3D Direct Modeling is not the disruptive innovation

We live in exciting times in terms of engineering software. A new style of 3D modeling is brewing, and it represents the first big industry change in a decade. Like the early days with most emerging technologies, clear definition is a work in progress. The software vendors and pundits are stirring a big pot of terms and ideas including:

  • Direct Modeling
  • Direct Editing
  • Explicit Modeling
  • Synchronous Technology
  • Fusion
  • Push / Pull
  • History-Free
  • Hybrid

Every day, some new term bubbles to the top. Consumers watching from the sidelines are often left confused or misled. Who can blame them? I’ve read many blog posts and marketing pieces arguing passionately over these semantics. It often sounds like:

“Direct Modeling is not the same as Direct Editing.”
“Synchronous Technology is totally different than Fusion.”
“Don’t confuse Explicit Modeling with Direct Modeling.”
“Direct Modeling shouldn’t have a constraints manager.”
“The first ever [insert tiny differentiating factor here].”

Here’s my personal take on what’s happening. Note that I fall in both the vendor (SpaceClaim) and pundit (This Blog) camps… so, take me with a grain of salt. Hang with me to the end, and I’ll share a simple, black & white understanding of what’s happening in 3D today.

3D CAD and the Utopian Ideal

3D CAD really took hold in industry around the mid 80s. PTC’s Pro/Engineer drew designers from the drawing board or (2D CAD system) into the digital 3rd dimension. In the 90s, SolidWorks (founded by Mike Payne… who, incidentally, also founded PTC and SpaceClaim), saw an opening to take advantage of Windows based 3D CAD using a new class of inexpensive PC workstations.

At this point, we get 15-20 years of a Cold War styled arms race. Incremental feature and performance improvements made their way into the products of at least a half dozen major CAD vendors… all competing over the same slices of market pie.

That last point is important. Every CAD company has focused on serving the needs of full-time, detail-design-oriented CAD designers. Many moons ago, I was a real engineer at General Motors. The Unigraphics users were all full time CAD designers. For 40 hours per week, these guys were responding to ECOs and changing prints for the engineers. None of the engineers used CAD. Let’s face it, maintaining and creating quality 3D documentation in a CAD tool is a career. It’s a full time job, not a casual pursuit.

As the CAD companies tapped out the pool of full-time designers, they began to sell their customers a Utopian “Design Engineer” vision. That vision remains mostly unrealized today. But, you’d never know it by reading the marketing blurbs from Big CAD. It is a very narrow kind of widget and corporate structure that will allow Joe Engineer to efficiently juggle the jobs of an Engineer and a Detail Designer without dropping some balls. It’s a bit like saying, “Hey… we have a Sales department and a Marketing department. They kinda sorta do the same thing… let’s combine them!”

Most companies today still have dedicated Designers in a CAD department who are ultimately responsible for detail design and documentation. Even companies that have combined the Design and Engineering departments usually end up with a few “Go To” CAD experts handling the bulk of that work. Those folks bubble to the top to form a de-facto CAD grouplet.

What about this Direct/Explicit/Synchronous/Fusion stuff?

Frankly, I’m going to toss all of that out the window for now. Instead, let’s boil it down to two, simple categories:

  • 3D CAD Modeling
  • 3D Concept Modeling

What we’re really seeing here is the classic model of disruptive innovation. On the one hand, you have incumbent players selling mature products to a mature user base. On the other, you have innovative, young competitors creating products for a slightly different target user. It is hard for the bloated, entrenched old guy to react to the new kid on the block.

PTC, SolidWorks, Siemens, and AutoDesk are focused on CAD Modeling (AKA Detailed Design). So are the end users making up their mature user bases. It is very difficult for companies in this position to truly focus on a new group of users with new technologies. There is an inescapable culture of “this is how we’ve always done it and who we’ve always served.”

The best corporations find a way to stay relevant by actively developing disruptive innovations. Microsoft is a good example. Microsoft was the antithesis of the Open Source software movement in the early days. The various forms of Linux must absolutely be taken seriously today. And, not just by weird computer nerds in basements. Linux has certainly made its way into Microsoft’s bread and butter corporate accounts. Microsoft has since invested in all sorts of incubator programs to shore up disruptive market risks.

In the CAD world, Autodesk gets big points for its “Fusion” project. Here’s an example of a company that is experimenting with this suddenly hot “Direxplicitous” modeling technology in a way that can be readily used by non CAD experts. They saw the need to break this new “thing” away from their existing product completely… thus potentially allowing it a life of its own. It appears, however, that their intent will be to inject this new technology into their existing product line once it leaves the labs. It will probably end up being something like “Autodesk Inventor with Fusion.” That’s exactly what happened with Siemens’ Synchronous Technology, too.

The siren call of OOM (Our Original Market) for these incumbent companies is just too hard to resist. Making a truly disruptive product, suitable for a non-traditional user base ends up feeling too uncomfortable and risky.

Okay, who are these non-traditional 3D users you speak of?

They are everywhere. Walk into any typical company, and ask for directions to the CAD department. Grab a chair, but don’t talk to the CAD designers. Instead, watch carefully for the Gozintas and Gozoutas. A Systems Engineer will walk up and hand a scrap of paper with some sketches to the Design Manager. An FEA Analyst will ask one of the designers to add 3 ribs to an existing part for a feasibility test. A Marketing Guy will ask for a photo-realistic rendering of the X133 assembly with some subtle changes.

In most companies, the only 3D tools available to these folks are pencil, paper, and powerpoint. In my opinion, SolidWorks is the easiest traditional CAD tool to learn and use today. It’s still a detail detail design tool, though. Your Systems Engineer, FEA Expert, or Marketing Guy is unlikely to become proficient with a tool targeting full-time CAD design experts.

These users need a 3D Concept Modeling tool, not a 3D CAD tool. This is like the difference between a blogging tool like WordPress and a hardcore layout tool used by publishing experts.

Direct Modeling is not the disruptive innovation

Direct, Explicit, History-Free, whatever you want to call it… it’s been around for a very long time. CoCreate championed Explicit Modeling many years ago. CoCreate was never a disruptive product, however, because it focused on exactly the same full-time, detail design CAD user as all other CAD companies. It has to have every bell and whistle an expert CAD designer might need. The training required, learning curve, and detail design focus keep it in the same company as SolidWorks, Pro/Engineer, NX, SolidEdge, Inventor, and Catia.

What makes the technology disruptive is its implementation and focus for a new type of user. Imagine a room full of 100 people who have never used a 3D tool of any kind. Give them those 7 traditional CAD tools, SpaceClaim, and Google Sketchup.

Which two tools would get used?

The Citizen Designer

Simple blogging tools created an explosion of Citizen Journalists who will never step foot in a real newspaper’s editorial department. That is a world changing democratization of role and technology. In the early days, the establishment lambasted bloggers over accuracy and grammar. Today, however, a large portion of the “news” we consume comes directly from bloggers. The benefit is mutual. The act of blogging forces these Citizen Journalists to think more deeply about their subjects. Articulating a position is hard work, and blogging makes these folks even more creative, informed, and influential.

That is an exact analogy for what I see coming in the 3D world.

email_digest
  • http://www.thevirtualengineer.org/ Derrek Cooper

    lots of good points.. but the fact is, I think you risk falling into the YATS (yet another tool syndrome). Not talking specifically about SC or any tool in particular, talking- in general. It is risky, but if done correctly, it can be tremendously successful. There are a ton of examples of this on the market. The big challenge is that the tool has to be bone simple, yet cover a massive % of the need and unfortunately, it needs to be inexpensive. So inexpensive that it makes it a no-brainer. Otherwise, you now have to convince me that there is a market for “your product” and I now have to justify the purchase.

    SW did a great job in the early days. Their original price was $3995 plus mx. That was unheard of in the mid 90s. Pro was more like $15k. So, their tech was good, almost there, but their ROI was mindblowing.

    Take the boys at Alibre- they dropped to a fire sale price for “the near term”. The problem with this disruption in their pricing model is that is cries for speculation. Are they going out of buz? Why the cheap price? Plus they want from $1000 to $100. Just feels “cheap”.

    Not sure I have the answer but there is a big challenge in the 3D space to convince people you are different, convince people to think differently and have a pricing model that keeps the lights on.

    IMHO – the name of the game is interoperability. ADESK has a chance to shine with Fusion if they keep the technology separate as well as incorporating the functionality into Inventor. they can have the best of both worlds. They can have a super modern, conceptual tool as a stand alone, as well as leveraging the cool factor in Inventor (moldflow, algor etc)..

    Siemens ST is cool stuff but I still have to buy SE or NX to get to it. Arguably, missing the entire bare-bones conceptual market.

    I leave for #AU2009 on Monday, will be twittering and blogging what I see..

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Absolutely. The toughest part of exposing people to Concept Modeling is breaking that ancient synapse connecting 3D with CAD. If you are unsuccessful doing that, then you get a huge case of YATS.

      Price can certainly be disruptive, but not always. Alibre’s $100 gambit wasn’t disruptive because Alibre itself is addressing the exact same user and needs as Pro/E, Solidworks, Cocreate, etc. If you look at a company’s overall burn rate for doing business, spending $50k to suit up 10 designers with Pro/E doesn’t seem like a big # compared to $1k to suit them up with Alibre (though from what I saw of the promotion, you’d end up spending much more than $100/seat with all the upgrades). They are essentially the same kind of tool solving the same kind of problem. You won’t make back $49k in productivity over a year… even if you did, there are much bigger fish to fry at the company level. It’s not even worth $49k of risk.

      Interoperability is going to be a game changer for sure… both in CAD and Concept modeling. This notion of “our stuff only plays well with our stuff” is outdated. Putting those kinds of artificial walls into your product to protect your market might have worked in the dark ages, but not in the globally connected, collaborative business world we live in today.

  • http://www.thevirtualengineer.org Derrek Cooper

    lots of good points.. but the fact is, I think you risk falling into the YATS (yet another tool syndrome). Not talking specifically about SC or any tool in particular, talking- in general. It is risky, but if done correctly, it can be tremendously successful. There are a ton of examples of this on the market. The big challenge is that the tool has to be bone simple, yet cover a massive % of the need and unfortunately, it needs to be inexpensive. So inexpensive that it makes it a no-brainer. Otherwise, you now have to convince me that there is a market for “your product” and I now have to justify the purchase.

    SW did a great job in the early days. Their original price was $3995 plus mx. That was unheard of in the mid 90s. Pro was more like $15k. So, their tech was good, almost there, but their ROI was mindblowing.

    Take the boys at Alibre- they dropped to a fire sale price for “the near term”. The problem with this disruption in their pricing model is that is cries for speculation. Are they going out of buz? Why the cheap price? Plus they want from $1000 to $100. Just feels “cheap”.

    Not sure I have the answer but there is a big challenge in the 3D space to convince people you are different, convince people to think differently and have a pricing model that keeps the lights on.

    IMHO – the name of the game is interoperability. ADESK has a chance to shine with Fusion if they keep the technology separate as well as incorporating the functionality into Inventor. they can have the best of both worlds. They can have a super modern, conceptual tool as a stand alone, as well as leveraging the cool factor in Inventor (moldflow, algor etc)..

    Siemens ST is cool stuff but I still have to buy SE or NX to get to it. Arguably, missing the entire bare-bones conceptual market.

    I leave for #AU2009 on Monday, will be twittering and blogging what I see..

    • http://lifeupfront.com Jeff Waters

      Absolutely. The toughest part of exposing people to Concept Modeling is breaking that ancient synapse connecting 3D with CAD. If you are unsuccessful doing that, then you get a huge case of YATS.

      Price can certainly be disruptive, but not always. Alibre’s $100 gambit wasn’t disruptive because Alibre itself is addressing the exact same user and needs as Pro/E, Solidworks, Cocreate, etc. If you look at a company’s overall burn rate for doing business, spending $50k to suit up 10 designers with Pro/E doesn’t seem like a big # compared to $1k to suit them up with Alibre (though from what I saw of the promotion, you’d end up spending much more than $100/seat with all the upgrades). They are essentially the same kind of tool solving the same kind of problem. You won’t make back $49k in productivity over a year… even if you did, there are much bigger fish to fry at the company level. It’s not even worth $49k of risk.

      Interoperability is going to be a game changer for sure… both in CAD and Concept modeling. This notion of “our stuff only plays well with our stuff” is outdated. Putting those kinds of artificial walls into your product to protect your market might have worked in the dark ages, but not in the globally connected, collaborative business world we live in today.

  • Srihari Gangaraj

    Jeff,
    Check out Google Wave.. a nice integrated communication tool. After you see the video for Google Wave, please do try it out.
    Now imagine how that concept could be used with Designers…I would like to see a blog from you on your thoughts about it.

    Regards,
    Srihari

  • Srihari Gangaraj

    Jeff,
    Check out Google Wave.. a nice integrated communication tool. After you see the video for Google Wave, please do try it out.
    Now imagine how that concept could be used with Designers…I would like to see a blog from you on your thoughts about it.

    Regards,
    Srihari