Switching CAD systems

March 23, 2006
Considering a new CAD system? Think twice. Buy once.

Rachael Dalton-Taggart, CEO
Strategic Reach Inc.
Denver, Colo.

Design managers could paper the walls with unsolicited offers to replace their present CAD systems. The switch to a new system, these vendors claim, is painless, even pleasant. The truth, however, is a decision of this magnitude requires careful thought, preparation, and a prioritization of business goals.

The decision to put your old, established CAD system out to pasture is not to be taken lightly. Before deciding, companies need to consider the total cost for new software, expanded hardware, training, and handling legacy data. Without adequate planning, the cost for updating could exceed the returns.

Thanks to new technologies, easier-to-learn software, and better access to training, switching CAD systems is less complicated. But how do you know when it's time for an upgrade?

"The only reason to switch CAD systems is to save money," says longtime CAD industry analyst L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E. But manufacturers often switch systems simply because they're annoyed with a vendor. "When they switch for that reason, they find the new system is no better than the old one," Wolfe explains.

Savings from installing a new system come in many forms. Replacing an old system can result in less maintenance. And every year, new software gets less expensive and easier to maintain. Older, more-established systems may be slower to adopt new methodologies because they rely on older software code.

Of course, the risks of adopting the new technology may not be acceptable. For example, new technology may not work in the company or industry's culture.

Another reason to switch is to convert to 3D. Some manufacturers find that 3D is more productive than 2D and stable enough to use consistently across the organization. And finally, as companies increase digital communication, they recognize a need for standardized CAD data formats and methods. In the last few years, CAD translation, especially 3D CAD translation, has improved drastically, making the translation of legacy data less of a barrier.

To ensure that managers understand their company's CAD needs, they should evaluate software-and hardware-maintenance costs, determine the level of productivity they need from a CAD package, and understand how they intend to use digital design. By establishing these criteria, they can avoid emotional decision making.

As for using a CAD consultant, Wolfe recommends finding one who is not "married" to a specific system. Independent consultants, who know their clients' business by heart, can help prevent "analysis paralysis."

In 2000, Fabrico, Kennesaw, Ga., a manufacturer of automotive parts and a division of EIS, switched to Alibre Design. Productivity had been sluggish and the company needed a 3D system that was easier to learn, easier to use, and offered reliable support. The company's engineering manager systematically tested various CAD systems, checking each criterion.

"With our old system, we had to stop and learn every step of designing in 3D," says Northcutt. "By contrast, we picked up the new package and just started using it. The interface is easy to understand." Fabrico's engineers also began using it as a presentation tool. Northcutt believes this helped the company secure additional business.

Another feature they like is the collaboration function. Fabrico often uses it to share design data with folks on the West Coast. And the support, he says, has been excellent.

In Fabrico's case, maintenance fees were not an issue. The company wanted to increase productivity while moving forward with 3D. Still, the cost for Alibre, including maintenance, was 75% less than the previous package.

One of the most daunting barriers in switching CAD systems is translating legacy data. Data in the old system may not be easily accessible. Fortunately for CAD translation, especially on the 3D side, technologies that bridge the gap between legacy data and new systems are available.

Joy Mining, a mining-machine company in Pennsylvania, switched to AutoDesk Inventor in 2003. At the time, the company had over 100,000 3D feature-based solid models as legacy data — a huge challenge in the transition between systems.

Joy automatically translated each file on an asneeded basis using CADFeature from Detroitbased software provider Elysium Inc. Joy claims that without CADFeature, it would have had to translate 3D data using STEP or IGES, and neither of these neutral file formats retains the "intelligence" found in the original files. Any model the engineers used, updated, or changed would have had to be manually recreated after translation. But Wolfe cautions that good 3D translations still depend upon expert translators to spot and fix problems.

Retraining users on a new system can be expensive. But high-quality online training and easy-to-use interfaces of newer systems can get users up and running in days, if not hours.

Older CAD vendors have much to learn from newer, smaller vendors. A whole new crop of training devices means users never have to leave their desks. For example, CADPo's i.get.it products deliver online e-learning targeted at CAD and engineering software. As a result, users are more productive during training than they were with traditional methods.

is no small task, but it can pay off. Do your homework, plan accordingly, and increased productivity and profitability will follow.

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