A new common CAD data standard

19 May 2010

With 3D software advancing all the time, Rob Jamieson thinks the CAD industry seriously needs to start working on a new standard so we can access our all important legacy data well into the future

Often my topics are about how new technology can help drive the CAD world forward, but recently I’ve been thinking about all of my legacy data and wondering exactly how safe and secure it is. This is something that impacts all engineering and design companies, but is a particularly big issue for those in the aerospace, shipbuilding and plant industries where designs last for decades.

For data there are three big challenges: how to store it, in what format and how access to it? If we look back 100 years we have physical pictures and movie reels. Yes film deteriorates with time but it’s a physical object of the content that pretty much anyone can view.

The same can’t be said for CAD data as the programs that create our 3D programs are constantly evolving. Companies change focus, buy other companies, retire certain products, or change file formats.

One solution is to maintain a working copy of each version of software, but if you’re designing bridges, aircraft or ships, which might have a lifespan of 50 years, that’s an awful lot of legacy software and hardware. Naturally, there are companies who specialise in sorting and retrieving data long term, but this is never going to be cheap with recurring annual fees.

I’d hate to think the only way we will reach a common standard is through multiple acquisitions and the creation of one master CAD company

One of the big problems is that CAD software never stands still. File formats often change as features are added, but unfortunately it also happens to stop competitors accessing the data to make it harder for customers to switch to another package.

Now I’m not saying that we should stagnate development to allow a standardised format, but some of these big companies should be able to agree on
a standard that allows access to future generations. Dumbed down formats like STEP serve a purpose, but we lose all that rich information and intelligence that is built into modern 3D models.

With all CAD data created differently, defining a global standard is no trivial task, but I’m not so sure it’s simply technology that’s holding us back. I wonder if there’s a real desire by the CAD vendors to provide open access to their customers’ data. Unfortunately, not every company is interested in the “greater good” and more about how they can maintain their profit margin.

The world works on people making money to live and while I don’t object to that, at the same time I hate it when things are done where the greater good is not served. I’d hate to think the only way we will reach a common standard is through multiple acquisitions and the creation of one master CAD company.

The next challenge is how to store all of this data over an extended period of time. Yes storage is getting bigger but it’s so easy to lose stuff by moving to new hardware or just deleting stuff that’s old. It’s often stated in IT circles that unless data is stored in three locations it does not exist at all.

The backup for all this mass storage is often hard disks and over time, just like film, it deteriorates. But instead of colours fading on your holiday snaps, the data simply can’t be read. As a result, legacy data needs to be periodically transferred to new storage and maintained in a controlled environment.

Locking an old workstation away in a dusty room and hoping the data will be there in 10 or 20 years is not a particularly safe strategy.

Taking this responsibility out of your hands and moving data to the cloud is an increasingly popular option, but you need to choose your partner carefully. And if you’re thinking of using CAD on the Web you need to have a strategy for getting your data out without losing any of its intelligence.

A friend of mine was telling me she keeps all of her pictures on Facebook, but when she prints them out they are poor quality. I explained that the camera took higher resolution than the web needs so its quality was reduced. She thought by sharing her pictures she was telling people what she was doing but really she was destroying the detail she wanted.

All of this leads back to the need for universal standards. For 3D CAD it doesn’t even need to be parametric, direct edit would be fine. However, as most of the big players only want to transfer data between their own products, maybe we need government legislation or professional bodies to drive this forward.

In 100 years from now I sincerely hope people won’t be calling this the new Dark Age as they discover strange formats of files they can’t open, on old hard disks. If you thought finding a projector that could play old Super 8 films from the seventies was hard, imagine the challenge that legacy CAD formats might present.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) is a marketing manager at AMD. He’d like to think all of his data is secure but ask him again in ten years. This article is his own opinion and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Comments on this article:

Rob has hit the nail on the head and with this growing economic problem squeezing small companies I find that more and more of my customers are not upgrading their CAD to the latest version. Upgrading usually includes an annual fee and additional training to learn how to do all the new additions. I have one customer that is still using SolidWorks 2005 and he loves it. Unfortunately I didn't save the 2005 version so I go to his place and design things on his software. It sounds crazy but it works and saves time and money. I wish all the CAD companies had read Robs article 10 years ago. Maybe some of them would have seen how dumb and how expensive their method is today. I believe the CAD companies are actually losing money and sales. I use Solidworks and I find it more economical to farm out the conversions to /from Autocad, Inventor, ProE etc than to own a copy of each myself. The real shame of their silly game is, I bought a copy of Solidworks Bible 2009 and when I updated my software to 2010 it will no longer load the training problems for the 2009 version. That is just going to far. Good luck changing the CAD Giants. Maybe I should look a little closer at Alibre!

Posted by Steve Mulich on Thursday 27 2010 at 12:00 PM

LOTAR (LOng Term ARchiving) project is addressing the issues you raised. http://www.prostep.org/en/project-groups/long-term-archiving-lotar.html If you are interested and willing to contribute, then you can get involved.

Posted by Charlie Stirk on Thursday 03 2010 at 04:56 PM

Leave a comment

Enter the word you see below: