CAD software vendors had begun the 1980s as a collection of fast growing companies benefiting from rapid advances in computer hardware and a potential market that was expanding as falling computer prices and maintenance costs made CAD software available to more users. CAD software prices stayed profitably high and in 1981, as CAD market revenues exceeded $1B, an expectation of perpetually continuing growth permeated the CAD software industry. A sense that the major CAD software brands had been decided, and that new competitors, such as Matra Datavision, would be limited simply to niches was contributing to the leading CAD software vendors' complacency in just the same way as IBM and DEC had become complacent in the computer hardware market. GE's acquisition of CALMA in 1981 and Dassault's acquisition of CADAM in 1986 further reinforced the sense of complacency as the CAD software market began a trend of consolidation through acquisition which has continued to this time.
A further trend was contributing to the CAD software industry's complacence; aerospace and automotive manufacturers had begun to retreat from proprietary internally developed CAD software and were starting to buy larger quantities of CAD software from the commercial vendors. Boeing had started its TIGER 3D CAD software project in 1980 but by 1988 announced that CATIA would be used to design and draft the new 777 aircraft, creating a staggering $1B revenue for IBM-Dassault. Following on from its CADANCE CAD software, GM had started development of the GDS CAD software in the early 1980s but by 1988 had already instigated its C4 (CAD CAM CAE CIM) program to consolidate and rationalize the unwieldy number of different CAD software programs it was using. Similarly, McDonnell-Douglas' aerospace division was then establishing its C3 (CAD CAM CALS) initiative for similar reasons. The 1980s emerging shift from internally developed CAD software to commercial solutions promised to more than double the total CAD software market size to the benefit of the commercial CAD software vendors.
When Parametric Technology Corp. launched the first UNIX workstation 3D CAD software, Pro/Engineer, in 1987, the leading CAD software vendors were: Computervision (CADDS), Intergraph (IGDS and InterAct), McDonnell-Douglas (Unigraphics), GE/CALMA, IBM/Dassault (CADAM and CATIA) and SDRC (I-DEAS, which had been launched in 1982). Those vendors initially dismissed Pro/Engineer as irrelevant, immature and unstable, yet within 18 months of Pro/Engineer's release, the CAD software market and the sales, marketing and development groups of the major CAD software vendors were in various stages of turmoil as Parametric Technology sold new licenses of 3D CAD software at a record pace.
Pro/Engineer irrevocably changed users' expectations of CAD software's user interface functionality, ease-of-use and most especially of the speed of solid modeling. Pro/Engineer was the first mainstream 3D CAD system to fully implement the concepts first demonstrated over 20 years before in Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad (except the light pen) but did so with the first 3D CAD software to be entirely based on solid models and history-based features and constraints. Literally overnight Pro/Engineer made the user-interfaces of the other vendors' CAD software programs obsolete. Pro/Engineer made extensive use of UNIX's X-Windows to provide a user-interface with drop-down menus, context-sensitive menus, pop-up option and input boxes, icons and other user-friendly features. Compared to Pro/Engineer, the established vendors' CAD software programs, which were all based on proprietary operating-systems and written in Fortran and assembler, were slow, ungainly and seemingly uncompetitive. If it had not been for Pro/Engineer's initially weak 3D curve and surface modeling functions and the investments in training and especially legacy data (which would have been very expensive to convert into Pro/Engineer's proprietary data format) that manufacturers had already made in the established CAD software vendors' systems, Parametric Technology's advance would have been even more dramatic than it anyway was.
MDM&E/Unigraphics (McDonnell-Douglas Manufacturing & Engineering) had been the first major CAD software vendor to fully comprehend the rapid emergence of UNIX workstations and one of the few with a history of supporting multiple hardware platforms (having supported various Data-General models since 1976 and DEC models since 1977). In 1987 John Mazzola, Tom Curry and Jerry Maryniak had adopted an "open hardware platform" strategy under which Unigraphics was to be ported to UNIX workstations from Apollo, HP and Sun with the HP version released first (in early 1988). Dassault Systemes had also ported CATIA to IBM's new UNIX RISC workstation (the RS6000) under pressure of the close marketing relationship with IBM and the RS6000 being supported with CATIA Version 3, also released in 1988.
Dassault, with their aerospace heritage, had already earned a very strong reputation for complex 3D surface modeling CAD software when Pro/Engineer was released. Dassault was also preoccupied with their massive commitment to Boeing and felt less initial threat from Parametric Technology. MDM&E/Unigraphics was far more threatened by Pro/Engineer and was forced to react more quickly, and so, in late 1988, the Unigraphics business acquired Shape Data (which was about to release Parasolid) from Evans & Sutherland. The Unigraphics team quickly retired the PADL-2 based UniSolids solid-modeling CAD software and in late 1989 introduced a more integrated and competitive solid-modeling CAD software program named UG/Solids based on Parasolid.
Parasolid had been designed by John Owen and his team at Shape Data to be upward compatible with the previous Romulus solid modeling kernel and retained the CAM-I AIS API. Ron Davidson launched Parasolid as a "de-facto standard" solid modeling kernel business in 1989 and very quickly licensed Parasolid to Siemens-Nixdorf, General Dynamics, Fujitsu and others for integration into their CAD software programs. Independently, Charles Lang and Ian Braid had formed Three-Space Ltd. in Cambridge, England in 1985 and had been retained by Dick Sowar's Spatial Technology (which had ben founded by Sowar and John Rowley in 1986) to develop the ACIS solid modeling kernel for Spatial Technology's Strata CAM software. The first version of ACIS was released in 1989 and was quickly licensed by HP for integration into its ME CAD software.
Japanese researchers were also very active in the 1980s and Professor Fumihiko Kimura and his team at the University of Tokyo had been researching solid modeling since the start of the decade. One of Professor Kimura's researchers, Dr. Hiroaki Chiyokura, had moved into Ricoh in the mid 1980s and in 1987 Ricoh released the DesignBase boundary representation solid modeling kernel which was unique in using Gregory surfaces (as opposed to NURBS) as its primary geometry. Designbase was quickly adopted by many Japanese CAD software vendors and Ricoh began to sell Designbase through their US office in 1989. That marked the beginning of the "kernel modeler wars" between ACIS, DesignBase and Parasolid which was to continue throughout the following decade.
In the computer hardware market, the "workstation wars" fought between Apollo Computer, Sun Microsystems, SGI, HP, DEC and IBM reached boiling point in 1987 when Apollo Computer achieved the #3 position after IBM and DEC. In 1989 HP acquired Apollo Computer to take the #2 position from DEC and by the end of the 1980s, first-generation RISC processors and high-performance real-time 3D full-color rendering were setting the benchmark in the hardware market. HP and Sun emerged as the strongest general purpose workstation vendors with SGI dominating the 3D graphics workstation market. DEC was by then desperately searching for ways to regain its early 1980s dominance and IBM was shortly to face some of the biggest losses in US corporate history.
In the CAD software market, Parametric Technology's Pro/Engineer CAD software continued to dominate the news with 3D solid modeling and rendering performance an order (sometimes orders) of magnitude faster than its competitors. Major CAD software vendors were training their salespeople to spread the message that "Pro/Engineer is just a faster way to get to the bugs" but were simultaneously developing "Pro/E killer" products. 3D CAD software developers were working late nights and weekends trying to replicate Pro/Engineer's user interface and match its solid modeling benchmark performance.
The industry had started the decade complacently but events, and their toll on CAD software vendors, had been substantial. The potential market for CAD software was expanding significantly but the recessions in Europe and the US were at last driving down average prices of CAD software and reducing the previously fat margins. By the end of the decade the leading CAD software vendors had become: Dassault Systemes (CATIA), Parametric Technology (Pro/Engineer), MDC (Unigraphics) and SDRC (I-DEAS). Both Computervision and CALMA (divested by GE) had been acquired by Prime Computer (which itself was on the verge of bankruptcy) in 1988 and together with Intergraph were losing momentum which they were never to regain.