The direct route to 3D CAD

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:
The direct route to 3D CAD

Over the last few years, the name 'SpaceClaim' has become more and more prominent in CAD and engineering circles. This prominence has reflected the success of the company in identifying and exploiting a niche in a CAD market that had long been thought too mature for any such opportunity to exist.

SpaceClaim's innovation was to produce a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use direct modelling package that allowed those not trained in the use of CAD access to 3D modelling technology. First announced in 2007, SpaceClaim Engineer was launched in 2008. Today, it has sold as many as 25,000 licences to 2,500 customer companies and has shown a compounded growth rate of between 80% and 90% per annum. No wonder SpaceClaim's British CEO describes the last few years as "a wild ride".

This success is cast into particularly stark relief by the fact that, when SpaceClaim was launched, the prevailing belief among the major CAD vendors was that 3D mechanical CAD was a mature technology and there were no more markets left to exploit. Says Randles: "I think the most interesting thing is that what was considered to be quite a mature category has proved to be anything but."

The extent of the market, Randles believes, is potentially vast. He says: "It's almost 27 years since PTC invented modern CAD and after 27 years there are about 1.2 million seats of 3D CAD under maintenance and in active use. You'll hear numbers from CAD companies saying they've sold millions of seats, but they're including all their educational seats and all that sort of stuff. So there are at least 25 million or so degree-educated engineers around the world and there remains a huge opportunity to democratise 3D."

This potential and SpaceClaim's success in exploiting it, did not go unnoticed, however. As Randles notes: "When we came out, everyone said 'No-one needs a new CAD system' and then within a year or two Siemens released a new product called Synchronous Technology, Autodesk introduced Fusion and PTC have revamped their whole CAD strategy around direct modelling. So I think that the industry has clearly acknowledged that the way to expand the use of 3D in mechanical design and discrete manufacturing is via direct modelling, which is the forest fire that we ignited."

This trend towards direct modelling from other companies has "pluses and minuses", according to Randles. "I think the benefit overall is that they've recognised and said to the world that this is the way that a larger group of users is going to interact with 3D models. But, of course, it's competition," he says.

Of course, SpaceClaim's products have evolved considerably since its launch, with the addition of various capabilities and expansion into other markets. Some capabilities, such as the recently-announced free implementation on SharePoint that allows users to store and share their information – have come about organically. However, other developments have taken place by the identification of particular market segments and strategic partnerships with players in those areas.

One such partnership is between SpaceClaim and reverse engineering software specialist Geomagic, whereby it has become possible for users to directly integrate reverse engineered data from Geomagic Studio 2012 into SpaceClaim. The 3D Direct Modeling capability of SpaceClaim enables power editing to data from Geomagic without the overhead of traditional CAD, which enables changes and refinements to be easily and quickly made to models. Says Randles: "We partner with them to create a complete solution, because we can take STL models and enable the user to turn them into solid models – something that traditional CAD systems can't do."

Closer to home, SpaceClaim also has an arrangement with UK company ITP Engines, which makes highly-specialised thermal analysis software for the aerospace sector. This involves ITP using SpaceClaim for cleaning, preparing and importing CAD geometry in its ESATAN-TMS product family. CAD data is generally too detailed or complex for thermal simulation and therefore creates bottlenecks in the process. ITP will enhance and customise SpaceClaim and provide it to ESATAN-TMS customers as 'CADBench'. By removing the complexities of traditional CAD and enabling analysts and engineers to prepare models without constraints, SpaceClaim believes it will give analysts in aerospace thermal applications the freedom and flexibility to create and modify geometries.

Analysis, believes Randles, is an area where SpaceClaim's technology really comes to the fore. He says: "Any simulation engineer – whether they're analysing a CAD model or doing downstream design – has to modify that model in some way. Not change its design, but often take out features, simplify the geometry so that the meshing and solving algorithms of their structural or fluid dynamic analysis tool can make sense of the geometry rather than spending weeks crunching away at useless detail."

Randles estimates SpaceClaim's 'addressable' market at 7-8 million engineers,all of whom would benefit from access to 3D design software. Backing this up, he cites an automotive company with which the company works that has 5,000 seats of traditional, parametric, heavy-duty CAD, but 8,000 engineers in addition to those CAD users and around 15-16,000 users who interact in some way with 3D – be it in terms of visualisation or via a PLM system. Thus, he believes, the potential market for SpaceClaim could be as many as three times the number of CAD users.

"We're not really out to replace today's 3D CAD seats," says Randles. "Our largest sector is automotive, but we're not going into automotive companies and asking them to stop using the packages they've been using for ten years or more. What we say is 'How can you prototype more quickly? How can you get more engineers involved in simulation using 3D rather than having to depend on a CAD operator or draughtsman?'

As to the increased numbers of direct modelling products on the market, Randles believes that SpaceClaim's inherent advantages of independence and flexibility will hold it in good stead. He says: "The reason people are interested in what we have is that they finally have a lower-cost, but very capable package that can be put into the hands of people who aren't hardcore, day-to-day CAD users. This allows them to accelerate their work and time to market. With the competition products, you have to buy into the whole package. It's a bit like offering someone the small, 'runabout' car that they need, but only letting them have it if they also buy a huge caravan on the back...We give you everything you need and nothing you don't"

This 'democratisation' of 3D CAD is something Randles only expects to increase as time goes on. "There is a need for a broader range of people to be using 3D as it's easier to use and it makes sense for them not to be using 2D," he says. "There's still five times as much 2D in use in manufacturing as 3D. One reason for that is that 3D is so expensive and another is that it's so hard to learn. Traditional CAD providers have tended to keep their prices very high, knowing that they're a necessity for some users, but that has limited their expansion. We have made our software very affordable both in terms of purchase price and training…I do think that there's a huge, pent-up demand and I can't believe that we'll be the only company trying to push out into the broader market."

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