CAD software began the 1980s as a research topic that had just blossomed into commercial profit but the CAD software industry was to end the decade facing the stark reality of harsh commercial competition driven by frenetically commercial product development schedules and unprecedented change in both hardware and CAD software technology.
In the early 1980s DEC's new VAX range of minicomputers seemed set to dominate engineering computing and CAD software for the decade. In many ways, DEC's MicroVAX paradoxically marked the company's apparent technology lead and yet foreshadowed the impending workstation era (which would ultimately be DEC's demise) by setting new standards in price, performance and accessibility and becoming the first performance computer capable of running CAD software but not requiring special power supplies or cooling.
In the CAD software market, M&S Computing renamed itself to Intergraph in 1980 and had a successful IPO in 1981. In 1983 Intergraph released the InterAct and InterPro range of 3D complex surface modeling CAD software based on DEC's VAX and MicroVAX processors. At that time most successful CAD software was sold as a turnkey hardware/software package and realizing the apparent commercial potential of CAD software to help sell its computers, HP set up its commercial CAD software group in 1980 to develop the its PE CAD software. Avions Marcel Dassault created its Dassault Systemes subsidiary in 1981 and signed a sales and marketing agreement allowing IBM to resell the CATIA CAD software. CATIA Version 1 (which was an add-on for CADAM providing 3D surface modeling and NC functions) was released in 1982 and the IBM-Dassault partnership continues to the present time. GE also moved into the CAD market in 1981 with its acquisition of CALMA which at the time was earning over $100M annually.
DEC was the undisputed #1 vendor in the crowded engineering minicomputer market of the early 1980s but a new challenge, the UNIX workstation, was emerging to revolutionize the computing and CAD software markets far more rapidly than anyone, most especially DEC, anticipated. UNIX's open architecture opened the performance computer market to a new wave of low-cost, low-maintenance, high-performance workstations with hardware optimized specifically for science, engineering and of course CAD software applications. Apollo Computer started the trend in 1980, then Sun Microsystems in 1981 and Silicon Graphics in 1982. The mainframe and minicomputer makers (IBM, DEC, Burroughs, Unisys, Data-General, Wang etc.) suddenly began to find themselves undercut and outflanked as the newcomers used their UNIX open-architecture advantage to focus on rapidly improving hardware and growing market share while the traditional vendors were forced to maintain expensive proprietary operating-systems supporting legacy hardware.
PCs also first appeared in the early 1980s. IBM shipped its first PC in 1981 and Autodesk, founded in 1982, demonstrated the first CAD software for PCs, "AutoCAD Release 1", in November 1982. Adra Systems was founded in 1983 and soon after began shipping its CADRA 2D CAD software. In 1984 Bentley Systems was founded and released MicroStation, a PC implementation of Intergraph's IGDS CAD software and the following year Micro-Control Systems was founded and released the first 3D wire-frame CAD software for PCs "CADKEY". Apple had released the first Macintosh 128 in 1984 and in 1985 Diehl Graphsoft was founded and released MiniCAD which rapidly became the best selling CAD software on the Mac. Although PCs and Macs steadily increased in power throughout the 1980s and AutoCAD continued to gain substantial market share in the 2D CAD software market (despite being ridiculed by the leading CAD software vendors) the general lack of processor power and especially the poor graphics performance compared to UNIX workstations meant that it was not to be until the next decade that PCs would have their revolutionary effect on the CAD software industry.
Throughout the 1980s, the new generation of powerful UNIX workstations and emerging 3D rendering was inevitably shifting the CAD software market to 3D and solid modeling. In 1981 Unigraphics released its UniSolids CAD software based on Voelcker's PADL-2 CSG solid modeling kernel and then in 1982, Ian Braid, Charles Lang and the Shape Data team in Cambridge, England, released the Romulus b-rep solid modeler; the first commercial solid modeling kernel designed for straightforward integration into CAD software. Romulus incorporated the CAM-I AIS (Computer Aided Manufacturers International's Application Interface Specification) and was the only solid modeler (other than its successor Parasolid) ever to offer a third-party standard API to facilitate high-level integration into a host CAD software program. Romulus was quickly licensed by Siemens, HP and several other CAD software vendors. The first version of IGES had been published in 1980 but already the emerging shift to 3D CAD software using solid models, and the need for such CAD software to manage product data such as material properties, surface finish, engineering tolerances etc., was creating a need for a new data exchange standard. In 1984 the PDES (Product Data Exchange Specification) initiative was started in Europe to address the new needs.
In 1985, CATIA Version 2 was released as a CAD software program independent of CADAM and another French CAD software vendor, Matra Datavision (founded in 1980), released its Euclid-IS solid modeling 3D CAD software which used a unique hybrid mix of planar faceted models (for speed) with CSG data-structures. The Romulus solid modeling kernel went through several upgrades to add assembly management, instancing, improved blending and b-spline surfaces before being retired in 1986. Also in 1985, Evans & Sutherland, who had maintained close relations with Charles Lang and Ian Braid for several years and was interested in developing CAD software to supplement its graphics terminals and simulator business, acquired Shape Data. E&S soon commissioned Bernard Solomon and his team at Shape Data to begin developing the Romulus-D 3D CAD software. Romulus-D was an innovative 3D CAD software program built on the Romulus solid modeling kernel. Romulus-D ran on Apollo workstations and used Apollo's DOMAIN networking to provide the CAD software industry's first network-enabled 3D CAD software, including assembly modeling, fully distributed product configuration management and change control functions.
By 1985 the CAD software industry seemed to have settled into a comfortable trend, with incremental improvements in software functionality taking advantage of continuing advances in computer hardware performance. Profit margins were high as CAD software prices stayed high despite falling hardware prices and sales growth was strong. Computervision, with annual revenues exceeding $350M, was the market leader ahead of GE/CALMA, Applicon and Intergraph followed by McDonnell-Douglas/Unigraphics and IBM/CATIA. Then, in 1985, a new and very aggressive 3D solid modeling CAD software vendor, Parametric Technology Corp. (now PTC), appeared in the market - commercial reality was arriving and in many ways the industry would not be the same again.