NX is one of the top 3D modelers in the world. It is a fully featured CAD system that offers deep capabilities for integrated CAD, CAE, and CAM as well as conceptual design. Its success in the automotive industry has even been recognized by General Motors as Supplier of the Year on multiple occasions.
In an industry that some might consider a commodity, Siemens continues to raise the bar with new innovations in NX. What are Siemens’s plans for NX? This post is part of Tech-Clarity’s Strategic Visions of CAD and CAE Providers 2014+ containing my views on different vendor strategies for the engineering design software space and explores my thoughts on the strategy.
A Brief History
NX comes from two of the original 3D modeling solutions, as an integration of Unigraphics and I-DEAS from SDRC. Unigraphics has its roots in the aerospace industry, coming from software acquired and developed by McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing). Unigraphics was then acquired by EDS, which was owned by General Motors and became the CAD standard for GM. In 2001, EDS acquired a Unigraphics competitor, SDRC, which developed I-DEAS. I-DEAS was primarily used in the automotive industry and was the standard CAD tool at Ford Motor Company. EDS then combined the two products, Unigraphics and I-DEAS, calling the new product NX. The company was spun off as UGS and then acquired by Siemens in 2007. NX now competes directly with Dassault’s Catia and PTC Creo.
Strategy for Modeling Approach
When looking at CAD, the modeling approach is an important element to discuss. It has a major impact on the experience with a CAD tool. Not to mention, over the last five years, there have been many advancements in modeling technologies that have had a significant impact on the overall CAD market.
NX uses the Parasolid geometric modeling kernel and D-Cubed software library components. A kernel can be thought of as the foundation for a CAD program. It defines how geometry is calculated and created. Some kernels are proprietary to a CAD vendor while others are available for licensing. A vendor may choose to keep the kernel proprietary when it is looking to protect intellectual property. If a vendor has a more open strategy, it may choose to make its kernel available for licensing. Siemens has chosen to license both Parasolid and D-Cubed and Parasolid has become one of the most common kernels used in the CAD/CAE/CAM industry. For example, tools such as SolidWorks (although a version will also share the Catia kernel), IronCAD, Altair’s solidThinking and HyperWorks, Bentley Systems’s MicroStation, and Nemetschek’s Vectorworks all use Parasolid, making Siemens a partner to many of their competitors. Additional kernels used in other competitive CAD tools include ACIS, Granite, CGM, and ShapeManager.
NX was originally a 3D parametric modeler. Parametric modelers revolutionized the approach to solid modeling. Engineers could build intelligence into models so that when a change was made, all the affected features would automatically update, saving time by avoiding manual and tedious updates to every little thing that changed.
In 2007, Siemens introduced Synchronous Technology (ST). ST is an application layer sitting on top of Parasolid and D-Cubed, but remains proprietary to Siemens. This means that although competitors or partners may license the Parasolid kernel or D-Cubed libraries, ST is only available with Siemens’s applications.
ST provides the ability to simultaneously combine both history-based and direct modeling. History-based has been the more traditional approach with a parametric modeler. It means that each model feature has an order. New features often reference pervious features for locating dimensions and definition. This approach is very powerful and follows the logic of how a part may be machined. The approach is useful because engineers must think through how a part will be machined, which helps them ensure the part will be manufacturable. Intelligence can also be embedded into the model with parametrically driven features, which help to automate updates to the model. Despite this, sometimes issues arise when changes are made to a feature. Subsequent features that previously relied on the changed feature suddenly lose their definition and fail. As a result, engineers are faced with the time consuming task of redefining or recreating all failed features. Another modeling approach is direct modeling which is more like modeling with clay. Features are very flexible and changes are easy to make, but it may not have all the intelligence of the history-based approached. Changes can be made without wasting time figuring out how the model was built or fixing failed features.
Siemens PLM aims to combine the best of both worlds with ST. It offers direct modeling with parametric relationships. This means engineers have the power and automation of a parametric modeler, but can also make major model changes in very little time. As changes are made, the software is intelligent enough to assume new parameters and design intent to update the model without failing the features. The nice thing is that if a history-based approach is preferred, it is still available so engineers don’t have to choose. Even nicer, if engineers prefer to use Synchronous Technology on a history-based feature, it is a simple drag and drop in the feature tree to make it Synchronous. ST is key to the strategy for Siemens and enables them to do some unique things.
I must admit, it has not been easy giving an overview of the NX strategy without getting into the weeds. There are so many interesting details to explore! Anyway, here are my thoughts, trying to stay as high level as possible.
First, let’s give a quick overview of the solution. NX can be tightly integrated with Teamcenter, the PLM solution from Siemens, but Teamcenter is not required to use NX. NX also offers flexible modeling options, powerful assembly management tools, as well as specialty applications such as sheet metal. NX is strong in multiple discrete industries including automotive, aerospace and defense, consumer products, high-tech, industrial equipment, and shipbuilding.
When I look at the overall direction of the software, especially NX 9, the current release, and what’s planned for NX 10, these are the things that stand out to me. I like to think about this in terms of what matters to the end user and how Siemens fits with its NX strategy to make the life of the engineer easier.
- Improving engineering efficiency
- Enabling smarter decisions has been a big focus area for Siemens. One of the exciting approaches is the “Active Workspace” which has been around for a couple of years, but is now embedded into NX 9.0.2. This allows the user to access relevant information from Teamcenter in the context of the current model. It provides streamlined access to needed data, in context, when you need it, without ever leaving NX. Engineers can visually filter the model with color-coding or right click and get instant access to model information from Teamcenter.
- Industry specific workflows delivered via Industry Catalysts. This is part of a larger Siemens initiative to bundle functionality across multiple solutions for specific industries. For NX, it means tailoring and streamlining workflows for common geometry features needed in a specific industry. So far, there is a Shipbuilding Catalyst and an Electronics and Semiconductor Catalyst, but expect more to come.
- Better collaboration, including with suppliers
- Siemens has made a very strategic decision to be open. This means that while they would like everyone to use all Siemens’s products, and believe customers will have an improved experience using the full suite, they will not force it. Instead, they have done many things to make using other solutions easier. This is an area where Synchronous Technology excels. It will take imported geometry from 3rd party CAD, assign parameters to it, and enable parametric editing of it. This is a very powerful approach for supporting a multi-CAD environment.
- Another area for supporting better collaboration is with JT. JT is a visualization format that allows lightweight versions of the CAD geometry to be shared, without exposing all the intellectual property that is embedded in the CAD file. It is CAD neutral so is not necessarily part of NX, but it is an important part of the strategy to collaborate with NX data, or work with multiCAD data when using NX. Siemens has worked hard to make JT an industry accepted standard and it is now ISO certified.
- Managing the complexity of today’s products
- A new area where we can expect to see more from Siemens is what they are calling 4th generation design or 4GD. This is focused on making it easier for people to collaborate on very large assemblies. Engineers can load up an entire assembly in a lightweight format and then draw a bounding box around the parts that will be worked on, creating a “work zone.” NX will then pull in the computationally intensive CAD data as it is needed for the design. This improves performance because memory is not consumed storing a lot of CAD information that is not needed for the current task, yet engineers can still design in context of the entire assembly. No effort is needed to create lightweight models either; it happens automatically. Drawing a bounding box means engineers don’t have to navigate a product structure trying to remember or search for names of needed subassemblies and components. Instead, they can visually identify the areas of the assembly they want to work on very intuitively. When changes are made to other parts of the assembly that are not in the immediate work zone, engineers are notified of those changes and the assembly updates. The goal of this is to make it easier for multiple people to simultaneously work on the same large design. So far, it is only available for the shipbuilding solution, but expect more to come here as it becomes available in more solutions and industries.
- Supporting system development across multiple engineering domains
- Siemens is also heavily investing in systems driven product development. Recognizing that most products are evolving into very complex systems, Siemens will be looking at making it easier to define products at the system level. Expect to hear a lot more on this later.
- Infrastructure, hardware, and making NX more accessible.
- Expect to see more from Siemens to reduce the burden on IT and make NX more accessible. Siemens recently announced support for private cloud using virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) with NVIDIA GRID™ vGPU™. Expect more announcements for additional virtual desktops support. The intent is to allow IT to centralize NX on a server and make it more widely available.
- Another interesting area is how we interact with the model. With so many new “Touch” technologies becoming available and more accessible, Siemens is keeping an eye on this and new methods for interacting with models beyond a mouse and keyboard are not far away.
One final thought is the strategy between NX and the other CAD solution available from Siemens, SolidEdge. NX is considered the higher end solution. Although SolidEdge is also powerful, NX is targeted at companies who work with more complex products and need a tighter integration with PLM.
Overall, Siemens has done a lot of interesting work with NX. I am expecting some exciting things to come from Siemens, especially with managing large assemblies as 4GD becomes available beyond shipbuilding. I also think what they do with systems driven development will be worth keeping an eye on.
So this is what it looks like to me. I look forward to discussing what it looks like to others.