Product Design

CAD Manager's Journey into 3D, Part 2

7 Apr, 2009 By: Robert Green

Reader uproar indicates that CAD managers have wildly differing views about adopting 3D.

In the last edition of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I presented some 3D software data from my CAD Manager's Survey 2008 and expounded on a few conclusions. I expected a few emails and perhaps some disagreement, but -- whoa, Nellie! -- I did not expect the firestorm of conflicting responses I received.

I'm going to kick off this issue by sharing and commenting on some of those responses. This way, I can present a variety of opinions, address some relevant questions, and clarify responses. Here goes.

More Survey Details, Please
In response to my data for various 2D and 3D usage, which tallied like this:

Totally 2D19%
Mainly 2D but evaluating 3D51%
Hybrid 2D/3D24%
Totally 3D6%

I received several comments along the lines of this one from DB in Pennsylvania:

"This tally was quite a surprise, and I was wondering what background or field the survey involved.  By that I mean, was it broken down into the architectural/civil/manufacturing fields, or was it strictly, let's say, mechanical?"

RG replies: The survey base was multidisciplinary, so the totals I gave were a mixed average of all fields. It will require a bit more work to separate out the data and analyze it, but I'll do so in the next newsletter.

Robert is Wrong
Here's where the fun starts. I had a number of people take me to task for some of the conclusions I drew. I'll share a few of these with you and comment on each one as I go.

RR from California took offense at several of my conclusions:

"Although some high-end software packages offer 2D plot drawings of the 3D models, these are very expensive and realistically not practical for the A/E/C industry as a whole ... at least not yet. I was offended by the author's conclusions that it is the employees who are reluctant to adopt 3D, when in fact it is the industry as a whole for the various issues I just mentioned.  2D will always be with us, unless Robert knows of some holographic technology that will relegate paper to a thing of antiquity."

RG replies: Most 3D CAD software now has a decent ability to write 2D output to AutoCAD DWG format. Not that you won't spend some time in AutoCAD or MicroStation fine-tuning the 2D, but the process is good enough to use so long as the 3D system you are using is adding value. Would I use an expensive BIM architectural tool to simply design walls and then export to AutoCAD? No, because the value proposition would not be there. Would I use the BIM tool to model the building's shell and materials to perform passive energy analysis and generate LEED certification documents and then export to AutoCAD for 2D documentation? Yes, because I would have saved enough time in the building's analysis to make the 3D modeling worthwhile.

What I'm driving at is that, even if I have to deliver 2D prints to a customer, I can still use 3D systems to do the design work so long as the 3D systems give me the time savings I need to justify their usage.

As far as eliminating paper -- no arguments here. Paper will be with us for quite a while, in my opinion.

GP in Arizona also called me out on 2D deliverables:

"We still have to submit plans to the various local jurisdictions in 2D. These plans are our account receivables, not the 3D. Most clients are not willing to pay for the 3D work in the civil Industry."

RG replies: I remember when AEC companies used to actually bill for "CAD machine time" at the end of the project and customers paid it. No more! The fact of the matter now is that customers want to pay a fixed fee for the design services they receive, and they really don't care if the design happens on a 3D CAD system or a stone tablet, as long as they get the DWG files at the end of the project.

Therefore, I believe that thinking about 3D as being billable is really just another way to say, "It'll take us longer in 3D and we won't be able to bill that extra time." If you can do your designs in 2D faster and cheaper than you can in 3D, then by all means stay with 2D! But if you can realize your designs in fewer hours using 3D design methods, you should do so because it is simply more efficient.

The bottom line is to consider 3D software usage like you would any other business efficiency tool.

DR from Oregon took issue with my conclusion that 3D implementations may need programs other than AutoCAD:

"Your article makes you seem to be out of touch. Why would anyone change from AutoCAD? AutoCAD is a very good 3D software package. It has been capable of solid modeling since R11 with the AME software. All of my company design work has been in 3D solid modeling since R12 (roughly 1993)."

RG replies: This reader is focused on mechanical design, so allow me to go off on a mechanical tangent for a few moments. I remember working with AutoCAD AME and then with AutoCAD's native solid functions from R14 to 2005 and being frustrated while doing so. It seemed to me that other 3D applications I used through the years (SDRC, CALMA, Designer/AutoSurf, Mechanical Desktop, SolidWorks, and Inventor) always allowed me to do what I needed faster and better than AutoCAD could.

Things are changing though, and AutoCAD 2009 made some real strides in editing 3D geometry. AutoCAD 2010 now has flexible, free-form design and parametrically driven constraints. AutoCAD may well become the commodity 3D tool for the masses in coming years, but it will do so simply because everyone will already have AutoCAD, so it won't cost any extra to use AutoCAD's 3D tool set.

Having said this, I'm willing to bet that dedicated 3D design tools such as SolidWorks, Inventor, and Solid Edge are always going to do 3D mechanical design better than plain AutoCAD because they include mechanical parts libraries, analytical tools, and interfaces to machine tool applications. Time will tell.

It's the Economy
DS from Maryland made several good points, but this one stood out:

"A stagnant economy will prevent quick expansion of 3D CAD because of the expensive machines that it requires to work properly and promptly. This is now less a factor than it used to be, but the justification of these expenditures is more difficult in the face of the availability of cheaper CAD that can run on $500 machines that can do the needed work. This applies not only to Google SketchUp, but to IntelliCad-based CAD and even to alternatives like general CAD."

RG Replies: These points are very poignant in today's economy. I do see many companies halting their software purchasing and training programs, and that will slow down 3D adoption, but the funny thing is we didn't see big increases in 3D adoption during the North American housing boom that led up to the current recession. So it seems that bad economic conditions do slow down 3D adoption, but good economic conditions didn't do much to speed them up.

The noncorrelation of 3D adoption to economic conditions make me continue to believe that the main reasons for low 3D adoption are lack of perceived need, lack of understanding, and the hard process of training and migrating users from the familiar tools to the unknown ones. It simply is hard to get people to change!

3D is Different for Everyone
One thing this series of CAD Manager's Newsletters has taught me is that everyone has a different view of what 3D is and how it can best be used. The opinions seem to vary widely depending on which industry a user is in and what sort of electronic files users must deal with as they work with customers and vendors.

To make a long story short, we'll probably never get a real consensus on how 3D will fit into our workflows, and that's probably the reason for 3D's modest market gains in recent years.

Summing Up

In the next issue of CAD Manager's Newsletter I'll break down the 2D/3D survey results by industry segment and I'll resume the discussion of how to move your company from a 2D to 3D mode of operation, taking industry segments into account. Along the way I'll try to keep in mind the admonitions from some of the "Robert is wrong" responses and temper my advice accordingly.

And if you'd like to add to the discussion, feel free to email me with your thoughts. Until next time.