The evolution of CAD and cars

This week, we watched Detroit’s automotive executives drive to Washington (hats in hands) in their fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Something about that visual made a weird connection in my head. I saw an interesting parallel between the history of CAD and the evolution of cars.

This will not be a perfect analogy.
It’s just a collection of random, navel-gazing thoughts.

In the late 90s, I participated in the skunk works of GM’s electric vehicle program. I’ve never been one to hug trees, but that experience really opened my eyes to global environmental issues as well as domestic dependence on foreign oil.

But the coolest part was driving the world’s first production electric vehicle, the EV1! Some trivia: the original name of the EV1 was the “Impact.” The marketing folks later realized that might not be the best name for a vehicle.

We wanted to log real world miles on these things, so employees were encouraged to regularly sign out one of our handful of prototypes for a night or weekend. So, I got to take this rocket for a ride several times.

Let me tell you, this thing could accelerate! At the time, I drove an ill-advised Porsche 944 Turbo… but that’s a story for another day. Point is, an electric vehicle gives you instant torque. My Porsche didn’t stand a chance off the line. The EV1 got lots of attention on the open road, too. People would literally follow me for miles back to my apartment to ask about it!

I learned an interesting fact during my time in the EV trenches: EVs weren’t a new idea. Cars powered by electricity actually predated those driven by internal combustion engines. In the early 1900s, there was a mix of gas, steam, and electric vehicles. EVs only started to die out as our cities became more connected by roads. The IC engine could better handle the required long distances that came with this infrastructure.

By the way, I’m not nearly as smart as that last paragraph might suggest. I lifted some of it from this Wikipedia entry.

Now for the “potential” parallel that popped into my head:

When 98% of the people involved in R&D today think about CAD, they are thinking about history-based, parametric modeling ala Pro/Engineer, SolidWorks, CATIA, Inventor, and NX. Few people in industry are even aware of direct modeling. However, both have been around for ages… software-years are roughly equivalent to dog-years, by the way.

Just as the idea of electric vehicles has recently re-entered the public consciousness, so will we see a rapid growth in direct modeling awareness over the next 12 months. It’s already happening, actually.

One of the few major exceptions to the history-based, parametric rule in modern CAD times was SolidDesigner. SolidDesigner later became CoCreate and was purchased by PTC in 2007. PTC’s Pro/Engineer pretty well fathered or influenced all the other CAD tools to follow. So, I’d say that’s a significant nod to the benefits of direct modeling!

Today, Siemens is pouring mountains of marketing cash into the category.  It’s latest version of SolidEdge added some direct modeling capabilities under the brand-name “Synchronous Technology.” Even more startling, the world’s largest CAD company, Autodesk, recently unveiled a prototype product based on direct modeling techniques.

Direct Modeling is here. And very shortly, everyone will be aware of it.

What about those hybrids?

I predict we’ll see every major CAD company race towards direct modeling. Most will take the Siemens approach of grafting it on top of their existing history-based product. Siemens even seems to embrace this term “hybrid modeling environment.”

Opinions: everyone has them.
Watch out, I’m about to show some of mine.

Hybrid vehicles are stupid. It’s easy to produce an EV with a 150 mile, single-charge range today. That probably covers the needs of 80% of the driving public. For me, the beauty of an EV lies largely in the minimal number of moving parts and simplicity. There is very little to service when compared to all the friction, explosions, and linkages in an internal combustion engine. A hybrid vehicle has to somehow harmoniously marry both technologies within a single chassis… talk about two cats in a bag!

Because I’m a competitive guy, I really wanted to find a way to make this analogy blow a hole in Siemens’ new boat. I gotta be honest, though: that would be dishonest.

I don’t anticipate an immediate war between direct and history-based parametric modeling. There are real advantages to both. History-based tools will continue to be popular with detail design and drafting specialists.

These are skilled professionals who draft for a living. They have mastered their CAD tools and are ultimately responsible for compliance with detailed design standards. I applaud Siemens and Autodesk for adding some direct modeling capabilities to make parts of the job easier for these CAD gurus.

I like our positioning here at SpaceClaim, though. SpaceClaim isn’t really built for detail CAD design specialists. (Here’s where I can make the parallel work again.) It’s like the simplicity of a pure electric vehicle. It fits the needs of the 80% of folks on the product development team who can’t or won’t climb the learning curve of a traditional, history-based CAD tool.

Direct modeling is here to stay.

It will become a vital feature of hybrid CAD modeling environments for full-time designers. They will see it as a welcome addition to their toolkit. But, they’ll put the headphones on and rock out while doing what they’ve always done for a living.

I’m personally more excited about the impact direct modeling will have on people outside the design department. FEA and CFD specialists who currently struggle with traditional CAD will easily adopt a pure direct modeling tool like SpaceClaim. Same goes for guys on the CAM side. Same goes for those artsy thinkers who just need to work out some conceptual thoughts in 3D before elevating an idea to the detail design department. Imagine the productivity gains this opens in all new areas!

A final, unrelated rant:

Let me conclude by showing more of my, ummm, opinion:

Vehicles

  • Hybrids are too complex and will prolong the use of fossil fuels.
  • Don’t talk to me about fuel cells. Fuel cells require hydrogen. Hydrogen is costly to produce.
    (Please consider the full energy balance!)
  • Pure EVs will win for 80% of local transportation.

Power

  • Fossil fuels gotta go.
  • Wind power ain’t gonna cut it.
  • Wave power ain’t gonna cut it.
  • Solar power probably ain’t gonna cut it.
  • Bring on the Nukes, baby! Seriously.
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2 comments

  1. The beauty of an EV is as you say: ‘minimal number of moving parts and simplicity’, it is also in its smoothness and noiselessness, the way there is no ignition or concept of idling (making an EV the ideal kind of vehicle to be in in a traffic snarl), in the fact that it helps you lower your carbon footprint and the way it saves you so much money, (costing as it does only a fraction of an IC engine to run).

  2. The beauty of an EV is as you say: ‘minimal number of moving parts and simplicity’, it is also in its smoothness and noiselessness, the way there is no ignition or concept of idling (making an EV the ideal kind of vehicle to be in in a traffic snarl), in the fact that it helps you lower your carbon footprint and the way it saves you so much money, (costing as it does only a fraction of an IC engine to run).