Flag displayed at First Baptist Church;
below, the Charles River.
Sept 18 '02: The last time I flew to Boston, it was to attend the launch of a new CAD vendor, Revit Technology. Two-point-five years later, I'm back, this time to see the beta of SolidWorks 2003 [mechanical CAD software]. Revit, the company, is gone; some of its employees now work at SolidWorks, one of Revit's original investors.
SolidWorks flew in CAD journalists and analysts for a day split roughly in two: a morning of philosophy and vision; an afternoon of demos. We heard from three CEOs -- the current, the former, and the plus-de-CEO.
The Three CEOs
Current CEO John McEleney side- stepped the issue of slowing sales by noting the company had licensed 100,000 SolidWorks in its first five years, and then licensed another 100,000 in the last two years. His goal is to reach one million [a nice round number], but he did not provide a time frame; this parallels Autodesk's goal to have a $1 billion in mechanical CAD business.
You know current sales are poor when a company emphasizes its past sales. The closet Mr McEleney came to admitting such was revealing his challenge with a growth in revenue that wasn't where he wanted it to be -- OTOH, his competitors have the same problem. Details will have to wait until parent Dassault's next quarterly conference call. Despite the recession, SolidWorks continues to grow and be profitable -- perhaps because it is less dependent on upgrade revenue, as is one of its prominent competitors. Indeed, several times reference was made to competitors who "give away" their software.
One measure of software popularity is the number of job postings: on 17 September, the rankings were #1 Pro/E, #2 SolidWorks, #3 MDT, #4 Solid Edge, and #5 Inventor. [On another day, the standings could be different.]
Another statistic is provided by Z Corp on the popularity of file formats used for physical modeling: the current rankings are #1 SolidWorks, #2 Pro/E, #4 UGS, and #5 Inventor. What this shows, however, is that SolidWorks is popular for one sector of mechanical CAD; other MCAD packages are more popular in other sectors.
Mr McEleney's sees good and bad news in the current economic situation. The good news:
The bad news includes:
The fundamental problem, he says, is the lack of demand, which he is sure is temporary because the problem is caused by a lack of confidence, and not a lack of capital. Manufacturers have slashed capital investment to contain costs -- hence the slow sales of MCAD.
OTOH, the positive signs are low interest rates; lots of VC [venture capital] funds available waiting for right opportunity; and a slight increase in job creation. Only 25% of firms are using 3D; within five years, he thinks, 90% will use 3D because 3D is becoming a necessity (and not just a competitive advantage) just as color has on printers and displays. When 3D becomes a necessity, the "network effect" will lead to non-linear growth [extremely fast growth] of 3D. So, as CEO, Mr McEleney has been thinking about how to sell more SolidWorks licenses. His ideas include:
Priorities for future product include:
It was refreshing to hear a CEO talking in a straight-forward manner about current problems and future plans.
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Next, we heard from former CEO Jon Hirschtick, who is currently working on a consumer product that's due to hit store shelves within six months. He, naturally, used SolidWorks to design the product, and discovered that his software has some really great features, but also some areas that need improving. Nice to hear of a (former) CEO who actually uses the software -- too few do, and hence are out of touch of which features are important to users, in my opinion.
"SolidWorks is not about software," he declared. "It's about a community" of design professionals, resellers, third-party partners, and even competitors who are affected by his company's advances. As of today, however, he said, "CAD still stinks; we just stink less" -- a sign that the capabilities and user interface of CAD software has a long way to go.
Third, we heard from the highly personable Bernard Charles, CEO of Dassault Systemes, the Paris-based parent of SolidWorks. He strode in at breakfast, shaking hands and remembering first names of some. His answers to questions were, um, detailed enough to overrun the schedule by 3/4 hour. Despite that, he was a delight to listen to.
He thinks Dassault has changed the world through digital mockup -- being able to view and test the product before a prototype is built. Despite the speed and ability of SolidWorks, CATIA, and their competitors, he feels that the definition of 3D is not yet complete. For example, how is tolerancing indicated in a standard way on a 3D model?
To his surprise, he has found that 3D is causing the gap between mfg'ing companies to increase. The "gap" is the time it takes to produce a product; it's about how you create functions that fit within the business.
He doesn't care what you call it, but PLM [product lifecycle management] exists. "Our company is not about 3D; it's about the largest, most comprehensive collection of IP [intellectual property]." The drivers for the next vision are: (1) create the life-movie before the product is designed; and (2) 3D that is fun and extremely powerful. His challenge is to incorporate all the breakthroughs on the market.
In less than three years, the UI [user interface] to create mechanical parts will again change completely -- not just icons, etc, but the whole approach, because breakthroughs can still be made in this area, changing from shape-centric to something based on collaboration. To conclude, Mr Charles told us that growth comes from:
In the end, he says, "I like competition -- as long as we win!"
Q: Where do CATIA and SolidWorks overlap?.
A: Overlap is only 5-10% in capability. One example of cooperation is surface patches. The primary goal is not, however, cooperation because a CAD package is not a collection of functions, but the right balance so that the product works well for the targeted user.
Q: Is it realistic for 3D to replace the paper napkin for conceptual design?
A: Yes, but not with the software available today. Expect such products some years from now because conceptual sketching for 3D modeling is very complex.
Q: What about Autodesk?
A: Autodesk is muddying its numbers by talking about AIS [Autodesk Inventor Series]: are customers using MDT [Mechanical Desktop] or Inventor? They are a competitor who is charging less and less without giving the customer a vision. People change because it is painful where they are; or because they are working toward a vision. Our telescope is aimed at the customer, not competitors. Our competitors are looking at us; don't tell them our secret that we look to customers.
Q: Do you have complete autonomy from Dassault?
A: Essentially, we are 100% autonomous, other than the cooperation that occurs. We have global executive meetings every five weeks, each held in regional headquarters on a rotating basis. We talk about technology, acquisitions, etc.
Dave Corcoran of R&D [research and development] described SolidWorks' vision for its software, as well as features new to v2003. The original vision for SolidWorks consisted of software that dealt with parts, drawings, and importing files from other CAD packages. Now added to the vision are data management, analysis, and communication. In the future, R&D wants SolidWorks to:
The biggest feature in SolidWorks 2003 is the integration of a reduced-function version of COSMOS (regularly US$8,000 and up) called COSMOSXpress, free. This, I feel, is shrewd move. As I recall from my days in civil engineering, we spent most of our time on analysis -- would our design work? -- and not on learning CAD [but then, in my day, there was no CAD]. COSMOSXpress is for upfront analysis of parts, not assemblies.
The goal of R&D is to create the most efficient part modeler, and to have the best large assembly management "in the mainstream market" handling assemblies of 50,000 - 100,000 components.
"Reinvention" is where an existing part of SolidWorks is rewritten for improvement. In v2003, the part regeneration engine was re-invented to handle instant rollback and regeneration interrupt.
A new feature is creating and editing "multi-bodies," which are multiple solids in a part. For example, by allowing a part to stay as several bodies, you can shell one part independent of the other parts.
Q: What about a lite version of SolidWorks?
A: We could do it, but people usually want more features, not fewer.
Q: Is there still a link with Visio?
A: Yes. Visio is still being used, not overwhelmingly, but it has been adopted by some SolidWorks users.
Q: What is SolidOffice Pro?
A: The new SolidOffce Pro adds PDMworks to SolidOffice.
SolidWorks 2003 Demo
Demo jocks Joe Dunne and Aaron Kelly showed us some of the 250+ new features in SolidWorks 2003. The package will have 20 online tutorials. Click a command in the tutorial, and the associated icon flashes in SolidWorks. This teaches the user the location of the button.
Design tables link the drawing to a spreadsheet. Selecting a different design table changes the part, and vice versa. Dimensions are displayed in purple when they are linked to spreadsheet.
Selective regeneration of parts means shorter waits. A dialog box lists the time it takes for each feature to regen, so you can turn off the slowest parts. Other new features include:
SolidWorks was proud that this release implements six out of ten items on the SolidWorks user wishlist. I wondered, Why only six? OTOH, I have to wonder about some of the items I have read on user-generated wishlists. I don't hold much stock in those lists because users tend to be heads-down and unaware of the competition's features.
When a new release comes out, SolidWorks says 50% of customers upgrade within four months and 80% within nine. The SolidWorks 2003 pre- release is due out at end of September; the ship date is, however, unknown.
Boston, it is said, is the East Coast version of San Francisco. I spent seven hours walking around the downside and upside parts of the city. In the upside half, Newbury Street is that crowded stretch of brownstones-turned-trendy-boutiques and ethic restaurants where the sidewalks stream with the young, the self-assured, the un-jeaned
SolidWorks entertained us with a river cruise Tuesday evening on the Charles River. Not one of the SolidWorks staff along for the ride had ever been on a local river cruises. Typical, eh?
Wednesday night we attended a Red Sox baseball game -- this time the roles were reversed. The SolidWorks group -- and 35,000 other Bostonians -- regularly attend games at the 90-year old Fenway Park; for me, it was my first pro baseball game ever. The Red Sox did as spectators expected: after an initial lead of 3-0, they lost 4-3 against the Cleveland Indians.
Cleaning windows on the Prudential tower.
Looking through a brick window.
A student practices his clarinet next to the Charles River.
The John Hancock tower.
The shops and restuarants along Newbury Street.
A solo rower at sunset on the Charles River.
The bricks and fire-escape ladders of Boston's brownstone townhouses.
The First Baptist Church is one of the oldest in Boston and the United States.
The Saint Lawrence river, south of Montreal, from the air, at dusk.