The Greater Boston 3D Design Cluster

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design engineers; they were expensive, ran only on equally expensive workstations, and required a lot of training to master. Innovations like SolidWorks’ brought about a huge shift, allowing any engineer with access to an ordinary PC to model structures on screen and verify them for mechanical strength, manufacturability, and the like. (These math-heavy tasks are aided in part by software from Natick, MA-based Mathworks, another key player in the cluster.) Today, however, that revolution in accessibility has largely run its course, and how the local CAD companies deal with a new set of common challenges will determine whether the Boston area remains a capital of the engineering software industry.

For one thing, CAD software is becoming a commodity; it is to product design as Microsoft Word is to writing. Most CAD programs can run on regular PCs, can handle 3D as well as 2D data, and are available for lower and lower prices. To differentiate their products and stimulate demand, vendors are busy adding suites of features such as simulation, compliance management, and PLM.

Furthermore, the CAD industry is increasingly being absorbed into the larger discipline of PLM itself. In product lifecycle management, digital data about a product—including its initial 3D design—is structured so that it can be used all along the chain of design and manufacturing, including production planning, customer service and repair, and end-of-life recycling. That means basic product data only needs to be entered once, and is kept consistent during a product’s entire existence, making it easier to streamline processes and methods.

Vendors like SolidWorks long confined themselves mainly to generating and managing design data, but today they’re adding more features to their systems, such as PLM functionality in the cloud, as well as version of their software that work on Apple products and touch screens. This is happening both because the market for 3D design software itself is becoming saturated, and because customers in the manufacturing and construction industries are demanding more interoperability in the systems they buy.

Architectural rendering using Autodesk's 3DSMaxIn fact, the customer call for open interfaces now has grown into a chorus that the CAD vendors can’t afford to ignore. Just as with standards like HTTP, HTML, and XML on the Web, open formats in the engineering business facilitate the exchange of information across platforms. Older CAD formats were proprietary and made data migration troublesome. But the Internet itself has hastened the doom of this approach. Autodesk’s DWG format for 3D data has become a de facto standard, with other vendors such as Solid Works and PTC modifying their software in recent years to support it.

And if standard formats are becoming more common, so is direct editing, also called direct modeling or “non-historic” CAD software. A more sketch-like approach to 3D modeling, direct editing programs leave out the “parametric tree” of physical and engineering data that underlies traditional CAD models. They are easier to use than full CAD systems and run faster on most computing hardware, and are gaining use during the early prototyping and testing stages of product design. SpaceClaim is one leader in direct editing, but Autodesk has also taken a big step in this direction with new features in Inventor 2011, its program for mechanical engineering, which allow users to switch seamlessly between direct and normal editing. PTC is also walking this road, allowing users to switch between ProEngineer for parametric modeling and CoCreate for direct editing.

With prices falling for standard 3D CAD software, vendors are also working on new enticements such as Hollywood-style realism in onscreen graphics, and even mobile applications. So the flow of development continues—but it’s very unlikely that any new CAD program will be developed using money from the casinos in Las Vegas.

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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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  • Michael Payne was not the founder of SpaceClaim, but rather David Taylor and Blake Courter.