SolidWorks is a 3D CAD product offered by Dassault Systèmes, targeted especially for small and medium sized businesses. The 3D design tool and supporting suite has the ability to create, simulate, publish, and manage engineering and product related data. SolidWorks established itself with a focus on ease of use.
Where is SolidWorks headed? How will the Dassault 3DEXPERIENCE platform impact SolidWorks customers? This post is part of Tech-Clarity’s Strategic Visions of CAD and CAE Providers 2014+ where I am exploring the strategies of the different vendors in the engineering software space. For an updated look at SolidWorks, check out our post titled SolidWorks Vision 2016.
A Brief History
SolidWorks was an independent software company founded by Jon Hirschtick and a small team that included industry insiders who had had experience developing the then current generation of CAD tools. They sought to build off their experience to overcome what they had perceived as limitations in the current generation, primarily ease of use and cost. The first version of SolidWorks software was released in 1995. It was positioned as the first Windows-native 3D CAD modeler. The idea behind SolidWorks was to bring a 3D CAD modeler to the masses with an easy to use, affordable solution that also had much of the power of the higher end 3D CAD solutions. In fact, in its early days, it was touted as 80% of the functionality for 20% of the price of the higher end CAD solutions. Different from other CAD solutions at the time, it ran only on the Windows platform and mimicked a Windows look and feel, making the user interface very intuitive. It was also feature-based, parametric, and associative meaning related features updated as changes were made, including the views in a 2D drawing. The decision to run only on the Windows platform meant customers could use lower priced PCs. This represented less of an investment in hardware, lowering the cost of ownership. The price tag of SolidWorks followed suit with the first version offered for only $3,995.
From the beginning, SolidWorks relied on community. The company focused on the development and support of design software, while valued added resellers sold the product. They also concentrated on core design functions, but built a strong network of software partners to develop extended applications. SolidWorks has since expanded its own portfolio to include simulation offerings, data management, and collaboration tools. Most of this extended functionality came from software developed by partners, which SolidWorks eventually acquired.
It did not take long for the company to attract attention and after only a couple of years after its first software release, Dassault Systèmes acquired the company in 1997. Since the acquisition, Dassault Systèmes had largely left SolidWorks to function independent of the larger corporate brand, until very recently. SolidWorks continues to be positioned as its solution for small and medium size companies. The other CAD solution offered by Dassault Systèmes, CATIA, is its solution for large enterprises. SolidWorks has also been especially successful with industrial equipment, consumer products, and high tech markets, complementing CATIA, which tends to be stronger in the automotive and aerospace and defence industries. In 2008, they acquired Priware to make CircuitWorks part of the SolidWorks portfolio, adding electrical design to its suite of mechanical design applications.
SolidWorks is a 3D parametrically driven solid modeler based on the Parasolid geometric modeling kernel; the kernel owned and licensed by Siemens. The modeling kernel defines how CAD geometry is calculated and created.
At SolidWorks World 2010, SolidWorks demonstrated an early version of a cloud-based CAD solution. It was explained that this solution was a few years out, but it would be the future for SolidWorks. The new approach generated excitement, but at the same time there were questions about the future of the current Parasolid-based application. Since a change to the kernel means the geometry will be calculated differently, some models from older versions may not be retrievable in the newer version, creating additional work if models need to be recreated.
I recently sat down with Aaron Kelly, Vice President of User Experience and Product Portfolio Management and he confirmed Parasolid will remain the kernel for a very long time and there are no plans to change that. What they are doing is a very interesting approach that will be discussed further in the Overall Strategy section.
I also asked Aaron about plans for direct modeling. SolidWorks has not had a direct modeling solution, but it has had direct editing capabilities for a very long time. For example, you’ve been able to drag and drop holes to new surfaces since very early releases. Instant3D is available for quick drag and drop edits. He feels that what they have is the right modeling technology for their users. He commented that the need for direct modeling is more applicable based on the workflow and this is something they are addressing with their strategy for SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual, to be discussed in the next section.
To understand the current strategy behind SolidWorks, and future direction, it is helpful to take a step back and think at a high level, what are the goals of design? Over the years, it has gotten so that in many cases, the CAD tools are driving the design process, rather than the design process driving how the tools are used. Design, especially at the front end, should really be about innovation. The trick is maximizing the number of ideas to evaluate and get as much feedback as possible, as early as possible, to arrive at the right concept, before moving to detailed design. This is hard with current CAD tools. Tapping into sources of ideas and getting feedback from customers, suppliers, partners, and others within the company requires good collaboration. While there are a lot of collaboration tools out there, many do not understand 3D CAD information. Without a way to look at the product in 3D, it’s difficult to provide feedback on a product. This is some of the thought behind Dassault Systèmes’s 3DEXPERIENCE platform. It is a cloud-based platform that Dassault Systèmes is positioning for the future of all its products. More insight on Dassault Systèmes’s 3DEXPERIENCE platform can be found in the Tech-Clarity post, Dassault Systèmes PLM Vision 2014+. A very important note is that Dassault Systèmes is not expecting all its customers to immediately jump to this platform. In fact, at a recent analyst conference, Dassault Systemès CEO Bernard Charles said he expects the previous versions of DS products to still have a life of at least an additional 10-15 years. What Dassault Systèmes is doing is taking advantage of the latest cloud technologies and creating a model for the future of product development, so that if and when customers are ready for it, it will be available. Customers will not be forced to migrate to the 3DEXPERIENCE platform.
So what does this mean for SolidWorks? The SolidWorks customers know and love will continue to exist for a very long time. What Dassault Systèmes is doing is introducing applications that have been built on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform that complement the existing solution. This is a low risk way to introduce the platform to SolidWorks customers, without disrupting anything they are doing today. As more applications become available and they become more comfortable with the platform, customers may decide they want to tap into the cloud even more. When that time comes, Dassault Systèmes will be ready with a solution, but customers will determine the timeline, not Dassault Systèmes.
Tapping into the Cloud
The first area Dassault SolidWorks focused on for the 3DEXPERIENCE platform was an area that was already a hole in the SolidWorks portfolio: conceptual design. This is the stage that should be highly collaborative, undergoes frequent and major changes, and requires a lot of modeling flexibility. Direct modeling is a perfect fit. The solution is called SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual. Modeling is done in a very flexible modeling environment which is described as combining the benefits of parametric and history free modeling. This is one of the workflow use cases Aaron was referring to and where he sees direct modeling fitting in. In addition to easy modeling tools, invited participants can connect to the model through a web browser. This maximizes the number of people who can access the model, brainstorm on ideas, and offer feedback. Social tools such as chat are also embedded. In addition to being more accessible, the tool supports a formalized conceptual process, making a repeatable innovation process a bit easier. It also creates a history of concepts that have been evaluated and rejected to help avoid looking at similar ideas in the future or making it easier to build off of old ideas. The solution is especially targeted at industrial equipment manufacturers and offers some unexpected advanced functionality such as motion simulation that will be especially helpful for this industry.
So far, SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual has only been available to a few lighthouse customers. A few of them shared their experience at SolidWorks World 2014 and they seemed extremely pleased with the solution, describing use cases where it has helped to reduce the sales cycle simply because the customer was wowed by the 3D conceptual model. The product is expected to be more widely available within the next few months.
What’s in Store for the Future?
Following SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual, the next application on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform will be SolidWorks Industrial Conceptual, another solution focused on the concept stage and also filling a hole in the SolidWorks portfolio for industrial design. This is another area that will benefit from flexible modeling tools and improved collaboration.
Aaron also had a lot to say about the work they are doing in core SolidWorks. A lot of effort is going into tapping into expertise to help engineers make better designs. Expect more of what SolidWorks users already love about SolidWorks.
Looking ahead, we should continue to see core SolidWorks Mechanical CAD developed and enhanced. I also expect to see more SolidWorks applications built on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, but they will continue to complement the existing solution rather than replace it. I expect the new solutions will support processes that require collaboration with engineers, but the target users may not be engineers. For example, perhaps a marketing application for consumer products or a service solution for industrial equipment. Another potential area that could be explored could be using the cloud to tap into big data to support better decisions around cost, compliance, and quality, complementing what is in SolidWorks Mechanical CAD already.
So these are my thoughts on SolidWorks. What do you think? I welcome comments and further discussion on this.