Why Can't All Our CAD Files Just Get Along?

19 Nov, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Latest Kubotek interoperability survey finds serious problems persist -- and users are bearing the brunt of it

How often do you have to rebuild models from scratch to complete a redesign? If you say, "Never," you are among the lucky few -- the 17% who have found a way to effectively reuse product data from colleagues and partners.

The rest of your CAD brethren aren't so lucky. When CAD/CAM solutions provider Kubotek polled 2,869 CAD users for its 2006 CAD Interoperability Survey released last month, 72% said they redraw designs from scratch with some frequency, and 11% said they always do.

Kubotek observes, "The data shows that 34% of all respondents rebuild 3D models from scratch at least half the time. ... One-third of the respondents in each vertical segment indicated that they had to rebuild 3D models from scratch at least half the time to complete a redesign, create a revision or derive a new part or tool because it could not be done effectively using the original 3D model data file."


Whose Headache is it?
The prevalence of data reuse revealed by this survey suggests interoperability issues can seriously hamper a manufacturer's production flow. But does management get it? Not really, according to one expert.

"Most of the time, management doesn't recognize the problem," observes David Prawel of Longview Advisors, a 3D interoperability consultant and frequent speaker on this topic. "It's left to the poor guy in the trenches to deal with it. Maybe the recent fiasco at Airbus will help advance their cause." (For more on how interoperability may have impacted Airbus operations, read "Airbus Vows Computers Will Speak Same Language After A380 Delay" at, and watch for a unique look at this issue coming soon in Cadalyst Daily.)

To complicate data reuse problems, 94% of the participants indicated they use more than one file type. Nearly one-third juggle five file types or more, and only 6% get away with consistently using a single file type. According to last year's survey by Kubotek, almost half (46%) of the survey respondents needed to use three or more different CAD tools per month.

This year, when asked to list headaches associated with importing data, the 44% majority listed translator issues, 22% cited missing or corrupt data, 11% cited geometry errors, 10% cited issues with the sender, 9% grumbled that the files were too large and 5% felt the data was not rich enough.


"The CAD translation business is going to be healthy for a long, long time," says Prawel. "Translation service providers are experts at this. They've seen so many cases of it. As manufacturing management grasps the magnitude and cost of these problems, they'll provide more funding, and translation service providers will have a bright future."

CAD translation, he notes, was the temporary fix that seems to have become a permanent part of the engineering process, thanks to interoperability -- or the lack of it.

The Quest for the Right Tool Use the right tool for the task at hand -- that's the wisdom in engineering. "There's the rub," says Cheryl Salatino, Kubotek's vice-president of marketing. "More and more companies are adding different CAD systems across their businesses to use the right tool. Exchanging data between departments is increasingly becoming problematic. ... There are not adequate standards to allow CAD systems to work together. Many companies provide some tools to their customers, but the survey tells us that these tools do not meet the needs. When users struggle to read files created in earlier versions of the same CAD system, it tells us that data exchange is a more widespread problem, beyond using the right tool for the job. Different systems are just one part of this issue."

Salatino finds that the smaller the company, the more costly interoperability can be, "especially when customers require a particular CAD system to be purchased as a prerequisite to doing business," she says. On the other hand, larger companies and suppliers must maintain design data over many years. That legacy data becomes more costly over time -- "because the original system the design was created in may not be the current CAD system in use at the company," Salatino points out.

The Next STEP
So how do engineers and designers handle the unavoidable design changes? According to Kubotek's survey, feature-based parametric CAD tools were the preferred arsenal for 46%. The rest either change the drawing directly or use a nonparametric tool. Of the parametric tool users, 28% said the feature tree required major rework three quarters of the time, 21% said half the time and 18% said a quarter of the time. Of the same parametric tool users, 27% said they had to redraw the model for redesign because the task couldn't be accomplished using the original CAD file.


Prawel remarks, "Standards are much needed. Unfortunately, more and more companies I'm talking to have reduced their investments in driving standards, because [they feel] it's moving too slowly. Well, it may be slow, but to stop investing in a long-term, strategic solution is unwise. STEP [Standard for the Exchange of Product data] is the best long-term solution to most of these problems." He acknowledges that JT, the open data-exchange format from PLM developer UGS, has recently garnered a lot of attention, but cautions, "You know what? It's still a proprietary format. UGS owns and controls it, charges a lot of money to deploy it, and they can change it tomorrow."

Kubotek collected the survey responses from users who downloaded Kubotek Spectrum, a viewer for a variety of CAD formats. The viewer is available for free in exchange for completing the survey. The full survey results are also available by e-mail from Kubotek for users who register.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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