world?

  • If a 3D program were noticeably cheaper than Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, Autodesk Revit, UGS' Solid Edge and the like, would companies switch?

  • Is there anything out there that is truly easy to learn?

  • What's stopping people from adopting 3D?

When I try to answer these questions, I have to say that I don't think anybody really knows all the answers.  It's clear to me that there's no agreement on these subjects from the various market and stock analyses that I follow.

What I'll do in this issue is give you my best read on the situation based on what I see in industry and on conversations I've had with analysts and people within the software companies that produce 3D computer tools. Here goes.

Market Realities

Before we talk about particular 3D applications, mechanical or architectural, we need to acknowledge some marketplace realities.

There's Really No Market-Standard 3D System. Companies that work as suppliers to big auto, aerospace or construction firms today don't find any consensus about which 3D format is preferred for file exchange. The answers can be all over the board: Pro/ENGINEER, Solid Edge, Inventor or SolidWorks format, or even a neutral format such as STEP.  There is no 3D equivalent to the universally accepted 2D DWG file -- there's only the program your customer wants you to use.  You must therefore analyze your market to determine the 3D program you need; otherwise,  you won't be able to collaborate with your customers.

The Existing Labor Pool Is Largely Ignorant of 3D.  If you think it's hard to hire good AutoCAD operators, just try finding ten good SolidWorks or Inventor users in your area.  The fact is, there just aren't that many skilled 3D operators in the world.  The situation is improving as more 3D-educated users come out of tech schools and colleges, but the majority of today's labor force sorely lacks 3D skills.

Most Companies Out There Don't Have a Big Investment in 3D.  Of the companies I work with, at least half aren't doing any work in 3D, and most of the rest use a small number of 3D seats in conjunction with a much larger group of 2D users.  Everything in the CAD press points to 3D, but the reality in the field doesn't reflect the hype.

3D Data Is Complex and More Proprietary than 2D DWG.  The companies that already have a backlog of 3D data will find that attempting to translate the data is fraught with complexities that simply don't exist for 2D data. Things such as part-to-assembly relationships make xrefs look simple. Proprietary data structures for parametric-based rules and features are not universally translated by so-called industry-standard translation protocols.  Compared with the 2D world, we're in the Wild West when it comes to moving 3D data.

Is There a Place for Low-Cost 3D CAD?

If a substantially cheaper alternative were available to SolidWorks, Inventor, Revit, Solid Edge, Pro/E and so forth, would an already-3D company actually switch to it?

Companies with a substantial investment in a 3D program probably can't justify retraining and redeploying a different, less-expensive 3D CAD package. And as I suggested above, many supplier-vendor relationships contractually require the use of a specific software platform, so switching isn't an option. Bailing out of a current 3D system to go to something less expensive probably isn't realistic at this point for companies established in 3D.

So where's the opportunity for low-cost 3D CAD? It's a huge opportunity, and it is this: Most companies don't have a significant commitment to 3D, so when they're ready to invest, they will likely focus on the savings offered by lower-cost packages.  Absent any industry-standard 3D data format to compel companies in a given direction, the choice that's made by all those companies will come down to a good, old-fashioned shootout of features delivered at a price people are willing to pay. 

What's Happening Now?

At this point, the major 3D players are delivering more and more features at price points well above AutoCAD's.  A $5,000 entry price for today's 3D tools represents a lot more power than was available five years ago for $10,000 -- the result of competition for customers.  This is great for the consuming public, but the cost remains high enough that smaller companies still aren't investing freely, and the cost of educating staff in proprietary 3D applications makes the potential investment all the more prohibitive.

What's Easy to Learn?

On the subject of the 3D learning curve, I'm now going to rankle every 3D software developer out there, but I'll go ahead and say this anyway.  I've never seen a 3D CAD system that I'd say is truly easy to learn.  If you have a mechanical engineering background and think mechanically, you can probably learn Inventor or SolidWorks fairly well, but it won't happen in a few days or weeks.  If you're architecturally minded, there's no guarantee that you'll understand BIM (building information modeling) concepts either.

Bottom line:  Nothing out there is so easy to learn that customers are falling all over themselves to buy it.  High-end modeling tools require a good bit of effort to learn, and I know of no magic shortcut in the learning process.

What About the 2D Component?

Someone might ask how to deal with designing in 3D when your clients still expect 2D drawings delivered in DWG format.  This is a valid point that any 3D company must address because of the DWG file prominence.  It's interesting to note that one of Autodesk's major pushes with its Inventor product over the past five releases has been DWG import/export capability, and Autodesk's major competitor, SolidWorks, is doing everything it can to deliver DWG viewing and compliance tools as well.

So even though 3D is a new area with new rules, we'll still see the venerable DWG format exerting its influence on our work. 

Wrapping Up

In the next issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll conclude my look at low-cost 3D CAD and list some Web sites you can check for both 2D and 3D systems that are competing in the low-cost CAD space. As always, I welcome your responses, pro or con.  E-mail your thoughts to me at Until then.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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