Product Design

Alibre’s Paul Grayson Speaks with Cadalyst

6 Aug, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Alibre Software's returning CEO ponders hybrid CAD, SaaS, and more.

In early 2004, Paul Grayson, founder and CEO of Alibre Software, stepped aside to make room for Greg Milliken, the company's vice-president of marketing at the time. For the next four and a half years, while Milliken directed the day-to-day operations as CEO, Grayson provided guidance from his seat on the board of directors. But in June, when Milliken stepped down to pursue an opportunity with another 3D software developer, Grayson returned to his previous post, once again taking the helm. He assured us he's not coming back as merely a caretaker chief - he's in it for the long haul.

Paul Grayson
Paul Grayson, Alibre Software's former CEO, returns to his old post.
Grayson's return coincides with the pivotal moment when CAD vendors are seeking to combine freeform modeling with parametric (or history-based) modeling. During his previous administration, Grayson made some bold moves. One of them was to offer Alibre under the Application Service Provider (ASP) model. Simply put, he allowed people to pay a subscription fee to use the software over the Web. Though Alibre subsequently abandoned the model, the licensing method he helped pioneer is now enjoying acceptance under a new name, Software as a Service (SaaS).

This week, I asked Grayson to reflect on the CAD industry's past and share his vision for Alibre's future.

KW: What do you think are the most significant developments in the CAD industry in the past decade?

PG: In my opinion, the most significant developments in the CAD industry relate to the increasing democratization and personalization of design. Moore's Law continues to be the driving force in the CAD industry. When we began Alibre in 1997, PCs had just become powerful enough to enable robust 3D graphics. Now, any $500 PC or laptop has enough processing power to handle high-end 3D graphics, and anyone can get started in 3D CAD via Alibre Design Xpress and Google SketchUp for free, or buy a full commercial version of Alibre Design for less than $1,000.

KW: What do you make of the CAD vendors' recent quest for a hybrid modeling paradigm that offers both freeform modeling and history-based modeling (as seen in the introduction of such features by Dassault, PTC, and Siemens PLM)?

PG: This is a natural evolution of the market. Freeform and history-based modeling have both been available in the market for the last decade. What is new is that the PCs have become powerful enough to enable software developers to combine both in a single application without compromising performance and memory utilization. This situation reminds me of the early days of PC graphics when Paint (pixel editing) and Draw (vector drawing) were only sold separately. Once the PCs became powerful enough, pixel editing and vector drawing were combined into single applications.

For users, what matters is, "can I get my job done?" and for modeling systems that incorporate both techniques into an easy-to-use interface, like Alibre Design, the answer is a resounding "Yes."

KW: If we put freeform modeling on one end and parametric modeling on the other, where does Alibre fall in that spectrum?

PG: The good news is that we offer both, so users don't have to choose one or the other. There are some design tasks that make more sense to do with a parametric method, and some that make more sense using freeform techniques. It's not a matter of religion to us, as it seems to be with some other CAD vendors. We like to let the user choose which method they use, or perhaps a combination. We are continuing to make improvements in this area, but also believe that the notion of freeform modeling extends to providing greater interactivity in the user interface. In other words, the user interface should allow you to directly interact with the part or assembly for a broader set of operations and minimize unnecessary reliance on text entry into dialog boxes. You will see more of this in Alibre Design v11.

KW: In the early 90s, Alibre experimented with the Application Service Provider model, wherein users paid a subscription fee to use Alibre's 3D software over the Web. Eventually, Alibre abandoned the ASP business and returned to traditional software licensing. The ASP model seems like a precursor to Software as a Service (SaaS), which now has a robust following. Was Alibre's ASP venture ill-timed?

PG: We were probably a little ahead of the curve on that one. It is gratifying to see that SaaS is gaining momentum, although clearly it has not really impacted the 3D CAD market yet. From our personal experience, we have learned that 3D CAD customers value performance, availability, and completeness of features more than they do the more IT-oriented benefits of SaaS. In the future, if SaaS continues to gain momentum, it is something we will probably revisit as a potential part of our distribution model.

KW: Once, Alibre ran what I thought was a pretty bold advertising campaign. Alibre gave away its software free and challenged the participants to find something other midrange CAD programs (SolidWorks, Solid Edge, and Autodesk Inventor) could do that Alibre couldn't. What ever became of that contest?

Alibre ad
In its 2003 advertising campaign, Alibre challenged users to find something other midrange CAD programs could do that its own software couldn't.
PG: Yes, we had a contest in early 2003, called the Alibre Challenge where we offered $500 to anyone who could prove that SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Inventor, or Pro/E could model something that Alibre couldn't. We got a great response and ended up paying $500 to only one challenger who, in effect, found a bug in Alibre Design v6. We corrected that immediately in a service pack. Honestly, we didn't know quite what to expect when we launched that contest. We knew we had a good product, but as you suggest, this was a pretty bold move. We were extremely pleased with the outcome; it confirmed our belief, which we still have, that Alibre Design can do 100% of the design work that the vast majority of designers need to do every day, and we get it done for less.

KW: What can we look forward to in the upcoming version of Alibre?

PG: We are very excited about Alibre Design v11, which should be shipping in early September. For the first time, we are doing a broad customer beta in which current customers can download the v11 beta, test it, and give us feedback. Over 91% of surveyed customers have told us that v11 is much faster and more stable than v10. Version 11 can handle parts and assemblies that are approximately twice as large and complex as before, and individual operations in many cases are an order of magnitude faster, which has a dramatic impact on user productivity.

Another important new capability of v11 is the addition of the Alibre Vault by M-Files to the professional and expert versions. The Alibre Vault replaces the previous repository functionality of v10 with a more general purpose, more powerful, and more complete document management system. The Alibre Vault brings true PDM to Alibre Design and can be used by a work group or small and medium businesses as a complete document management solution. Readers can get more detail about Alibre Design v11 at the company's Web site.