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