Who cares about Autocad?

02 March 2009

Autodesk is about to release a new version of AutoCAD. In these days of dedicated design and manufacturing systems, why should we give a damn about the perennial 2D CAD tool?
asks Martyn Day

When discussing the editorial topics for this issue I outlined my column idea - the new AutoCAD.  I didn’t expect the response of my colleagues, which could be summed up in one word. Why? I found myself having to justify why AutoCAD still has relevance and has an important place in serious product design across the globe. It was strange, it was as if I had suggested I write about quill pens or a slide-rule. The fact that you are reading this is either a testament to my persuasive powers or sheer bloody mindedness, or perhaps a bit of both.

I can easily see where the AutoCAD-bigotry stance comes from. It’s the ‘dumb’ 2D software we dropped to develop our products in dedicated parametric 3D systems, featuring analysis, digital fabrication and virtual prototyping technology. 2D is just plain dumb, it’s history, it’s the inefficient way of working we left once we embraced 3D. Once the enlightened have crossed the rubicon and embraced 3D, it’s easy to have an ‘us and them’ attitude which invokes all sorts of emotions, some bordering on the religious.

There is no denying the success of AutoCAD and its cut down LT variant. Tens of millions of copies have been sold and pirated. As a 2D tool, it’s the world’s illegal and legal defacto standard and 2D still has a place in design and manufacture. Even with exciting desktop solid modelling products like Inventor and SolidWorks having double digit growth for years on end, 2D seat sales of AutoCAD have continued to accelerate. All the CAD vendors, including Autodesk have spent considerable time and money in trying to get these AutoCAD customers to migrate to the new 3D systems but all have met limited success. It seems even Autodesk has trouble cross-grading customers as AutoCAD DWG and 2D are very ‘sticky’.

Autodesk is the only company that can touch this many 2D users and provide insights into other ways of working

AutoCAD’s 3D capability has been certainly on a shallow trajectory. The first instance of solid modelling being built inside the application was the disastrous Release 13 (the company licensed the ACIS engine). At the time, Autodesk was trying to compete with SolidWorks and Pro/Engineer and quickly realised that they couldn’t compete by building Mechanical Desktop on top of a flakey AutoCAD, thus a new standalone system, called Inventor, was developed in parallel.

Then having very clearly demarcated fresh 3D offerings for its vertical markets, the limitation of AutoCAD’s 3D development was sealed to languish for a number of years.  Indeed, AutoCAD had to wait until its 2007 release to get a decent 3D overhaul for both capabilities and user interface but this was still very pull and push grip-based editing with no parametrics. AutoCAD 2008 and 2009 revamped the lighting, rendering and user interface, with major enhancements to come in 2010, which is imminent.

Autodesk’s motivation has clearly been to get its AutoCAD customer base to its 3D verticals, especially Inventor, before its competitors do. I understand when it came to AutoCAD 2010 there was a hot internal debate as to what level of high-end functionality the base AutoCAD system should have. Too much and you potentially remove the incentive to move to Inventor. It would appear the platform group (AutoCAD) won the day and has developed 2010 to feature comprehensive 2D parametrics, conceptual free-form modelling and direct 3D printing. Nay-sayers will sarcastically claim AutoCAD has finally joined the 20th Century but by adding these tools to such a commonly-used application can only accelerate the use of paramatric and model-based design.

Autodesk is the only company that can touch this many 2D users and provide insights into other ways of working. 2D parametric design is at the very least a good education. The 3D capability of AutoCAD now looks much more useful to users both new and old, providing innovative surface and solids tools.

Technology adoption is like using stepping stones, the further they are apart, or the greater the difference in height, the less likely you are to cross them. While everyone has had trouble getting AutoCAD users to step ‘across the stones’ and migrate to 3D, AutoCAD 2010 drastically reduces the stepping distance and levels the heights of the stones. This is a powerful release that will, given time and an open mind, change the industry perception that AutoCAD is just about dumb 2D.

Martyn Day is Consulting Editor of DEVELOP3D. He has given up watching recession news for Lent. In addition he’s wearing rose-tinted glasses and is bidding on a rabbit’s foot on ebay. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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