MCAD Modeling Methods-State of the MCAD Industry30 Sep, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Look at products and users, as well as companies' financial strength.
If you ask ten MCAD software users about the state of the industry, you'll likely get ten different answers. One will talk about who's buying who and why that's good or bad. Another will talk about vendors' quarterly reports as if they were the only things that matter. I like to talk about where the industry is from the point of view of the software user. Yes, it's good to know how a company is doing financially. (I'm not suggesting that I ignore bank accounts. Neither my bank nor my wife would like it if I did that.) What most concerns mechanical designers and managers is whether you can do what you need to with relative ease.
It makes sense to assess the financial stability of any company that you are considering forming a relationship with. You're going to have to deal with that company off and on for many years to come if you buy its product. Financial statements don't tell the complete story, however. How many companies can you name who've endured down years, or even filed for bankruptcy protection, only to emerge a few years later stronger than before? Take industry giant PTC, for instance (figure 1). Things at PTC looked pretty rough for a few years. Now it's climbing back on its feet and making money. I can't tell you how many people told me that company was doomed.
Figure 1. Many people thought PTC, the maker of Pro/ENGINEER, was going to fail because its revenues were negative for at least two years, but it s reporting increasing revenues and growth. So much for industry psychics.
When you buy a software package, the vendor has to support you. If it goes under, where will you turn for answers to your questions? What will you do when you find a bug in the software? The health of the company is important, and you should know something about it. But really, it's going to be the software that makes or breaks your day.
How's It Goin'?
What do you think of your software? Most of you already have some kind of CAD software. Ask yourself a few questions:
- 1. Do you like it?
- 2. Does it have the features you want?
- 3. Are its features easy to use?
- 4. Have you struggled with learning it?
- 5. Does another company make a product that does what you want to do better than your current software does?
These questions are important. I think they're more important than who's selling more seats or making bigger bucks. The answers to these questions will help you do your job better. That's always a good thing.
In This Article
I've noticed a trend toward software companies making wholesale changes to their programs during the past few years. More major interface changes have been implemented than in the past. I think it's good that more software makers are going Windows native. Say what you like about Microsoft, it is the computer operating system industry. No competitor comes close. The fact that software companies have recognized this and are changing to comply is a step in the right direction.
Midrange software vendors are also starting to embrace 64-bit computing, with SolidWorks, PTC and others announcing support in the past year. Those who work with large assemblies, in particular, can benefit from the additional RAM access made possible by a 64-bit operating system.
Are We Fully Functional?
One of the best trends I've seen over the past few years is that of smaller, cheaper software packages adopting functionality formerly found only in higher-end software. Years ago, the only place you could find 3D solid modeling was in systems with price tags almost as big as the national debt. Now you can find 3D solid modeling in packages almost anyone can afford. I've even seen it in packages that cost roughly $100. Today's expensive technology trickles down into the cheaper—but amazingly capable—products of tomorrow. I won't be at all surprised if the technology curve flattens out one day, and the low end competes directly with the high end.
Support after the sale has always been a hot topic in the software business. So many times when you have problems, the software people blame the hardware people, who in turn bounce the blame back to the software people. In the past it's been frustrating to get any kind of useful help, but things seem to be changing.
Robert McNeel and Associates, the company that makes Rhino (figure 2), is a good example of a company that knows how to win market share with class. For years, you've been able to download its software basically for free. It's probably the smallest modeling software company in the industry in terms of employee headcount. It doesn't compete with the big-name industry players. It just makes good software and then supports it as if its corporate life depended on it, which it does.
Figure 2. Rhino is a capable 3D modeling package that is relatively low cost but definitely high powered. People use Rhino and its Flamingo rendering package to generate everything from shoes, jewelry and cars all the way to buildings.
It will be interesting to see whether Autodesk continues the support philosophy of Alias, which Autodesk acquired late in 2005.
In the past when you called Robert McNeel and Associates with a problem, you were likely to talk directly with one of the software's programmers. Those guys were the ones who would be making any changes to the code that might be needed. Who better to answer your questions?
Yeah, but How?
Users today have much greater access to educational materials than ever before. Online tutorials make things so much easier to learn, and some are even free. You can access some tutorials before you buy the software. These are extremely valuable because you can get a good idea of what's involved in using the software you are considering. After all, you're not going to be happy spending a lot of money on something that you find out you can't work with.
I really enjoy seeing the user community interact with the MCAD industry. I've noticed a growing interest by software customers in getting together to swap stories and how-to tips. One impressive user forum is that for SketchUp, recently bought by Google (figure 3). I enjoyed the spirited discussion of various shading and rendering techniques—users helping users to improve each other's capabilities. The reason I like to see this activity within the user community is that I've never seen a software company use very complex models for its examples. The companies just don't have the time. Users are out there in the trenches, though. They have real-world experience in finding solutions to problems that many others face as well. I encourage everyone who works with 3D models to share what you've learned. You'll learn a few things in return, and that's always valuable. The Cadalyst Web site now offers a forum devoted specifically to mechanical design (http://forums.cadalyst.com).
Figure 3. When you get a bunch of users together, you find creative ways of getting the job done. Users helping users can be the cheapest and best kind of tutorial.
Sizing Things Up
So what is the state of the industry? I think it's pretty good, from a user's point of view. Capability is growing continuously, even as prices are falling. Support is available from many places other than the software makers, and sometimes is completely free. What more could you ask for? Free stuff? Check out www.FreeCAD.com or www.FreeCADapps.com (figure 4). You might just find the genie in the bottle that will help you realize your dreams.
Figure 4. Web sites that offer free 3D modeling programs can be a great way to start out. You can get technology that may be a few years old, but it s free!
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.