The Greater Boston 3D Design Cluster

In the movie 21, three MIT students who know their math go to Las Vegas and play blackjack. Eventually they get thrown out, after nearly breaking the bank at the casinos’ card tables.

Well, as we’ve reported before, it’s a true story. And one of the three MIT geniuses was Jon Hirschtick, who invested his winnings from the adventure wisely, founding Concord, MA-based SolidWorks and developing the first 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software that ran on an ordinary PC.

But while that was a key moment in the evolution of CAD technology, it was the second or third chapter in the development of the New England region’s cluster of CAD software makers, which one of the world’s strongest. Companies here lead their industry in the development of 3D design and engineering software, which help engineers create visualizations and specifications for everything from cars to buildings to the consumer products on the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart. Indeed, CAD software is so central to the construction and manufacturing industries that without it, innovation and economic growth would be far slower.

That’s why Xconomy will be featuring leaders of the local CAD cluster during a breakout session at our June 17 XSITE event, the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. Entitled “Designing the Next Economy,” the panel will include multimedia presentations by speakers from Autodesk, Newforma, Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), SolidWorks, SpaceClaim, and Z Corporation, followed by a discussion of the cluster’s key role in accelerating innovation.

SolidWorks assembly modeling illustrationLike most regional technology clusters, Boston’s CAD cluster started out small and, to some extent, accidentally. In 1985, Sam Geisberg, a Russian immigrant and math genius, left Bedford, MA- based Computervision, an early pioneer in CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), to develop the first “parameter driven” CAD system, later named Pro Engineer. (In computer-aided design, parameter-driven systems are “associative,” so if you make one small change in a model the corresponding parts that need to be relocated will be updated automatically. This speeds up the design process considerably compared to earlier non-parametric systems.) Together with Mike Payne and others, Geisberg founded PTC in 1985. The company quickly lined up its first important customer, John Deere. PTC went public in 1989, and today its products have almost 800,000 users.

Another pioneer is Jim Heppelmann. In 1996 Heppelmann left Metaphase Technology to start his own business, named Windchill Technology. His goal was to develop a new Internet-capable system for “product life cycle management” (PLM), the art of keeping product data from CAD models and other sources consistent and updated through a product’s entire lifecycle. He succeeded well enough to attract the attention of PTC, which acquired Windchill in 1998.

Today companies like PTC, SolidWorks, SpaceClaim, and MathWorks all have their headquarters in the Boston area, as does the architecture, engineering, and construction devision of San Mateo, CA-based CAD giant Autodesk. (Our detailed list of these companies follows on page 3 of this story.) While most of the companies are branches of the same big family tree, they also form a competitive ecosystem, frequently hiring engineers and programmers away from one another and pushing the technology forward in a race to make their systems more useful, quick, and attractive.

But the CAD companies will need to become more innovative than ever if they hope to stay competitive. Twenty-five years ago, CAD programs were used only by … Next Page »

Eva Regårdh is a tech journalist from Sweden. She is an Innovation Journalism Fellow 2010 at Stanford University and is working for Xconomy during her fellowship. Follow @

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