In the previous article, we mentioned that the semiconductor equipment company KLA originated from Computervison (CV). As one of the pioneers, CV has a connection with the leading position of today’s CAD software.

The computer-aided design (CAD) industry is a deep sea, with fascinating stories behind it. Due to limitations in length, I will only briefly outline my personal interests and opinions, in order to spark further discussion.

One, the Four Great Hills. Link to heading

As one of the crown jewels of industrial software, the over-six-decade-old CAD is controlled by the leading industrial nations and has a deep historical background.

In the early days when computers were extremely rare and costly, only military and aerospace industries could afford to use CAD for design. Indeed, the origin of CAD is largely rooted in military usage.

In the 1960s, the Air Force giants Lockheed (with IBM) and McDonnell’s CAD projects evolved over the years into today’s two major players, Dassault (CATIA) and Siemens (UG/NX).

The Computervison company of the 1970s went on to become the cradle for PTC (Pro/ENGINEER) and SolidWorks.

Autodesk (AutoCAD) in the 1980s, by seizing the wave of personal computers, became one of the most accessible giants today.

2. Dassault and CATIA in France. Link to heading

CAD is a very outdated term that is not commonly used by manufacturers nowadays. Instead, people often use PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) as a replacement because product development involves not only design, but also verification, simulation, manufacturing, component management, and even after-sales support.

General PLM also includes companies such as Ansys, Hexagon, which specialize in CAE (Computer-Aided Engineering), and Synopsys, Cadence, which do EDA (Electronic Design Automation). In order to focus on the main topic, this article will use CAD instead of PLM.

Apart from some groundbreaking academic work in the 1950s, CADAM, initiated by Lockheed in 1965, was the first truly capable commercial CAD in the industry, running on IBM mainframes. IBM sold both the software and hardware as a solution, which naturally made them the representative of CADAM. Later, IBM acquired CADAM and subsequently sold it to Dassault Systemes.

Dassault Aviation, the company that produces Mirage and Rafale fighter jets, now primarily focuses on Falcon business jets. Dassault purchased the CADAM software (including the source code) for aircraft design, integrated it with their self-developed powerful 3D module, and together with IBM, created Dassault Systèmes, a company that specializes in CAE software.

CATIA entered Boeing several years ago and established its image as a high-end champion until now. The Boeing 777 was once a live advertisement for CATIA’s paperless design, and in China, its most famous showcase was the National Stadium or “Bird’s Nest” during the Beijing Olympics.

Due to its unparalleled precision in curved surface design, major industries such as aviation, automotive, and marine have all embraced CATIA. In addition, the 1997 swift and meticulous acquisition of SolidWorks has secured Dassault Systèmes’ position as the industry leader.

The first CEO of Dassault Systemes recalled feeling incredulous that his software company could surpass Dassault Aviation in size.

Three, Siemens and UG/NX. Link to heading

Siemens Industrial Software is currently flourishing, but the history of its CAD division dates back to the 1960s and the American airplane company, McDonnell Douglas.

The McDowell Company developed CADD software in-house, but did not commercialize it. They only occasionally shared it within their circle of friends. At the time, the little-known United Computing Company primarily cooperated with McDowell’s CADD software for their CNC machining software before launching Unigraphics (UG).

Macdo eventually acquired United Computing. Under Macdo’s leadership, UG steadily and consistently gained recognition for its top-of-the-line CAM machining capabilities.

After successfully selling UG CAD to General Motors (GM), it was actually UG CAD that caught GM’s attention. In the 1980s, GM was the world’s largest company, with a status equivalent to present-day Apple.

GM recognized early on that information technology was the trend, and in the 1980s they acquired IT systems integration giant EDS, followed by teams such as the Macintosh system team (later UGS) in the 1990s. However, the DNA of a company is truly difficult to change.

Leveraging the strong backing of GM and EDS, UGS has maintained a high level of product quality and acquired Solid Edge as its mid-range product line.

In 2003, due to poor business conditions of EDS, UGS was sold to three private equity funds for $2 billion.

These three private equity firms successfully sold UGS to Siemens, netting a profit of $1.5 billion in less than three years.

At this point, the core of UG has already been upgraded to the advanced NX and included a host of high-end products such as I-DEAS.

Siemens has truly struck gold.

Four, From CV to PTC. Link to heading

The key developer for Computervision (CV), Ken Versprille, is the father of NURBS surfaces. His philosophy is to create truly high-precision 3D models (much like CATIA). However, his Russian immigrant colleague, Samuel P. Geisberg, has a different view. Geisberg believes that parametric and feature-based solid modeling is the future trend.

Versprille believes that Geisberg’s 3D concept is only pseudo 3D (i.e. not precise enough), and furthermore, his programming skills are inadequate.

Geisberg, who was not satisfied, resigned from CV and founded PTC, subsequently launching the world-renowned Pro/ENGINEER (shortened as Pro/E).

The timing of the birth of Pro/E was extremely favorable as the core codes of its 3D competitors were too old, with many still running on mainframes using FORTRAN language. Pro/E was written in C language, making it much more portable, especially as it quickly gained popularity on various UNIX workstations.

PTC reached its peak in the second half of the 1990s, and then began to be overtaken by competitors such as SolidWorks, who were updating their core and ideology.

After SolidWorks was acquired by Dassault, PTC was under significant pressure and chose to retaliate by acquiring their former employer, CV. However, this weak union often fails to achieve the desired effect of 1+1>2.

The 2D drawing software VersaCAD in CV cannot compete with the industry standard AutoCAD. In an ambitious effort, CV partnered with Mercedes-Benz to launch the PELORUS program on Windows platform, aiming to create an open platform to overthrow AutoCAD. However, it ended up in failure.

Although CV’s product strength was already lagging behind, their CAD customer stickiness was strong, and the factory generally refused to migrate parts developed on the old platform to the new platform. PTC should have valued CV’s high-end customer base.

PTC’s abacus initially aimed to migrate high-end CADDS customers from CV to Pro/E and to compete with the major customer applications of CATIA and UG. However, the software merger was unsuccessful due to significant differences between the two. As a result, CV’s PDM tool unintentionally gave rise to PTC’s successful Windchill product line, which became one of PTC’s cash cows.

Pro/E began a long decline in market share. Despite having many loyal longtime users, PTC even decided to abandon the once-glorious name Pro/E, repackaging the software under the new name Creo.

Five, SolidWorks and Jon.

Two flowers are blooming, and another branch is showing. We present to you the legendary figure of the CAD industry who is still active in the forefront, Jon Hirschtick (hereafter, affectionately referred to as Jon).

Many people have seen the movie “21” which is based on the MIT Blackjack Team. Jon was one of the core members and coaches, and he used the one million dollars he won from the casino to create Solidworks.

Prior to this, Jon worked at CV for two years after his own company was acquired by them. Apparently, Jon was fully aware of CV and PTC’s weaknesses, hence Solidworks became widely popular.

So, where is the weakness of PTC?

First of all, Pro/E is too expensive. PTC’s target customers are high-end, well-known enterprises that are willing to spend money on expensive UNIX workstations, which made PTC not pay much attention to the Windows platform in the early stages.

SolidWorks, on the other hand, focuses on the Windows platform and is priced at only one-tenth of Pro/E. This strategy forces PTC to compete in the high-end market.

When Jon started his business, Pro/E had been around for ten years and its core technology was no longer cutting-edge. The parametric design of Pro/E was a double-edged sword, with a steep learning curve for users and a high error rate for beginners, which presented a challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Solidworks sits perfectly in the middle ground between AutoCAD and Pro/E: a low-cost and user-friendly 3D solid modeling solution.

The savvy Dassault Company, following the momentum of Solidworks at the moment of its profitability, immediately seized the opportunity to acquire it as a complementary CATIA product line. What’s even more pleasing to Dassault is that Jon Hirschtick also came along, and has been with them for an impressive fourteen years.

Jon left Dassault in 2011 and founded the company that later became known as OnShape. OnShape is a SaaS CAD company. Perhaps in Jon’s eyes, SolidWorks was old enough and it was time for cloud computing.

In 2019, PTC acquired OnShape, with its main focus evidently on small and medium-sized clients. Surprisingly, Jon followed suit, perhaps seeking to bring about self-disruption and assist PTC’s revival in its fight against SolidWorks. At present, PTC is struggling to compete with Dassault Systemes and Siemens in the high-end CAD market.

Five, AutoDesk. Link to heading

AutoCAD is a well-known software among all, and here is a brief description of it. The success of AutoCAD is mostly attributed to its belief and persistence in the PC platform, even though the early performance of personal computers was far weaker than that of graphics workstations at that time.

The compressed DOS version of AutoCAD 1.x is only 250KB, which is equivalent to one-tenth of a song, and can be stored on a 5-inch floppy disk (Oh, young people these days may not know what a floppy disk is).

Due to its focus on the low-end 2D design market, with a primary emphasis on drafting rather than design, AutoCAD faced limited competition from 3D companies during its initial two decades. The affordability of PC platforms enabled Autodesk to amass the largest customer base in the industry.

Autodesk has also trained a large number of teachers and students to act as seeders. Although this approach is now being adopted by industrial software, AutoCAD has the widest popularity due to its low hardware requirements.

It is noteworthy that Autodesk also has 3D CADs named Inventor and cloud-based CADs called Fusion 360. They also specialize in animation and entertainment with software such as 3ds Max and Maya. While it may struggle to compete with high-end manufacturing clients, Autodesk’s market philosophy is certainly up-to-date, and it is difficult to predict what the future may bring.

About the intricate relationship between indigenous CAD and AutoCAD secondary development, as well as how to accumulate industrial experience for oneself and how the government supports this, these weighty topics are beyond my capabilities, so let’s skip over them.

Sixth, Industrial Software. Link to heading

The above sketch outlined the CAD market over the past few decades in a rudimentary way. It seems to be nothing more than a series of mergers and acquisitions between companies, but the underlying logic is quite brutal.

The technical threshold for early CAD software was not high, and there were dozens or even hundreds of companies producing CAD. The main barrier at that time was actually hardware, and the greater challenge was how to access the doors of industry giants.

Industrial software requires a very long cycle to make money, and the output is not large. The successful companies are few, and most end up becoming module components or stepping stones.

The real scary aspect of industrial software is that it is built upon decades of groundwork. Engineers from various fields and industries have continuously contributed their know-how during this period, which has resulted in numerous industry modules being iterated upon. These modules are even subdivided into unimaginable levels, with every click of the mouse containing a plethora of information, encompassing not only design but also manufacturing processes.

Apart from traditional mechanical design, CAD is also widely used in electronic industry and construction. From large bridge components to small pen caps, and even tiny transistors, CAD plays an important role. In addition to narrow CAD applications, tools and modules like MATLAB and ANSYS also accumulate countless algorithms and experiences from various industries over the past decades through repeated testing and trial and error.

The formation of these software requires historical opportunities, and they gather the essence of human engineering technology.

7. Adding feet to a snake. Link to heading

Currently, society strongly criticizes the “copycat mentality”, but the populist approach of one-size-fits-all requires further discussion. In the 1980s and 1990s, China had a myriad of CAD software, but at that time the industrial foundation was too weak, and once connected to advanced foreign manufacturing, it could not keep up. To learn from the leading manufacturers first, and then adopt CAD is a reasonable development path.

How was the jewel of the American industrial crown taken away by Europe? How did Airbus manage to outpace Boeing? How did the traditional American manufacturing industry decline? These questions may be connected.

Amid various pessimistic thoughts that restrain us, we can also see a ray of happiness behind the dark clouds.

In the past twenty years, Chinese engineers and designers have efficiently utilized imported computer-aided software to achieve remarkable progress. They have stood on the shoulders of top-notch experts from around the world, enabling our country to become a construction and manufacturing powerhouse.