Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Selecting a 3D CAD System

Originally posted Sept 2007

I recently wrote a paper on MCAD technologies regarding history-based systems versus history-free systems. With the introduction of SpaceClaim there seems to be more discussion in the industry on the differences between these technologies. I submitted the paper to a few publications and CADCAMNet was quick to take it and publish it. It was published in 3 parts with part one being published July 19, 2007. You can view the articles following the links below.

A Primer on MCAD Modeling Technology, Part 1: It’s All About the Trees

A Primer on MCAD Modeling Technology, Part 2: Design Intent is Not Necessarily in the Eye of the Beholder

A Primer on MCAD Modeling Technology, Part 3: How MCAD Technology Impacts the Product Development Process

I have been involved with 3D modeling for about 20 years and have always been fascinated with the technologies; first as a user, starting with Graphtec, Anvil and ME30. I later was involved in supporting the sale of 3D Design systems as a technical consultant responsible for providing demonstrations and benchmarks for many companies as they were evaluating various CAD systems. It was always interesting to see the different ways in which companies evaluated these systems and what was important to them.

I have sat in rooms with drawings spread on the table, stop watch and video camera ready, with someone ready to count mouse clicks, as I converted the existing drawings to 3D models. I often wondered how many employees they had with the responsibility of converting 2D drawings to 3D models - I bet none, maybe one at most. So why did they evaluate the tool in such a way?

I sat side-by-side at a table in a conference room with one of our competitors. We were expected to import an assembly and then make changes to it. The test was to see who could get it finished first. I completed the import and changes in less than 10 minutes. We spent the next 2 hours watching the other guy attempt to make the changes. He was unable to complete it. This seemed like a reasonable test if your business requires that you import 3D data from other systems. Unfortunately, they never purchased. I could never figure out what exactly their criteria was, but it certainly had very little to do with the elaborate competition and technical capabilities of the toolset.

In the course of what seems like hundreds of benchmarks that I participated in, I very rarely ever lost a benchmark. However, we only won at most 50% of the deals. I am not sure if this is common for all CAD companies, but what's interesting is that often times the capabilities of the toolset and its ability to meet technical demands of the business and process often had a small impact on the selection.

So how do companies today select a 3D CAD system? Benchmarks seem to be much less common today. 3D CAD is becoming more of a commodity now. Most 3D CAD systems are very capable and it is becoming much more difficult to differentiate between the many that are on the market.

There certainly are differences between user interaction models and user interfaces. This may be the more prevalent selection criteria today. User preference seems to be significant - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", as they say. Selecting a CAD system that your users prefer and that new employees already have experience with is not a bad thing. It can save on the cost of training. I still see a lot of employment opportunities from companies looking for mechanical engineers requesting knowledge of a particular CAD system. This is not a good testament to the ease-of-use of the CAD system, but today it is important.

Certainly the status of the CAD company seems to be important. Not just the stability of the company, but the personality and presence of the company in the industry. The best product doesn't always win. Its all about marketing. A good presence in the market can overshadow a weak product.

Upper management also seems to have much influence on the decision for a CAD system. Often times this influence is based on experience from a successful implementation at a previous company they worked for. Sometimes it is even based on a relationship with a particular sales person. Certainly upper management looks at the financial stability of the various CAD companies as well as their presence in the market. Unfortunately, many times this influence is not based on the technical capabilities of the toolset, or it's ability to deliver on business and process requirements.

Unknown to many people, and perhaps unimportant to many people, is the fact that there are still many deep technical differences between the existing 3D CAD tools on the market. These differences can have a significant impact on your process and even business. Take for example geometry accuracy. Most CAD systems run at different accuracies. Typically the lower the accuracy of the system, the easier it is for the system to successfully add blends and other features. File sizes are smaller and system performance is higher. But at what cost? How does system accuracy affect the leverage and use of the 3D data you spent so much time creating? Should the fastest system with the smallest file size win?

So what do you think is important in the selection of a 3D CAD system for your company?

Paul

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