Viewpoint: Chewing the CAD

12 Aug, 2008 By: J. Paul Grayson

Like an Animal Farm, today's market puts power in wrong hands.

Editor's note: "Viewpoint" is an occasional column that invites guest authors to express opinions about CAD-related issues. This installment is from J. Paul Grayson, CEO of Alibre.

"No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." -- George Orwell, Animal Farm

The CAD software market is stuck in time, somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when mainframes and minicomputers were the primary platform of professional computing. In a fashion that George Orwell could appreciate, the CAD vendors who broke onto the scene in the mid 1980s and 1990s — aiming to change things by breaking down access barriers erected by the entrenched vendors of that day — have begun to look a lot like those they displaced. They have created a CAD Animal Farm.

It wasn't always that way. The populist vision of those who came into the market was to offer what most customers needed at a fraction of the price, and they did indeed change the market. As they succeeded and consolidated their market position, they also erected some of the same barriers they had fought so hard to break down.


A lot has changed since the early days, as you can clearly see in the accompanying timeline. I hope this "CAD Chronology" sidebar brings back some fond memories.

But I believe this look back also shows how the CAD market has changed little from the early days. Products have matured, and no one debates any longer that PCs and Windows-based CAD applications are capable of complex, production CAD; however, the hardware business has changed dramatically, and new business models such as application service providers (ASPs), open-source code, advertising-monetized free products, and freemiums have gone mainstream in other software markets — but not in the CAD market.

The price of CAD products continues to rise, with the typical CAD solution starting at $4,000. When you add maintenance, subscription, and other fees, the actual price per seat can average close to $7,000 in some cases. Users can buy an extremely powerful PC for roughly $500, but most businesses are still paying ten times that for a single license of CAD software.

It's instructive to look at user behavior and market dynamics as the PC transitioned from an individual and personal tool to a mainstream platform for both personal productivity and commercial computing. The personal in personal computer is what changed the computer world as we knew it. At first, the PC was almost a curiosity embraced by individuals — a toy for hobbyists and science- and math-loving nerds — but certainly nothing businesses would consider for real work. More individuals began purchasing PCs, primarily for word processing and spreadsheet preparation, realizing they could get more done using PCs than they could using corporate computers. Companies started noticing improvements in productivity and began buying PCs, and users began to find that PCs were capable of more demanding tasks such as accounting or maintaining databases — and even CAD or engineering analysis. Soon the PC was the dominant and preferred commercial computing platform, with millions installed.

CAD software today is a lot like those old corporate computers: expensive and tightly controlled, with access granted only to employees for approved activities. By and large, CAD is purchased by companies (rather than individuals) that decide how and when it is used.

Professionals in many industries own their own tools — for example, a journeyman machinist owning his own calipers or micrometer, a photographer owning her own camera, or a woodworker owning a shop full of tools — even if employed by others. These tools not only allow them to pursue their passion, but also to pursue other sources of income, or possibly just improve their skills. This situation benefits the individual's employer and should be embraced, even subsidized, in a manner similar to paying for continuing education. It creates a certain level of self-sufficiency by allowing an individual to take charge of his or her own career in a rapidly changing global economy where jobs come and go and outsourcing is commonplace.

Imagine the possibilities if CAD software truly went the way of the PC. What if state-of-the-art 2D and 3D CAD became so pervasive that the hundreds of thousands — even millions — of engineers, designers, machinists, technicians, and hobbyists who don't have access to CAD or only have access at the discretion of their employers were able to own their CAD software to use when and how they saw fit? Would the behavior, innovation, and productivity of manufacturing companies improve?

"Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally." -- George Orwell, Animal Farm

CAD Chronology
Permit me to provide a short timeline drawn liberally and with permission from the History of CAD by Marian Bozdoc and the Chronology of Personal Computers by Ken Polsson.

• M&S Computing founded in 1970, later becomes Intergraph, and MCS is founded by Patrick Hanratty in 1971.

• At the end of the 1970s a typical CAD system was a 16-bit minicomputer with maximum of 512 KB memory and 20-300 MB disk storage at a price of $125,000.

• Dassault Systemes was established in 1981 — the same year the IBM PC shipped and Apple went public.

• Autodesk, Gateway Technology Company (soon after renamed Compaq Computer), and Adobe Systems were founded, the first issue of PC Magazine was published, the WordStar word processor was released, and the first version of CATIA was announced in 1982. AutoCAD reportedly cost $1,000.

• IBM PC XT and Lotus 1-2-3 shipped, and WordStar controlled 50% of the word processor market in 1983.

• Autodesk went public, Parametric Technology was founded, and Microsoft released Microsoft Word for the Mac and DOS in 1985.

• Parametric Technology shipped Pro/ENGINEER in 1988 and went public in 1989. A typical installation of Pro/ENGINEER with all its ancillary modules cost more than $20,000.

• In 1990, Intergraph was the number-one supplier of CAD/CAM/CAE systems in North America and number two in the world.

• SolidWorks was founded, the Pentium processor was released, and AutoCAD cost $3,000-$4,000 in 1993.

• SolidWorks 95 shipped in 1995, running exclusively on Windows and priced at $3,995.

• By the end of the 1990s, the PC had become the platform of choice in large and small companies alike for essentially all desktop applications, including computing and graphics-intensive applications such as CAD.

About the Author: J. Paul Grayson

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