Lightning to strike CAD market

A commitment to "shake up the CAD market" has been made by PTC. Paul Fanning reports.

PTC''s modest promise to "define the next 20 years of mechanical CAD" was probably the single most attention-grabbing thing at the recent PTC/User World Event, held in Orlando, Florida. Quite a boast, of course, but precisely what form the next two decades of mechanical CAD will take remains unclear.

One thing about which we can be relatively certain is this initiative's name: 'Project Lightning'. From there, however, things become increasingly vague. The premise, as outlined by the company's new CEO Jim Heppelman, is simple. Speaking at the event, he acknowledged the belief that the CAD market was 'mature', saying: "The truth is, it's become less exciting…But how can it be a mature market when there are such big unsolved problems?"
These problems, he claims, are usability, interoperability and assembly management. These issues, PTC claims, will be addressed by Project Lightning, which it says will eliminate the lack of interoperability between different modelling options (2D, 3D Direct and 3D parametric) by offering a set of design solutions on a single, common platform, allowing each user to choose the most appropriate paradigm.

Expanding on this theme, Brian Shepherd, PTC's executive vice president of product development, said: "Mechanical CAD has been too focused on the few" and emphasising the need for CAD solutions to be more collaborative and, rather than force companies to standardise on a single, high-level platform during project management (an approach PTC sees as analogous to "issuing everyone a backhoe, even if their job was just to plant flowers"), to allow each contributor to use the approach best suited to their input.

It seems certain, therefore, that PTC's Windchill PLM offering will form some part of Lightning with regard to assembly management, addressing the problems of designs that may have many hundreds of configura¬tions and do not suit a pure, CAD-based approach by offering "a simple, robust PLM backbone that will drive the CAD model". However, it has been made clear that Lightning will offer full upwards compatibility with the products currently being used by PTC customers, including Pro/Engineer, CoCreate, Product View and Windchill. Indeed, one of the areas on which the company was prepared to be specific was that Lightning would deliver "a scalable, interoperable, open and easy-to-use set of mechanical design apps" based on PTC's existing assets.

It was made clear that Project Lightning is PTC's number one R&D priority and Heppelman is clearly aggressive in his intention to shift the CAD paradigm, saying: "I want to go back on the offensive in the CAD market and to try and shake up the CAD industry." However, clear indications of the direction this will take remain tantalisingly scarce, although some hints may be derived from some of the comments made.

To begin with, Heppelman was emphatic that this would not be a purely cosmetic exercise, saying: "We don't think the way to make a product more usable is to refine the icons." Equally, suggestions that Lightning may have something to do with operating using the 'cloud' (whereby shared resources, software and information, are provided to computers and other devices on-demand) would appear to be contra-indicated by Heppelman's less than enthusiastic – even dismissive – attitude to this relatively recent computing phenomenon.

"I characterise myself as not anti-cloud, but anti-hype," he said. "And nowhere is there more hype in the conversation than when the subject turns to cloud. So much so that I remind people that clouds are made of vapour. This discussion is so hollow sometimes. What problem does it solve? I understand the headlines it generates, but what problems does it solve? The problems we outlined – ease of use, interoperability assembly management – it is not a vehicle to solve those problems."

Needless to say, this attitude may have been shaped somewhat by PTC's rivals Dassault and Autodesk having embraced the cloud, although Brian Shepherd was somewhat more conciliatory and even left the door open to developments in this area. "We don't sense the customer demand to move CAD to the cloud," he said. "Could that be a facet of our Lightning strategy as we move forward? Time will tell. We'll talk more about that in the future. It's certainly not part of the fundamental problems that we are addressing with Lightning."

Naturally enough, rumours abounded over the exact shape that Project Lightning would take, with suggestions ranging from small, iPhone-style 'apps' that integrate with the existing product line-up to a hybrid parametric/direct modelling interface that allows users to move easily between the two and some closer tie with Windchill that allows greatly improved data management. At the moment, however, this remains speculation and will continue to do so until 28th October this year, when PTC will be hosting a virtual launch event to reveal more details.

While Project Lightning was the thing that most caught the imagination, it was far from the only thing to be unveiledat the PTC/User Event. Naturally, many of these focused on expansions of PTC's Windchill PLM platform. The developments in this area were based on new and enhanced solutions built on the Microsoft SharePoint 2010 collaboration platform.

PTC's ever-closer relationship with Microsoft is clearly something of which the company is clearly proud, with the relationship clearly bearing fruit in the form of the raft of new announcements. Included amongst these was Windchill PPMLink, which extends Microsoft's Enterprise Project Management capabilities with configurable stage and gate processes and scorecards that aggregate traditional project management measurements with PLM-derived product attributes. In addition, it allows each project team the freedom to choose its own solution for project management, while facilitating comprehensive bottom-up metrics reporting.

Windchill Web Parts for SharePoint, meanwhile, provides a single, consolidated view of product information by enabling SharePoint users to view, search, and edit Windchill data together with content from ERP, finance and other enterprise applications. Using Microsoft's Business Connectivity Services, Windchill Web Parts for SharePoint 2.0 offers new and enhanced capabilities that expand the current search, assignment, and executive reporting features and take full advantage of the SharePoint environment.

Another interesting development was in the field of social networking with relation to the product development process. Windchill SocialLink will combine social computing enabled by Microsoft SharePoint 2010 product data and deliver a modern user experience, seamlessly accessible across all PTC solutions. Content tagging, filtering, and activity feeds will automatically disseminate relevant knowledge quickly to product communities and "communities of practices," self-forming groups united by shared professional interests.

For SMEs that believe themselves to be too small to warrant a PLM system, PTC also highlighted the success of Windchill ProductPoint, an enhanced solution, to address the specific CAD data management needs of small and mid-sized businesses. Offering CAD vaulting, sharing, visualisation, mark-up, and data re-use, this now has more than 300 customers worldwide since its announcement last year. One of these is Kelly Bryant, owner of Teknovation, a company of only seven people, but which found that ProductPoint overcame what he described as the "nightmare" of data management for his company, saving roughly 10 hours a week in locating part folders and allowed him to delete 20Gb of duplicate data from his computer system.

On the subject of PLM, it became abundantly clear that PTC sees this as an area with great potential for dynamic growth. While acknowledging that it would never perhaps be quite as ubiquitous as ERP software, Jim Heppelman did say that he believed that PLM would become "much bigger than most people think it will". Indeed, at the moment, he suggested that most users were only scratching the surface of its capabilities, saying of deeper usage of Windchill: "How many customers are doing it now? Very few. How many are heading that way? Very many."

Author
Paul Fanning

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