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CAD/CAM as a sophisticated industry actually got its start within large industries which had the most to gain from automating the design and manufacturing process. Historically, these large companies, especially those within the aerospace and automotive industries, have been responsible for some of the most significant advances in the art and practice of CAD/CAM.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's entrepreneurs began to create companies which were based upon this emerging technology, many of them still in existence in 1990. The turnkey industry is, of course, much older than the desktop CAD industry, but it is also much older than the entire PC software industry. For example, Calma began business in 1968, Computervision, Applicon and Intergraph (as M&S Computing) in 1969.

During that period of more than twenty years, the turnkey vendors have managed to develop some very useful applications based upon sophisticated software components, and have changed hardware platforms (and even languages) many times. By the time desktop CAD appeared on the scene in the early 1980's, the turnkey vendors had already invested thousands and thousands of man-years in the development of their systems and had solved most of the basic problems associated with design, drafting, analysis, and manufacturing.

Although the companies representing the turnkey CAD/CAM industry are not doing particularly well lately, they have as a group introduced a generation of engineers and designers to the use of computer-assisted techniques, and in their efforts laid the foundation for the eventual success of desktop CAD.

One of the areas in which the turnkey vendors have made significant progress, far beyond the ability of most manufacturing companies to keep up through internal development, is in their ability to represent and manipulate ``difficult'' geometry. It is in this area that the level of technology between early desktop CAD and turnkey CAD differed the most. Whereas desktop CAD provided lines, arcs, circles, and occasionally splines and conic sections, the turnkey systems offered a fully parametric wireframe and surface modeling capability attempting to support sophisticated mechanical applications such as 3- and 5-axis N/C. This difference in modeling representation is only now beginning to change as the desktop vendors begin to climb the technology curve.

What caused the rapid success of desktop CAD, and why didn't the turnkey vendors themselves benefit by the revolution which was plainly occurring? Why wasn't Computer vision or Calma, for example, the first one to offer CAD on a desktop? Why did the success of desktop CAD await the founding of companies such as Autodesk?

Although these questions are fundamental, the answers to them have more to do with self-image and perceived destiny, than with business.

To begin to understand how truly different Autodesk is from the turnkey companies, consider how these high-end vendors view themselves.

The View from the Top

One of the reasons that Autodesk was ignored by the turnkey vendors in the early days of desktop CAD was that the developers of the high-end systems honestly discounted any value which desktop CAD systems would be able to offer to users. The concept of ``CAD-on-a-PC'' directly conflicted with their understanding of their own essential purpose in life, which was to bring order, power, and complete integration to the design and manufacturing process.

A CAD/CAM veteran at that time would have described his system as something to design with. ``Sure,'' he might have said, ``our customers use our system to do production drafting, but its true value derives from the fact that these users can create a complete digital representation of their models, and all the integrated applications which we offer can access this model directly, taking whatever application-specific data it needs. Thus there need be only one copy of the data for everyone.'' He would have smiled smugly at this point.

``FEM users can access the original model, subjecting it to analysis, re-design, and successive refinement. Stylists can obtain photorealistic visual output directly off the model, toolpaths can be created automatically which will drive machine tools, and draftsman can produce drawings by working directly with the model.

``Drawings are a by-product of the process,'' he would have said, his nose wrinkling slightly. ``Not an end product by itself.

``Who would ever want a drawing as the only output of a design process?'' the CAD/CAM veteran would continue, his voice undoubtedly rising in pitch and volume. I mean, who else could use it? How would you get the data from one application to another without having to re-input it?'' At this, he would probably shiver as if he had glimpsed a world he didn't want to be part of.

It was crystal clear, at least in the minds of these CAD/CAM veterans, that any user worth his salt would choose the turnkey system for his work, and only those who couldn't afford the high ticket prices would be forced to settle for the poor imitations of CAD systems offered by the PC software vendors.

For ``poor imitations'' is exactly what the turnkey vendors believed them to be. These sophisticated, dedicated, and right-thinking representatives of high-end CAD/CAM, collectively looked at the desktop CAD systems and could see no justification for their use, as hard as they tried to see it. Because of this, they completely ignored that piece of the market and allowed upstart companies such as Autodesk to not only grow, but in their success to grab large numbers of their customers, and to never give them back.

Consider the standard, instinctive and universal reaction by members of the turnkey CAD/CAM community to the success of Autodesk. The party line, which was actually deeply and honestly believed, was that AutoCAD was being purchased simply because it was cheap, and that after companies bought it, they put it away and never used it again. This was a popular theme at all of these companies, at every level from consultant to programmer, from salesman to Chairman of the Board. By this reasoning, the failure of Autodesk was only a matter of time as users eventually, but inevitably, came to their senses and returned to the family.

But let's briefly look at the real history of desktop CAD. Consider what a customer got for his money when he bought a turnkey system in the early 1980's. For $100,000 a seat, this customer could design, analyze, refine, view, dimension, and manufacture his parts. The goal has always been to achieve all of this from one single data representation, but this was never achieved. The process wasn't perfect, or even close to perfect as all users knew, but it essentially worked. Compared to old-fashioned, non-interactive or manual methods, it represented a true revolution for that user.

Consider the user of the desktop system of the early 1980's. For $10,000 a seat, the customer could create very complicated engineering drawings, and easily output them to paper, but that was all. Did the desktop system attempt to solve all of the customer's problems, or to provide a total solution? Not hardly! Did you get more for your money from a turnkey system than from a desktop system? Clearly!

Why then would any user be satisfied with a desktop system? How could any company settle for less than a full-solution approach? Shouldn't this be the goal of all users?

Real Users buy Desktop CAD

Well, there were a few small problems with this view of CAD/CAM users.

First, while this top-down, highly elegant and abstract way of looking at design and manufacturing is pleasing to the intellect, and certainly reflected the majority view of upper management of the Fortune 500, it unfortunately had virtually nothing to do with CAD/CAM as it was practiced by the majority of users in 1982.

Keep in mind that, even today, out of approximately 2,200,000 machine tools in existence in the United States, less than 10% of them have a computer attached to them. Computer-controlled machine tools need digital input, but all those others having human operators demand analog input. Typically, the source of this input is from light waves bouncing off a multi-view drawing into a machine-tool operator's eyeballs, and then passing directly into his brain. More often than not, this drawing will have been produced on a desktop CAD system.

Secondly, most parts in this world are designed and manufactured by small shops. You would be amazed to know how little of a General Motors automobile is actually produced directly by General Motors; most is produced under contract to small businesses.

As soon as professional drafting capability became available on PC's, the reaction of users was immediate; they went out and bought it in droves. As a result, the market began to be differentiated, and users with different requirements began to express themselves by buying different types of systems.

At the ``low'' end, where small, production-oriented companies tend to exist, desktop CAD was an instant success. Generally, these small businesses produce their products according to their own techniques and can't afford, don't want and don't need some gigantic, complicated, totally integrated, corporate-wide unambiguous model representation, when all they need is to produce a drawing, thank you very much.

At the ``high'' end, large companies bought large systems top-heavy with features. Where the practice of design and manufacturing allowed it, integrated techniques began to be utilized, and designers, draftsmen, and application engineers worked on the same system, all sharing the same database. For them, the turnkey approach was ideal.

Where integrated environments were not available within these large corporations ``pockets'' of traditional CAD activity continued to exist, and still exist today. These pockets existed in spite of corporate management, not because of them. It was here that desktop CAD found a home.

Within these large corporations, many users attempted to justify the purchase of the expensive turnkey systems on the basis of the enormous return the company would see in automating the production drafting process, but they rarely got a payback on the drafting alone. Before the advent of desktop CAD, many customers in fact found it cheaper, and just as efficient, to go back to pen and paper. With the availability of low-cost desktop CAD, thousands and thousands of users not only found that this was an attractive alternative to the turnkey vendors, but that it was exactly the right solution for their needs. They simply didn't require anything more.

The fact that the turnkey vendors should have seen this years ago is not only testament to their lack of vision but to their obvious ultimate, and totally inevitable fate. The fact that the desktop CAD vendors did see this (looking back, I'm not sure if this was through incredible foresight or simply a keen observation of what was happening, and then a reaction to the opportunity), is evidence that giving the customer what he really needs, and not just what you want to sell him, still counts for something.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, what is it about the turnkey vendors which cause them to believe in their own approach so strongly?

Keep in mind that the turnkey vendors saw themselves having a guiding purpose in life; a mission, really, which was to bring perfection to the design and manufacturing process. The achievement of one single, unambiguous and complete digital representation of real objects, so that a complete simulation of the manufacturing process could be performed, was thought to be within their grasp. The pursuit of anything less than this level of perfection was simply not worthy of their efforts.

Fortunately for us, Autodesk didn't labor under such a burden; making money, and providing useful solutions to satisfied customers seemed to be sufficient motivation.

Although it may no longer be true in two years, it is relatively safe to say that at this point in the evolution of commercial CAD, one can make a simple distinction between the desktop and the turnkey systems. Desktop systems are drafting systems, generally purchased by users whose needs are local, well-defined and practical, and whose requirement of that system is principally as an aid in the creation of drawings or other visual artifacts such as renderings. The turnkey systems, on the other hand, are intended by their creators to build complete digital representations of real-world objects. This is called a model.

It is important to understand that, even if levels of technology were even closer than they now are, this would continue to be a fundamental difference between the two. Take away the integrated applications of a turnkey system, and you would be left with a system whose purpose, at least from the point of view of those who produced it, was to provide high-level modeling capability, that functionality having been developed to address the most difficult problems of manufacturing companies, not merely to provide a basic design solution; and certainly not as a system for simply putting lines on paper.

Since the turnkey vendors believe themselves to be in the business of providing modeling capability to be accessed by the world of applications, they universally tend to regard drafting and drawing production as a necessary, but technically unchallenging, therefore unimportant, adjunct capability. I mean, anybody can create a drafting system, can't they? Where's the challenge in that?

The challenge was not technical, of course, but financial, and Autodesk saw this early. Its customers, who are much different from turnkey customers, made it successful and are continuing to do so.


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