TurboCAD through the Years23 Jan, 2014 By: Roland Aldridge
Viewpoint: The release of the software’s 20th version inspires a longtime user and beta tester to reflect on its development — and its role in the success of his business.
TurboCAD 3 was a gift from one of my partners when I joined Advanced Micro Instruments back in 1995. I installed it on a tiny Pentium 133 Hitachi laptop with a postage stamp–sized screen and began making drawings.
My company, Advanced Micro Instruments, was started to make oxygen analyzers in competition with Teledyne Analytical Instruments. Some might think that a start-up with no money and a me-too product going up against an established major company would be a recipe for failure, and in the pre-PC days they would have been quite right. But the world was changing, and products like IMSI/Design's TurboCAD made — and are continuing to make — all the difference.
Nowadays, a couple of guys in a garage with a PC, TurboCAD, ExpressPCB, and the CCS C compiler can compete on equal ground with any of the old-line companies. (And on the Internet, no one can see your garage.) I believe TurboCAD and programs like it are going to spur huge changes in the world economy as these affordable, yet powerful technologies level the playing field between small businesses and corporate giants. It's just a matter of time.
Let me explain. A giant company has colossal overhead, which it balances with its economies of scale. I know of one company where the rule of thumb was that you needed to make 80% gross profit to make your numbers — that is, the parts cost of whatever was sold could be no more than 20% of the selling price. Overhead was 65%, leaving a 15% net profit, which was OK, if not stellar.
As a guy in a garage, you turn these numbers around. Your overhead is closer to 20%, so you can afford to make the product with twice the parts cost and still beat the giant company on price. And because you care enough to do whatever it takes, and you don't go home at 5 o'clock, you provide better service and a better product to boot. After a while customers notice, but it takes quite a long time for the dinosaur companies of the world to pay any attention, and by then it's too late — their customers have become your customers.
Starting from Scratch
Back in 1995, all this was not obvious to me. I just knew I had to draw up some metal brackets so our sheet metal guy could make a box for our first analyzer. TurboCAD had the considerable advantage of being free, at least to me, and I knew just as much about it as I did about AutoCAD or any other solution I might have considered at the time — that is, nothing at all. My background is in electronics and analyzer applications, not mechanical design, and I was a CAD neophyte.
Fortunately we had been working with a wonderful, very experienced mechanical guy who had his own machine shop, and pretty soon he licked me into shape. We started with simple things like the brackets, but shortly I ran into my first real challenge.
First, a bit of background: My company makes oxygen analyzers that measure trace levels of oxygen, down to less than one part per million (ppm). Since air contains 210,000 ppm of oxygen, roughly, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is about 3 psi. The rate at which any gas diffuses through a leak is proportional to the difference of partial pressure across the leak, which means that if you have any sort of leak in your oxygen analyzer, it will measure how bad the leak is, rather than measure the oxygen content of the sample gas. People are always surprised about how this works, but believe me, it does.
Traditionally, oxygen analyzers have been made by screwing together a bunch of parts to provide the sample handling and bringing the sample into a block, into which the sensor is placed. All those parts contain potential leak sources and the fittings take quite a bit of skill to assemble, so this kind of design is both expensive and unreliable. We decided to put everything into a single block of metal instead, drilling holes for the gas passages and integrating all the various bits into a single assembly (figure 1).
Figure 1. At left is the early block design of our oxygen analyzer (front view), modeled in TurboCAD v4 or so. The dark areas are holes drilled for gas passages, and we placed an oxygen sensor in the pocket on the left front. At right is a hidden line rendering of the current assembly, modeled in TurboCAD v20.