CAD software - history of CAD CAM

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5. CAD software history, 1990-94

UNIX to Windows NT...

The CAD software market entered the 1990s in conflicted turmoil: Parametric Technology's Pro/Engineer 3D CAD software continued to influence users' expectations and sold 3D CAD software licenses to more customers more quickly than had ever been done before, yet simultaneously, some of the largest contracts in CAD software's brief history were being competed for and won by the other CAD software vendors. User expectations for 3D CAD software had been fundamentally changed by Pro/Engineer's UNIX X-Windows based user interface and especially by its 3D solid modeling speed. The other CAD software vendors were hastily developing their "Pro/E killer" upgrades while their sales and marketing groups were busy convincing existing customers and new prospects to wait for those new upgrades to be released. Although Autodesk was not directly threatened by Parametric Technology's success, it had its own new set of challenges as the PC CAD software market rapidly expanded and John Walker, Founder of Autodesk, summed up the mood of the day perfectly in his Information Letter 14; "Whenever I read something written between 1982 and 1988, or reflect upon those years, they seem increasingly distant, foreign, almost quaint."

Fortunately for the longer established CAD software vendors, the market for CAD software was growing strongly as manufacturers were increasingly driven by cost and 'time to market' pressures to utilize more automation, including of course more seats of CAD software. By 1990 it was apparent that Boeing was succeeding with its 'all CATIA no paper' design strategy and that it would achieve substantial reductions in time to market by safely eliminating many of the physical mockups traditionally required to verify paper designs. Boeing's success was motivating other aerospace and automotive manufacturers to consider standardizing on a single 'corporate CAD software vendor' for the bulk of their work and so, in the period 1990 - 1993, some of the largest contracts in CAD software history were competed for and won. Pratt & Whitney standardized on Unigraphics, as did GE Aircraft Engines. Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Renault and Honda standardized on CATIA. Caterpillar standardized on Pro/Engineer. GM also decided that it was going to use substantial amounts of Unigraphics and, as a result, MDM&E/Unigraphics was acquired by EDS (Electronic Data Systems Corp.) in late 1991.

By 1992 UNIX workstations had redefined CAD and no new CAD software was being sold for use on mainframe or minicomputer terminals. Those vendors (most notably Computervision and Intergraph) who had traditionally focused on proprietary hardware plus software turnkey solutions were particularly hard hit as it became clear (as IBM's shock $5billion 1992 loss helped illustrate) that customers increasingly wanted lower cost "open" systems and were no longer prepared to pay the huge costs of maintaining proprietary hardware and operating-systems. By 1993 the CAD software market had clearly polarized with IBM-Dassault Systemes (CATIA), EDS-Unigraphics (Unigraphics) and Parametric Technology (Pro/Engineer) the clear leaders in the UNIX workstation 3D CAD software arena followed closely by SDRC (I-DEAS). The giants of the previous two decades; Computervision (CADDS), which separated from Prime Computer when Prime shutdown in 1992, and Intergraph (I/EMS); were trailing and unable to regain their former momentum.

Despite the rush of big "corporate standard" CAD software contracts in the early 1990s, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the leading CAD software vendors to differentiate their products. Pro/Engineer's influence had been so strong; and the 3D CAD software vendors' rush to counter Parametric Technology's advance so rapid; that by 1994 the 3D CAD software programs offered by each of the leading vendors were becoming very similar: each had sketching, constraints management, feature-based solid modeling, history trees, NURBS surfaces and X-Windows user interfaces etc.

A further problem for the leading vendors was resulting from the "3D solid modeler kernel wars" being waged by Spatial Technology (ACIS), EDS-Unigraphics (Parasolid) and Ricoh (Designbase). Those 3 companies were licensing increasingly sophisticated 3D b-rep solid modeling libraries which licensees could integrate into existing CAD software to provide strong solid modeling functions. Because of the very aggressive pricing of the kernels, even the smallest CAD software vendor could afford to integrate 3D solid modeling into their products. The ACIS modeler, although then less functional than Parasolid, was being very aggressively sold by Spatial which already had a customer list of more than 70 3D CAD software vendors worldwide using ACIS by 1993: the most famous of which was Autodesk.

Autodesk had steadily ridden the PC wave to become the #1 2D CAD software company with 1992 revenues of $285million (by comparison EDS-Unigraphics CAD software revenues in 1992 were less than half at ~$130million). Autodesk had originally licensed the ACIS kernel from Spatial in 1990 and in 1994, Autodesk announced that it had sold the 1,000,000th license of its AutoCAD 2D CAD software and that it was releasing AutoCAD Release 13, including 3D solid modeling functions based on the ACIS 3D kernel.

So, in late 1994, just as the CAD software industry had acclimatized to the shock of UNIX workstations, and even DEC seemed to be about to regain its former glory with the release of its new 'Alpha' processor, two further events combined with Autodesk's release of 3D CAD software which were to totally revolutionize the CAD software industry: Microsoft released its first 32-bit operating system for PCs, Windows NT, and Intel released the first 32-bit Pentium Pro chips. At the same time the "3D solid modeler kernel wars" were intensified as EDS/Unigraphics officially released Parasolid for Windows NT, Spatial Technology released its 3D Toolkit extensions for ACIS on Windows NT and Ricoh released Designbase on Windows NT. 3D CAD software had previously taken years and millions of dollars to develop but in principle could now be developed and released on start-up budgets in less than a year; in 1993 a small CAD software company called SolidWorks started to do exactly that.

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