CAD Manager's Newsletter #128

11 May, 2005 By: Robert Green

A look at the hot topics of PLM and BIM, and some advice about technological changes on the horizon

In the last issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I began my coverage of COFES (Congress On the Future of Engineering Software), which I attended in mid-April. I talked about trends in operating systems and hardware, discussions about outsourcing and the move toward 3D printing and prototyping. If you didn't get a chance to read that issue, you may want to do so now (click here for archives).

In this issue, I'll concentrate on high-value system components such as PLM (product lifecycle management) tools and BIM (building information modeling), and I'll wrap up with some conclusions about how these technology trends may change how we manage our CAD departments in coming years and how to prepare for that change. Here goes.

The BIM Conundrum
The BIM topic fueled a passionate discussion among those from the AEC (architecture/engineering/construction) field. A sense of urgency exists in the profession that people who work in building and construction need to achieve some of the economic advantages that manufacturing and design firms have experienced using new technologies over the past decade or so. I also sensed some real frustration at the glacial pace of BIM software adoption.

What becomes apparent very quickly is that AEC fields are very fragmented and face substantial challenges when it comes to pushing office technology to the construction site. Many agree that just because architects can model a building on high-end computers in a well-proceduralized office doesn't mean they can force the many project subcontractors to do so.

It almost seems that as BIM software seeks to impose order on a disorganized process, the very entropy of the modern construction process works against a centralized, BIM style of design. And if you've ever tried to impose centralized control on a decentralized business process, you know it's a tough sell — whether it's BIM, a document-management system or coordinated CAD standards!

BIM Conclusions
I offer these conclusions about BIM based on what I observed at COFES.

  • BIM is still a long way from being the norm in AEC design environments.

  • Not only is BIM a long way from being the norm, but the industry is a long way from agreeing about how to standardize and control a BIM-based project from practical methodologies, all the way down to how to write a project contract that controls BIM-modeled assets.

  • The BIM debate reminds me of the discussions about parametric mechanical CAD years ago: Although everyone agrees the concept makes a great deal of sense, no single vendor can figure out how to author a truly generalized BIM system, and no user wants to be the guinea pig for early software iterations. Catch 22.
The PLM Conundrum
PLM has been a hot topic in the mechanical engineering world for the past three years, and this interest has been reflected at COFES events. These days it seems as if everybody who writes a CAD program wants to be in the PLM business and is more than happy to create a Gordian knot of product offerings that sport complex names and descriptions, using terms such as collaboration, publishing, ERP, MRP, CASE and other acronyms that change frequently.

Worth noting at this year's COFES was that nobody was talking about how PLM problems have been solved, but rather how to define PLM problems, break them into meaningful chunks and solve them in a piecemeal fashion. Consensus arose that we're moving toward doing more product management in electronic formats, and as such we'll have to move to computer tools that allow us to manage the design process using native digital formats rather than home-cooked spreadsheets and kludged file translations between various design departments. But once everyone agreed on the necessity of PLM, they could not move on to agree what PLM really is at this point.

Also notable was the disparity in how the major CAD vendors — Autodesk, Dassault, PTC, UGS — plan to solve PLM problems for their customers. At a panel discussion that featured leaders from these companies, it was apparent that each will focus on driving its PLM business by accommodating current CAD-based customers to prove concepts. I heard no grandiose plans for market domination, no extravagant marketing plans for Web-driven, low-cost PLM tools and certainly no speeches from the podium professing to have all the answers.

PLM Conclusions
I came to these conclusions about the state of PLM based on the give-and-take at COFES.

  • PLM is still an ethereal concept that the market is struggling to define.

  • The big CAD companies appear to be just as confused as the rest of us about how PLM will evolve.

  • There's a lot less swagger in the PLM world than we saw a few years back as the venture capitalists, stock analysts and CAD company stockholders are holding software companies accountable for bottom-line results in PLM software development.
The Conundrum Conundrum
So what I take away from COFES this year is that a lot of really smart people in the CAD business are struggling with the same problems that CAD managers face every day. It seems that no matter how cool your technology is or how much it may make sense to adopt it in theory, nothing really matters until you can implement your software and hardware tools in the real world.

The good news is that the software, hardware and operating system communities understand the problems and know that the ultimate answer is a business-focused methodology that companies can afford. COFES proves that great minds are at work in our industry and that CAD managers will see the benefits of that innovation in the coming years, even if we don't exactly know today what that innovation will look like.

The Management Component
So what does all this mean for CAD managers, you may be asking? My initial impression is that CAD managers are going to be more in demand as these advanced technologies filter into the workplace and that CAD management will become even more challenging as a result. Here's my reasoning.

Technology must be integrated. All the conversations about cool new technologies at COFES were peppered with the reality that you can't just open a box, run an install routine and be in business. It's clear to me that getting high-end design technology in place will require the caring guidance of a technically savvy person who understands his or her business environment. And ladies and gentlemen, that person is the CAD manager.

IT and CAD management will combine. As high-end systems come into play, they'll be increasingly connected via extended networks, the Internet, hand-held devices and so forth. And as the technology infrastructure required to run design-based systems becomes more complex, the line between IT and CAD management will become very blurry.

Recommendations for CAD Managers
So what should you be doing to prepare yourself for the future of CAD management that COFES would have us believe is coming our way? Here are my gut recommendations.

  • Read anything you can get your hands on about high-end, design-based systems such as PLM, BIM and 3D printing and prototyping. Though you may not see your workplace change immediately, it's safe to assume the change is coming. Be prepared for the change when it arrives.

  • Continue to learn everything you can about how your company does business so you'll know which technologies will support, rather than hinder, your company's success.

  • Learn what you can about networking and IT topics so you'll be able to support the tools and environments coming your way.
Wrapping Up
If you'd like to respond to any of my conclusions or recommendations, I'd love to hear from you. E-mail me at

In the next issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll begin looking at changes in the AutoCAD product line that affect CAD managers as well as examining reader feedback. I will not be doing a feature-by-feature review of AutoCAD 2006, but rather a discussion of how CAD managers can avoid problems and gain economy when they implement new Autodesk products based on the AutoCAD 2006 platform. Until next time.