Interoperability and the Lack Thereof

14 Sep, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Think most, or at least some, of the problems associated with interoperability have been solved? Whatever your answer, take a look at a study recently conducted by Kubotek USA (formerly CADKEY) on the design and manufacturing marketplace, “2005 CAD Interoperability Survey.” (You’ll have to register before downloading the results.) Based on responses from more than 1,250 CAD managers and users, the survey explored some of the issues surrounding CAD interoperability and the depth of a problem that seemingly won’t go away.


Accurate Picture

Based on my experience, the results of this survey accurately portray the current state of CAD data interoperability and probably won’t surprise anyone who regularly deals with multiple design data formats. The results confirm a number of things that many CAD industry vendors and users have known for some time. They point to the fact that although interoperability progress has been made with standards such as IGES and STEP, new file formats continue to proliferate and create havoc. As the sheer number of file formats grows, so do problems associated with exchanging data between them. Also growing are the many companies that supply products or services that attempt to solve or assuage the interoperability problem.


Engineers who deal with models created by others need to efficiently share their files. CAD vendors often describe this sharing as “interoperability” and claim to support the process through industry standards such as STEP and IGES, or direct translators. However, converting a CAD file to a different format often does not capture all the information that an engineer needs to do a job. Also, to a large extent, the vendors themselves have compounded the very problem they have vowed to solve.


Kubotek's survey demonstrates that, although many design and manufacturing companies focus on standardizing on a small number of tools, and vendors boastfully claim to have solved the interoperability problem through the use of industry-standard formats and direct translators, end users are still having difficulty sharing files.


Key Statistics

Some of the key points brought out in the Kubotek CAD Interoperability Survey include:


· More than 80%  of the respondents reuse data and model components from a previous model (either their own or someone else's) when constructing models.


· Only 30% of the respondents consistently received CAD models from their coworkers in their preferred tool's format.


· Only 6% of the respondents always received models from other companies in their preferred tool's format.


· More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents receive half or fewer of their external CAD models in their preferred format.


· Almost half (46%) of the survey respondents need to use three or more different CAD tools per month.


Again, none of these points are all that surprising, but they are strong reminders of the work that remains to be done to tackle a universal problem. Admittedly, CAD vendors are not in the business of enabling their products to readily import and export model data to competing CAD applications for editing or refinement. Conversely, virtually all vendors allow indirect data import via IGES and STEP, but this process often leaves a lot to be desired. Also, IGES and STEP are used relatively little (less than 20%, according to the survey) because they are not without problems of their own.


Further Complications

Something closely akin to the problems associated with interoperability is straight data exchange for sharing design data for visualization and collaborative purposes. Here’s where things really get interesting -- or more confusing -- where file formats are concerned. Autodesk has DWF, SolidWorks has e-Drawings, UGS has JT and Dassault Systèmes has 3D XML. Of course, we can’t leave out the ubiquitous Adobe PDF.


So what’s going to happen with this interoperability/data exchange debacle for the foreseeable future -- that is, in our lifetimes? Probably not much as far as simplifying and consolidation goes. As a matter of fact, no file format, including IGES and STEP, is likely to go away anytime soon. New design data file formats will continue to appear and evolve, as will companies that offer services for translating and transforming this data. If anything, interoperability/data exchange issues will continue to get more complicated. As confused as we may be now, I’m afraid that that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.


Coming Soon

In future editions of MCAD Tech News, I will compare and contrast 3D XML, JT, e-Drawings, DWF and PDF, because each has inherent strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, and so forth. If you would like me to include other file formats, please contact me.

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