Machine Design

Why does good software go unused?

Of all the software you've seen demonstrated but didn't buy, think of the one or two programs you thought were most impressive or potentially useful. They probably came from small, less-than-famous developers.

Thousands of people may have seen the same software and raved about it to others. But despite the enthusiasm, I'll bet the developer was begging for sales. From my point of view, it seems that a lot of good software goes unused.

Take what I think is the innovative problem-solving software based on the Russian idea called Triz. After describing a technical problem to the software, it scours a database of engineering principles and physical laws to suggest solutions, and they often come from unexpected directions. Some of the out-of-the-box thinking stimulated by the software includes using rust as an adhesive.

The inventor, while working on this problem-solving method in the precomputer era, discovered fundamental rules describing inventions. They can help predict how products evolve over time. That information can let a product developer, say, leap to the next generation of a design rather than spend valuable time on simple tweaks.

Software based on Triz insights comes from Ideation International Inc. in Detroit and Invention Machine Inc. in Boston. But neither seems to be flourishing.

Another useful program, DesignQA from PlanetCAD, points out subtle modeling errors to designers such as gaps between surfaces. The software also makes sure a model is built to company best practices. This can be essential when someone who did not originally build the model has to change it. Fixing errors and following standard practices before the model goes to manufacturing can avoid lots of downstream headaches. The salesperson for this software told me potential buyers too often say "Thanks, but no thanks," even after being shown that an ROI would take only a few months.

Boothroyd Dewhurst Inc. in Wakefield, R.I., provides a final example. The company produces several programs that help engineers take cost out of products. One I sampled several years ago put a manufacturing price tag on every feature of an injection-molded part. The idea was to ID high-cost features in the event the part went over budget. These features would be the first considered if a redesign was necessary. That sounds like a winning idea to me.

But BDI's software, like that of the other developers mentioned here, got a tepid reception from the engineering community. Engineers have slowly begun to see the light and BDI's cost estimator is starting to gain adherents.

Still, I'm puzzled at the mechanism at work here. Perhaps companies and software, like musicians, must pay their dues before getting the recognition they deserve. One industry observer who agrees with this assessment went so far as to say commercial success takes at least 10 years of struggle.

Maybe the answer is simpler. Designers and engineers may be so busy they lack time or inclination to learn new programs, no matter how useful they might be. When the work day is already packed, it's tough to introduce yet another step into the workflow. So why bother?

What do you think? Why does good software go begging for users?

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