Reshaping CAD's future
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 6 (June 2008)

Reshaping CAD's future

At COFES, the Congress on the Future of En­gi­neering Software, users have a voice. And the vendors in the CAD and engineering markets are listening.

COFES is a yearly, invitation-only conference that brings professionals in the engineering fields together with CAD software vendors for unusually frank discussions about the future of engineering and the tools for the future. Vendors aren’t there to make a pitch, though sometimes they just can’t help themselves. Instead, they’re listening to users describe their problems.

Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as if the discussion centers around the same old problems year after year. The number one “same old problem” is the issue of formats (see “Maximizing the Design Process” and “Unifying the Design Process,” January 2008 and February 2008, respectively). CAD users seem to think that all their problems would be solved if only the CAD vendors would open up their formats so that users could freely exchange files from one CAD program to another. For years, it’s been a case of classic miscommunication. The CAD vendors assume that users would migrate to cheaper products if formats were as interchangeable as text. However, the users—especially those in the high-end industries, such as aerospace and automotive—are routinely working with a variety of files from different CAD products and visualization tools.

It seems, though, that movement is finally happening. The sides shouting at each other have made their cases. No, CAD files are not freely interchangeable, but new exchange practices and tools have considerably eased the issue of collaboration. Although the issue is undeniably practical, it also indicates a certain amount of tunnel vision among CAD users who, at conferences past, have appeared more concerned about their immediate problems rather than the larger issues of computer-aided design.

This year, however, the conference of several hundred attendees concerned themselves with issues such as sustainability, visualization, education, 3D CAD and manufacturing, 3D CAD and architecture, and how to make better products.

Education emerged as one of the real hot buttons of the conference. If COFES is any indication, and we believe it is, the population of engineers is aging. There is a lot of gray hair in evidence at COFES. In the US, engineering schools have shown a decline, even as professional opportunities for engineers have increased. Jobs in the science and engineering fields have grown faster than jobs in other fields, and to fill the need, the US has had to import talent from other countries. Today, with increased security concerns, fewer applicants are obtaining H-1B visas (which allow US employers to seek temporary help from skilled foreigners who have the educational equivalent of a bachelor’s degree). The result is that US-based companies are building R&D centers overseas, thus increasing the trend of outsourcing.

The CAD report completed by Jon Peddie Research in 2008 has also seen a shift in CAD revenues (see graphic, this page). There was a time when the US was responsible for most of the revenues earned by CAD companies. That’s no longer true. Europe has overtaken the US.

Making It Real
In addition, we have seen CAD users in Europe embrace newer design methodologies that include product life-cycle management (PLM) and building information management (BIM). In both approaches, the actual CAD design is only one part of the information following a product or a building from design to reality. Advanced CAD systems are aware of related information, allowing manufacturers and construction companies to keep track of all aspects of a project, including materials, analysis, documentation, and so forth. Contractors working on a job are included in the process, and they are included earlier; most important, all critical people involved in a project have access not just to the CAD data, but also to the same CAD data.

3D is critical to information-based design because the 3D design is an actual representation of an object or building. Boeing, working closely with Dassault using CATIA PLM tools, has been able to build its entire “super-efficient” Dream­liner in the computer before building the real airplane—way before, as it turns out. On the way to COFES, it was being reported that because of issues with outside contractors, Boeing had once again delayed the rollout of the Dreamliner.

Elsewhere, the automotive industry is moving toward complete digital design even faster than the aeronautic industries. Even industrial designers in the automotive industries are showing signs of giving up their beloved balsa wood models in favor of gorgeous, fully rendered images based on actual CAD data. There is renewed emphasis on visualization tools that are directly integrated with CAD products or that accept CAD data formats. In fact, Nvidia has acquired the largest rendering software provider, Mental Images, to take advantage of the growth in visualization within the industrial fields as well as the boom in special effects and games. The emphasis in visualization is for performance, and developers are racing to take advantage of multicore processors and GPUs with millions and millions of transistors.

Making It Green
Not coincidentally, Europe has led the effort to hold manufacturers responsible for products at the end of life, insisting, for instance, that companies have a plan for recycling products even as they are being designed. To this end, Europe has led the way in monitor recycling.

Autodesk, meanwhile, has made sustainability a key tenet of its product rollouts for 2008, and the issue came up again and again at COFES, as engineers and architects argued for an awareness of sustainability to begin with design and not as a retrofit (see “Measuring Green Footprints,” May 2008).

Other vendors might not have built their marketing around sustainability as pointedly as Autodesk has done, but the issue lies at the heart of their new products. Increasingly, analysis tools are being added to advanced CAD products. Dassault’s CATIA and SolidWorks PTC’s Windchill offer integration with analysis tools. Autodesk has committed to increase the availability of analysis to its users, and smaller companies, like Ashlar-Vellum, have increased their products’ interoperability with analysis tools.

The reason for this is simple. Designers who take advantage of analysis during the design process can avoid costly redesigns later in the project when problems surface in manufacturing or construction. The increasing awareness of environmental issues has had an effect on how engineers think about their designs and the future of their designs. Ten years ago, it was unusual to hear anyone talk about the life cycle of a product all the way to the end of a product’s life. That is no longer true, and the materials used to develop a product are often evaluated on the basis of their reusability, recyclability, and effect on the environment. Autodesk has even added a calculator that lets designers evaluate the carbon footprint of their product. However, let’s not get too carried away. Clearly, we are only just now at the beginning of this trend, and we’re seeing more good intentions than good practices.

Interestingly, it was noted at COFES that relatively few designers actually take advantage of analysis tools. Sometimes it’s a matter of time and training—users are not sure how to take advantage of the tools, and in other cases, they might even be discouraged as engineers from the analysis side protect their turf and argue about the liability of untrained users indulging in analysis.

All this, one suspects, comes back to the graying of the engineering community. Older professionals, while more experienced, might also be less willing to add new practices to their routine.

Globalization is a double-edged sword, however, and even as we have seen momentum shift to Europe and growth explosion in Asia, we have seen overall growth in the CAD industry worldwide (see graphic, this page). In the US, infrastructure projects are contributing to the growth of CAD. In addition, US companies have taken advantage of wage inequalities around the world to send manufacturing to Asia.

It’s conceivable that there is even a bright side to the declining US dollar. Some of the jobs that have gone overseas may well come home as the US becomes more affordable compared to Europe. 

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at .