A Startup Success: Alibre Design

31 May, 2004 By: Arnie Williams

3D modeler finds niche with low price, online support

April 2000-the heart of the Internet collaboration boom. You remember the days. You couldn't attend an industry trade show without encountering dozens of new startups that promised unparalleled productivity over the Internet at low or practically no cost. Many of us who had taken Economics 101 or just had a fair amount of plain business sense wondered how all those companies could survive with a business plan that seemed to overlook the need to generate a profit.

From our vantage point in 2004, few of those ambitious startups have survived. At trade shows today, which are more lightly attended because of an industrywide, if not worldwide, economic slump, you'll encounter few, if any, Internet startups with inflated promises. The market has self-corrected and companies are back to creating old-fashioned, profit-motivated business plans.

One Success Story

One of those year-2000, Internet-flavored companies, Alibre, is still around in the CAD space ( ). Alibre Design launched in April 2000 as an ASP (application service provider). The idea was to keep the software's cost low. The application, 3D models, and 2D drawings existed on customers' desktops, but commands were transmitted over the network-a system set up to foster easy and effective collaboration.
 Eric Scherer, systems engineer at Sheepscot Machine, designed these resin dispenser assemblies using Alibre's Design software.
Eric Scherer, systems engineer at Sheepscot Machine, designed these resin dispenser assemblies using Alibre's Design software.

As the industry as a whole fell out of love with the ASP model, Alibre changed its approach. Today when you purchase Alibre Design for $795, you receive a typical shrink-wrapped box with user manual and CD-ROMs. To keep the software up to date after the first year and to continue receiving user support, you pay an annual fee of $295.

"The software that comes on CD-ROM is the same as that we originally offered by subscription over the Internet," says Alibre president and CEO Greg Milliken. In fact, while you're waiting for your CD-ROM and user manual, you can download the software over the Internet, just as you could in 2000. Even so, notes Milliken, customers favor having CD-ROMs at the ready-a kind of assurance that no matter what might happen with their Internet connection, their software will still work.

This July, Alibre releases version 8.0. A new major release comes out every six months with minor changes in between. The company isn't positioned as a head-to-head competitor with the likes of SolidWorks, Autodesk Inventor, Solid Edge, or other heavyweights, according to Milliken. Instead, Alibre Design offers all of the core functionality that much of the market needs at a fraction of the cost, with ease of use and user support as key differentiators.

Wheat Design Service designed this magnetically coupled rotary using Alibre Design Professional.
Wheat Design Service designed this magnetically coupled rotary using Alibre Design Professional.

For $795, you receive all the standard part and assembly modeling features that are the foundation of 3D mechanical CAD along with 2D drawing creation, automated BOM generation, spreadsheet-driven designs, and with Release 8.0, freeform surfacing capability. Alibre also offers Professional ($1,295) and Expert ($1,795) versions, with capabilities such as rendering, sheet-metal design, analysis, and CAM functionality.

"Although we're still small compared to SolidWorks and others, we're growing rapidly, says Milliken. "With thousands of satisfied customers and thousands of new registered trials a month, we're now hitting that critical mass tipping point where word-of-mouth is taking over-it's now our second-highest source of leads."

The growth Milliken speaks of includes localized versions in German, Swedish, French, Spanish, Japanese, simplified and traditional Chinese, Korean, and Thai. The company will soon release an API to open up the product for customization and extension, and a resource editor will allow partners to localize the software for areas not already covered by foreign-language releases.

Low on Cost High on Support

John Wheat, of Dallas-area Wheat Design Service, is a typical Alibre customer who bought the software because of its low cost. A victim of corporate downsizing, Wheat found his freelance services in demand by the very companies he used to work for. But as a freelance mechanical designer, he didn't have the resources to purchase expensive software and hardware.

Ease of use was a hurdle, notes Wheat. Having struggled to learn AutoCAD over much of his career, he finally went with an easier-to-use product called FastCAD. It met most of his 2D needs, but Wheat saw the market was moving towards 3D. And the 2D work he dreaded most was documenting assemblies and creating BOM (bills of material)-an onerous task with manual 2D systems.

Even though he balked at the price-point, Wheat evaluated Solid Edge, SolidWorks, and Vellum Solids, but found the trial-use software difficult to learn. He came across the Alibre Design trial offer by accident while surfing the Internet. Startled by its low cost, Wheat decided to give the software a test drive and has since become a loyal customer.

"I downloaded the demo and quickly became excited," says Wheat. "Here was software that was truly intuitive. I found right away that Alibre and I were compatible. I understood what they were trying to do. Within a week I bought Alibre Professional and committed it to my next project. I've used it ever since."

That first project was in August of last year. Since then, Wheat has used the software to co-design with a client a device that is placed in various circuits of an aircraft to measure air speed and relative position. He has also provided services to a company that designs vacuum chambers and another that manufactures test equipment.

Sometimes Wheat just provides design services, but sometimes companies ask him to do both design and manufacturing. In all cases, he has found the features and capabilities in Alibre Design to satisfy his needs. And when he does encounter a design conundrum, Wheat says the almost instant online support by a team of Alibre design experts justifies the cost of the software.

Thomas Ulrich, president of Arthur N. Ulrich Company, also applauds Alibre Design's online support. Ulrich, along with application engineer Mark Yost, handles most of the design work his company does in support of the power-generation market.

The relatively small company-a second-generation family business-employs 12 staffers and generates about $19 million in annual sales. The firm specializes in solar panel design as backup power systems for hospitals and high-rises and for remote sites that lack more traditional access to power.

Arthur N. Ulrich Company designed this aluminum framework for remote site solar power systems in Alibre Design.
Arthur N. Ulrich Company designed this aluminum framework for remote site solar power systems in Alibre Design.

Ulrich initially selected Alibre Design because of its low cost point, but also because of its intuitive interface and command structure. Having used AutoCAD LT and TurboCAD sparingly in the past, Ulrich needed a product that would provide 3D modeling capability for interference checking, but not require a lengthy learning curve. Although his design colleague, Mark Yost, came on board from college with a working knowledge of all of the popular mainstream CAD packages, he, too, appreciates Alibre Design's ease of use.

One of the biggest advantages Alibre Design afforded Ulrich and Yost was the ability to spot design interferences in the early stages. In the past, using a 2D approach to their work, they often found that panels didn't fit the external framework they were slated for. They would end up modifying structures after-the-fact at a crucial stage for product delivery.

But early on, they also discovered what has now become one of their favorite aspects of the Alibre Design package. When they are in the midst of a design, they can report any problems they encounter online in real time to Alibre. Within minutes, they say, an Alibre staff designer is working with them over the network to solve the design dilemma and keep their project on track.

Startup Success

As we look back over the Internet startup wasteland from only a few years ago, a relatively small company that aimed to provide substantial 3D modeling capability for a fraction of the cost of mainstream CAD has been successful. While not attempting to achieve parity with the mainstream giants, Alibre Design has nevertheless carved out a niche in the market and has steadily grown from those heady days of Net mania.

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