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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

2013: The MCADCafe Year in Review

December 26th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

The MCAD industry, like in recent years past, had many interesting and significant events that took place in 2013. Below are just some of the highlights that we noted for the year.

Cloud-Based Everything

It wasn’t all that long ago that an MCAD executive referred to the cloud as “mere vapor,” but that is rapidly changing as real engineering applications become available.

In 2013, the cloud began to transition from just a giant storage device to a true platform for running applications as varied as conceptual design to simulation/analysis to rendering.

Because of its inherent computing horsepower, the cloud also began to preclude having to lug a massive computer around for performing productive engineering work. Tablets and other truly mobile devices became the new “go to” platforms and will continue to become more pervasive in the technical computing realm. Mobile workstations won’t disappear anytime soon, but will become less and less essential as more of the heavy computational lifting is performed in the cloud.

Also evolving are licensing schemes for technical software where increasingly you pay for what you actually use, either by the job, session, month, etc. A happy consequence of this might be an end to or at least a reduction of so-called “shelfware” that most of us have.

Autodesk Embraces CAM

We’ve witnessed consolidation in CAD, CAE, and more recently, CAM, and Autodesk has been a major participant in this consolidation. Autodesk has made it clear that it intends to become a major force in CAM to round out its Digital Prototyping philosophy that also includes design and simulation. As examples to this CAM commitment, it acquired HSMWorks (a significant, but relatively small step in CAM), and announced its intention to acquire Delcam (a relatively giant leap in CAM).

It was big news when, Autodesk announced its intention to acquire Delcam, one of the world’s leading suppliers of advanced software for manufacturing. The companies offer complementary ranges of software, with Autodesk’s programs for design (CAD) and engineering (CAE) able to be combined with Delcam’s strengths in manufacturing (CAM).

SolidWorks: Waiting For MC

In the fall, Aaron Kelly, a long-time SolidWorker in a new very visible role as VP of user experience & product portfolio management talked through the SolidWorks 2014 product lines. It was good to see Aaron in this tough role as one of the company’s primary spokespersons for this critical time for the company.

During this event and since SolidWorks World early in 2013, there has seemed to be more attention paid to the new kid on the block who has yet to make an actual appearance – SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual (SWMC). Pricing and packaging for SWMC will be presented at SolidWorks World 2014 in late January. SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual will be a design product for design professionals, not hobbyist/consumers. This hints at the product’s complexity and price point. The management team was also careful to point out that SWMC will be “Mechanical Conceptual”, not “Industrial Conceptual,” so will not compete with Autodesk’s Alias or Fusion 360 for conceptual industrial design and styling. It still remains to be seen what SWMC will actually be, but it has gotten a lot of attention.

Unlike what I had perceived for a while now, the company at this meeting was fairly ambivalent about commitment to cloud-based software, services, or really anything for that matter. Unlike some of its competitors, DS SolidWorks is moving cautiously in this area.

After spending some “face time” in Waltham, there’s no doubt that this next round is a critical release for the future of SolidWorks, both as a product line and brand for Dassault Systemes with the elements of the SolidWorks ecosystem, including SWMC

New 3D Printing Materials

It’s not too often that a new material with incredible physical and electrical characteristics comes along, much less a process for turning it into products with endless possibilities. Well, that very thing happened recently when Lomiko Metals and Graphene Laboratories launched Graphene 3D Labs. The company was formed primarily to focus on developing high-performance graphene-enhanced materials for 3D printing.

New developments in 3D printing will allow products with different components such as printed electronic circuits, sensors or batteries to be manufactured. High-quality graphite is a base material for producing graphene, and Lomiko will provide graphite to Graphene 3D Labs as the exclusive supplier to Graphene 3D Labs

Is this new material and process in danger of being overhyped? Possibly, but maybe not. A lot of promising technologies have failed to profitably translate from being novelty research projects to commercially viable products. I could name several, but won’t. This one, though, seems different, because graphene’s physical and electrical properties are so unique and its possible applications in commercial products is so vast. And, of course, there’s the 3D printing angle . . .

A New Kid on the Block?

Several of the founders and early employees of SolidWorks, including Jon Hirschtick, Dave Corcoran, Scott Harris, John McEleney, et al are back together again. They have formed a company originally known as Belmont Technology, but is now Onshape Inc. What they are up to remains to be seen, but there is strong speculation that they are developing an innovative approach to 3D design (no surprise there). Virtually no details have been disclosed to date, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a cloud-based platform. This will be one to watch as an encore from some very smart guys, and should be providing something tangible in 2014.

Retail 3D Printing

The 3D printing process and the notion of a 3D printer in every home has received a lot of attention the past few years, and sales of relatively low cost 3D printers have skyrocketed. That is, until recently. According to the Wohlers Report, sales of 3D printers started to decline last year and have continued to accelerate downward this year.

But why, for a process and capability that was supposed to be ubiquitous and necessary for every home? The machines may be relatively inexpensive, but how many parts are you truly going to want to ultimately design and produce? Then there are material, size/volume, and physical characteristic, and quality limitations. The machines can also be fickle to set up and maintain. I suspect that after an initial period of excitement and promise, a lot of early-purchase 3D printers are now sitting idle and collecting dust.

It brings to mind people who have the joy and burden of owning multiple homes. A second home may be nice, but that ends up being the only place you end up going. Most acquaintances that I have known dealing with this issue inevitably as themselves, “Why own when you can rent.” I’m starting to see this same mindset enter into the psyches of early purchasers of 3D printers.

That mindset has produced a possible opportunity for easily “renting” a 3D printer, or at least 3D printer time, at a location as close as your local Staples or UPS store.

Looking Ahead

As we have said for the past few years and will say again for 2014, look for mergers, acquisitions to account for big growth for companies who are sitting on cash for product line and market expansion. In turn, look for continued market consolidation as companies are swallowed up and brought into the fold of fewer and fewer companies.

I can’t help but think that market consolidation his reduction of options, but overall, the options might be stronger and more distinct.

Whatever happens in 2014, the technical/engineering software industry will continue to be a fascinating and vital place to be, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

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