CAD software - history of CAD CAM

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6. CAD software history, 1995-97

SolidWorks and PDM...

The CAD software market was marked by two great changes in the mid 1990s, the PC 3D CAD software explosion and the unrelated explosion in PDM systems.

Just as word-processors had created an explosion in the number of documents produced, so had CAD software resulted in an explosion in the number of drawings created and, as CAD software proliferated, so PDM software (such as SherpaWorks from Sherpa, founded in 1984) had begun to emerge to streamline the management of those drawings. Boeing's success with the 777 paperless design was driving interest in using PDM software to manage not only drawings, but to enable configuration management and change control of the huge databases of parts being created by CAD software.

In the early 1990s the number of new PDM vendors had grown dramatically. EDS/Unigraphics released its first PDM software, InfoManager (later renamed to iMAN to avoid a possible trade-name conflict) in 1991 and in 1992 Metaphase was founded as a joint-venture between SDRC and Control Data; Workgroup Technology Corp. was also founded that year. The move towards PDM was so strong that by 1994 Adra Systems, which had produced the CADRA 2D PC CAD software since the mid 1980s and the CADRA Solids 3D PC CAD software since 1992, was earning almost as much revenue from its MatrixOne PDM software as from its CD software products.

While developments in PDM were accelerating, by 1995 it was clear that 3D CAD software based on b-rep solid modeling and NURBS surface modeling was beginning to plateau and vendors were focusing less on fundamental technology breakthroughs and more on incremental improvements as the breakneck "catch PTC" development pace of the early 1990s receded. When SolidWorks suddenly released the SolidWorks 95 3D CAD software as an "80% of Pro/Engineer's functionality at 20% of the price" product in late 1995, the other CAD vendors' reaction was very different from the reaction to Parametric Technology's release of Pro/Engineer back in 1987.

The original release of Pro/Engineer had created turmoil as CAD vendors were forced to totally reevaluate and rewrite their fundamental architectures; SolidWorks 95 forced them simply to decide whether to port a subset of their existing product. or the entire product, to Windows NT. While there were substantial differences between the UNIX and Windows NT operating-systems and porting was not totally straightforward, Windows benefited from extremely good development tools (MFC, Visual C++ etc.) and "leveling the technology playing-field" was generally perceived to be simply a matter of time. In fact all of the leading UNIX 3D CAD software vendors had released Windows NT versions by the end of 1995.

The advent of serious, aggressively marketed sub-$10,000 3D CAD software on Windows created a business dilemma for the UNIX workstation CAD software vendors. While it was clear that many 3D CAD software users needed the CPU power and especially the graphics power provided by UNIX workstations, it was equally obvious that there was a large market of users that were satisfied with the performance offered by PCs. By 1997 it was also clear that UNIX's performance advantage was being rapidly eroded as Intel rolled-out increasingly powerful Pentium processors and multiple Taiwanese manufacturers competed to produce ever more powerful 3D graphics boards for PCs.

Suddenly the UNIX 3D CAD software vendors found themselves coming under intense pricing pressure as customers with lower performance sensitivity began to buy SolidWorks 95 in preference to higher performance much more expensive UNIX 3D CAD software (or the less expensive but more complex Windows offerings from the leading CAD software vendors). Conversely, Autodesk found itself under pressure to improve its 3D CAD software offering as AutoCAD customers with higher 3D performance requirements bought SolidWorks 95 in preference to AutoCAD's lower priced ACIS based 3D CAD software. The mid-range CAD market had been born and SolidWorks' perceived success was such that after just 2 years they were acquired by Dassault Systemes in 1997 for $320million!

In 1996 Intergraph also released a 3D CAD software product on Windows similar to SolidWorks. Intergraph's SolidEdge product was based on Spatial Technology's ACIS kernel modeler (in fact the very first prototype of SolidWorks had also been based on ACIS but Spatial refused SolidWorks' licensing proposal) and was launched in a bid to enhance sales of Intergraph's high-performance "TD" 3D graphics PCs. After some successful sales and reviews the SolidEdge business was acquired by EDS-Unigraphics in 1997 shortly after Dassault-Systemes acquired SolidWorks.

Meanwhile Autodesk had become increasingly concerned at the prospect of their much vaunted million-plus 2D CAD software users being wooed by SolidWorks, SolidEdge and other full-function 3D CAD software programs on Windows from Bentley Systems, CADKEY and numerous others. In 1996 Autodesk released Mechanical Desktop which was their first full-function 3D solid modeling CAD software product and which rapidly became the #1 selling 3D CAD software product in the world.

In 1997 Computervision, which had been steadily declining throughout the decade, also attempted to gain a position in the PC 3D CAD software market with the release of its DesignWave PC 3D CAD software based on EDS-Unigraphics' Parasolid kernel modeler.

General Motors' 1996 decision to standardize on Unigraphics followed by Ford Motor's 1997 decision to replace its internally developed PDGS CAD software with SDRC's I-DEAS 3D CAD software were the last of the "great American corporate CAD software deals" and the end of the era of internally developed CAD systems started back in the 1960s. It also marked a new phase for the CAD software industry as it was clear that:

  1. the boom years of relatively easy and fast growth were over,
  2. the increasing lack of differentiation at the CAD software technology level were making competition more difficult and expensive,
  3. the downward pressure on 3D CAD software revenues caused by fierce price/function competition from the Windows 3D CAD vendors was reducing the value of pure CAD software sales.

The leading CAD software vendors needed to diversify and PDM provided them with the opportunity. Throughout the mid 1990s the PDM market had been growing at >20% per year to ~$1.1billion revenues in 1997. The market was predicted to more than double in the next 5 years and the leading CAD software vendors only held single digit shares of it; it was inevitable that they would turn to PDM systems for future growth.

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