Can you afford a free software evaluation? (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2

Let’s wrap up this three part series with a look at the real costs associated with free CAE software evaluations. Most people automatically assume a 30 day evaluation, so we’ll stick with that. My cost estimates fall into 2 distinct scenarios:

The typical “never got around to it” software trial

I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule. In my experience, at least 80% of free CAE software evaluations fall into the “never got around to it” category. Most of these situations start with a curious engineer requesting trial licensing from a vendor. The engineer hasn’t evaluated the potential business impact of implementing this CAE tool and is typically just trying to stay abreast of industry trends and technologies.

Since the engineer is conducting this “off the grid” trial without much executive support or awareness, the evaluation usually starts without a specific direction, plan of attack, or criteria for success. The software rarely gets installed within the first 15 days of the 30 day evaluation. In most cases the engineer doesn’t install it until day 29.

Let’s estimate the cost of the engineer’s time at $80/hour. We can conservatively say he spent only 4 hours with the software on day 30. There would also have been a series of “checkup” calls and emails from the vendor in the previous 29 days. Those calls and emails interrupt the actual workday and accomplish nothing for either party. I think those disruptions have a much larger cumulative effect on productivity, but let’s add 15 minutes 2 days per week. That’s an additional 2 hours for the 30 day period.

6 hours x $80/hour = $480 engineering time

$480 sounds like a cheap investment, particularly since it is a “soft” cost. There are two problems to consider, however.

  1. An engineer prone to requesting free software evaluations is probably going through this process with 3 additional vendors at any given time. At that point, your engineer is wasting nearly $2,000 of engineering time and managing a steady stream of daily interruptions from multiple vendors.
  2. While the cost is fairly low, the return is extremely low. Even the easiest of CAE tools requires a 2-4 day introductory training class to get new customers up to speed and productive. The engineer simply will not gain much worthwhile insight after stumbling around for 4 hours without any training or background. At best, he’ll be able to make a surface judgement about the software look and feel.

The “honest effort” free software trial

Maybe 20% of the time, a motivated engineer requesting free trials will dedicate real time and energy to the evaluation. The process will still be inefficient due to a lack of formal training, but the engineer will typically invest 30 hours from a 160 hour month.

30 hour x $80/hour = $2,400

If the engineer simultaneously evaluates 2 additional tools, the man-hour cost surpasses $7,000 and the effort blows away any productivity on live projects.

Now we are are talking about a significant loss of time and productivity. The engineer might get a bit more insight into the pros and cons of each offering, but still doesn’t have the training to properly evaluate any of the tools. Worse, you have to ask how useful the exercise has been if the business case for a simulation tool hasn’t been endorsed or championed by management. If there is no budget or immediate possibility of software investment, the entire effort was a waste of time and resources.

A focused and efficient alternative

If you really must get some hands-on time with a new CAE tool before committing to a proper investment and training rollout, it pays to get the most insight with as little time investment as possible. Your first step should be to assume that at least one of the offerings will ultimately be successful for your team. Now forget about the technology and focus on what it could mean for your business. What kind of time, material, and marketing/sales advantages can you expect from a perfect implementation? How about from a mediocre implementation?

If you can’t point to any real savings or innovation enhancements, forget about doing any evaluations. Yep, sounds like common sense. Duh. Unfortunately, you’d be surprised at how many perfectly intelligent adults miss this fundamental concept!

The best way to get real insight into a new tool is to sit with someone who is already experienced with that tool. Here are two practical ways to do that:

  1. Send 1 or more of your engineers to an official “basic” training class taught by live instructors.
  2. Contract the software vendor to come onsite for a more personalized hands-on day.

In both cases, you’ll want to have real examples of your own products to work into the exercise. The instructor should be able to construct a full picture of your future usage around these examples. Where appropriate, the trainer can guide your evaluators through the process without them needing to attain complete expertise.

Most open, 2-day training classes (at a vendor facility, for instance) cost less than $3,000 per person, including the lost engineering time! Your engineers will surely walk away with significantly more insight than is possible through either traditional evaluation option described above.

The most cost effective and efficient evaluation method, however, comes from a customized hands-on day with the vendor. Open training classes typically include attendees from multiple companies and industries. Your engineers can learn even more in less time by bringing a vendor’s instructor onsite to focus on just your people, applications, and challenges. This approach also enables the investigation to cost only 1 day of productivity. The actual investment is also quite low as most vendors will charge around $2,000 for this service.

If you are serious about adopting an upfront CAE tool, either of these approaches will allow you to thoroughly investigate multiple offerings in less than 30 days. You may even be able to schedule these events for all vendors within 1-2 weeks. If so, you’ll be able to compare each product with deep insight while all are still fresh on your mind.

To answer my own question: No, you probably can not afford a free CAE software evaluation… and if you can, you would be better off investing that time and money into real insight.



  1. All services and activities are free of charge through an Early Education and Care grant awarded to the Plymouth Public Schools. For information call 508-830-4444 or visit the play center at Hedge Elementary School, 258 Standish Ave., Plymouth. You can …

  2. You can be sure that Netflix is looking over its shoulder with some consternation. …. “It lists a website for free software that doesn’t exist 

  3. OK, I’ll take the bait.

    Free evaluations can make sense for both parties if expectations are managed correctly. For example, we don’t give them out willy-nilly. One of our engineers calls the requester and asks about their requirements, what the goals are, and whether management is on-board with the eval. Assuming everything goes well with that discussion we schedule the start of the eval (ours are 60 days) for when the requester has set aside time for the work. Then we work together (i.e. our evaluation licenses are fully supported so there’s a mix of scheduled and unscheduled phone calls or emails) toward achieving the goals and finally make a go/no-go decision.

    Is this a perfect system? No. We take grief sometimes for not giving an evaluation license to everyone who asks. However, our past experience reinforces your 80/20 rule in that regard. Requirements collection sometimes falls short and we get to the end of the eval and folks mention a requirement for the first time – usually something we can do. And there are times when the eval goes great and we demonstrate real value but then the boss decides not to spend money.

    1. Hey, we got a big one on the line!

      Yup, I agree with everything you said, John. Voice of experience.

      One thing engineers/consumers often fail to realize is that there is no such thing as a free trail from the vendor’s perspective. Having one of your engineers call to gather requirements and shepherd the process costs very real dollars in terms of staffing. If you choose to base a business model on willy nilly free trials, that cost must be absorbed into the product pricing. So, no free lunch for anyone, I’m afraid.

      I do want to echo my one of my original statements from Part I, though. I’m not morally opposed to free trials for the right kind of product. It just needs to be a dead simple product with very little functionality and no learning curve. Think Twitter, not Computational Fluid Dynamics.

      So, for example, I fell in love with a tool called through a 30 day free eval. It’s part of the business model. It makes sense for everyone in that case.