A Platform Puts All Apps Under One Roof
Once upon a time in the CAD world, if you wanted to use your models for some other purpose than making 2D drawings—such as analysis of stress or motion—you would have to buy the separate software, export your CAD model in IGES format, bring the IGES data into the analysis package and then set up and run the simulation. Any changes you needed to make would have to go back through the process again. If you had multiple types of analysis, you might have to do this with multiple software packages. This was the way it was done through the 1990s. People who ran analysis were generally specialists, with their own software and often, their own hardware.
Best In Class
During this phase of the development of engineering technology, companies bought individual products. There was little to no integration. The marketing line on this was that companies were able to buy and use the “best in class” software in each field where solutions were needed.
The first level of improvement on this process was that CAD developers started partnering with certain third-party analysis product developers to make data sharing easier. You might even have a button for analysis show up in your CAD tool to automate the data transfer. Further integration allowed some third-party developers to run their software inside the CAD environment. The software packages were developed by different companies but they had learned to cooperate to some extent.
This arrangement worked—most of the time. Multiple software packages by different development teams in different companies were using the same data. However, you would have more software crashes than with either package individually.
Follow the business world long enough and you will notice that industries tend to consolidate. A new industry that initially has a lot of small companies will, over time, tend towards merging into fewer, larger companies. The CAD and engineering technology industry has seen a lot of consolidation since the 1990s. With the introduction of 3D CAD on the PC, there was an explosion of small companies producing engineering software. Many of those companies started around individual software packages and, over time, those companies merged, pulling the products together under a single, increasingly larger roof.
The Cosmos Example
Cosmos was an analysis product owned by SRAC (Structural Research and Analysis Company), founded in 1982 and sold by SOLIDWORKS dealers early in SOLIDWORKS’ history (1995 – 2001). SRAC also had more advanced software: Cosmos/M was for traditional simulation by analysts, while CosmosWorks was a simpler package intended for use directly by SOLIDWORKS users in conjunction with the SOLIDWORKS software.
SOLIDWORKS initiated their partner program in which third-party software was certified to work with SOLIDWORKS software. Cosmos was an early adoptee into the partner program. Eventually SOLIDWORKS introduced Gold Partner status where third-party software ran inside SOLIDWORKS from a toolbar in the SOLIDWORKS interface.
Reshuffling the Workload
Merging analysis with CAD brought analysis from the level of the analysis specialist to that of the designers and engineers who were designing the products and machinery. It allowed for faster development iteration of products and more up-front testing but there was always some question of whether taking the analysis out of the hands of the specialists was the right thing to do. This was not just true of stress analysis but of each application that ran inside the CAD application.
The added efficiency was certainly a good thing, but it required the people involved in the design to learn new skills. Misinterpreting analysis results is arguably worse than not doing the analysis at all. In the end, adding skills to the designer/engineer toolbox was a good thing for they were able to add value to the product development process. Analysis specialists were still called in for more complex and critical analysis jobs.
In 2001, SRAC became one of the first SOLIDWORKS gold partners to be purchased by Dassault. The company and the product were integrated directly into SOLIDWORKS. Cosmos products that still exist today have been re-branded as SOLIDWORKS Simulation, making the integration complete. If you have SOLIDWORKS installed on your computer and do a search, you will find folder names of former Cosmos products such as CosmosWorks, CosmosMotion and Cosmos/M.
The same sort of evolution has happened with products and companies such as Toolbox/Cimlogic, PDMWorks/Design Source, SmarTeam, Conisio and others. The point here is that mature products developed by dedicated teams have been integrated into the software in use today and these products are now woven into the fabric of CAD.
What started out as a simple 3D CAD program in 1995 has developed into a suite or platform that includes just about anything you could want to do with your 3D CAD data. Because all of the products have been upgraded for years by the same team working on the main software, the likelihood of compatibility issues has faded significantly.
As the engineering technology industry moves forward, it becomes increasingly sophisticated and integrates more of the software around it. Software developers will continue to consolidate the smaller players into one of a few ecosystems. The industry continues moving toward a philosophy that companies that design, simulate and manufacture should do it all on a single complete PLM platform.
The best-in-class mantra used in the early days has been replaced by concepts such as economy of scale, buying all your software from a single vendor, getting a suite of software that is intended to be used together with a single integrated interface, a single data format and a single point of contact for support and sales.
Enter the Platform
Current PLM developers offering platforms of applications include Dassault Systèmes with 3DEXPERIENCE, as well as Siemens Digital Industries, PTC and Autodesk. Altair is another company perhaps less often mentioned but also offers a wide range of tools for engineering and product development.
Portions of the industry are also moving toward cloud delivery. Cloud applications almost require a platform approach, as platform and cloud go hand in hand. Since there are multiple cloud services available, software would have to be integrated across cloud boundaries—a formidable task. Therefore, it might be unrealistic to expect to have a cloud-based platform and still support best-in-class applications by different vendors for what platform applications can’t do, or can’t do as well.
The platform approach makes sense for certain companies in some of the ways mentioned above, but it also presents some additional challenges. When buying into a platform, it is much more important to evaluate the vendor relationship and test as much of the software suite as is practical, even if you don’t have a current need for all of the applications. It is important to talk to other customers and understand the costs and limitations involved, as well as the process for upgrading, retrieving your data, getting support, training, consulting services, license management and other common support concerns. You might also inquire what it would take if, one day, you were to decide to move to a different platform or move back to a best-in-class application.
Weigh the Advantages
Most of these platform offerings are marketed toward large, multi-divisional organizations. The traditional old school small installations stand to benefit less from these consolidated platforms than groups with hundreds of users. If you get involved or get pressure to be involved, make sure your organization stands to actually benefit from what is being offered.
With every convenience added, there is generally something sacrificed. If you think about cloud delivery and storage as part of the PLM platform being offered, there can be several convenience advantages:
- Access from anywhere with an internet connection.
- Access from any device with a network connection.
- Simultaneous access from multiple users to the same data.
- Software version upgrades become automatic and the responsibility of the vendor.
- Data version ratcheting problems become a thing of the past.
- File management integrated into the CAD functionality.
- Security becomes the responsibility of the vendor.
- Many of the IT concerns for servers and high-end workstations can be offloaded to the vendor.
- Data backup becomes the responsibility of the vendor.
- Crashing of local machines or software becomes less of an issue.
- Benefits can be greater for larger organizations.
But along with these conveniences come some sacrifices:
- Lack of local control over potentially sensitive data.
- Data locked up by the PLM vendor and you have to “pay to play.”
- Risk of failure of the platform vendor would leave your data and process stranded.
- Costs may not represent an actual savings over a locally controlled process and may, in fact, be much higher.
The platform model now in use by modern engineering design and product development companies has evolved over the past couple of decades. The benefits to companies can be significant, especially in the line of organizational technical infrastructure. Companies need to do their due diligence to make sure they understand the risks, costs and other sacrifices that are involved. In addition, the scale of the benefits that can be enjoyed by a company buying in to a platform is proportional to the buy-in.
Make sure that the idealized or standard buy-in scenario is feasible for your company and your engineering and product development processes. You should also go into any transition with a realization that to get the most from the change in tools, you may have to be flexible with your current process. Many implementation failures can be attributed to simple stubbornness on the part of companies or departments that hold on to the past regardless of the benefits of the future.