Escape to CADtopia

interoperateLast time we basked in the hypothetical bliss of CADtopia, imagining a Computer Aided Design (CAD) landscape devoid of today’s interoperability nightmare (and conveniently supervised by Jodie Foster). In that mental exercise, we were reminded that these bitter and largely inconvenient CAD realities persist due to seemingly insurmountable market forces. Whether it’s standardization efforts that can’t possibly keep pace with the explosion of modeling technologies and platforms, or vendors naturally resisting truly transparent interoperability on account of their own survival, we remain entrenched in old problems. It’s enough to make you seriously consider bolting some crudely designed exo-suit in to the back of your skull and going all Jason Bourne over everything in protest of interoperability injustice. Why can’t we all be citizens of CADtopia? So the question still remains, if the market cannot decide to change for reasons of self-preservation, can it possibly be coerced?

The answer may lie in digital stewardship. But what, pray tell, is digital stewardship? Jaime McCurry of the Folger Shakespeare Library of all places, lays down the concept, albeit not in iambic pentameter:

“Digital stewardship encompasses all activities related to the care and management of digital objects over time. Proper digital stewardship addresses all phases of the digital object lifecycle: from digital asset conception, creation, appraisal, description, and preservation, to accessibility, reuse, and beyond. This includes everything from choosing a well-documented and widely accepted file format when creating a new object to choosing the right metadata schema to describe the object properly, not to mention storing multiple copies of the digital object file in a variety of locations to combat threats of data loss or corruption.”

The underlying concept of digital stewardship is often practiced in the CAD world, at least a bastardized poor man’s variant thereof, something perhaps worthy of post apocalyptic southern California. In order to manage multi-CAD design data spread across all manner of platforms and time periods, many companies resort to an obtuse, but workable strategy: install all the things. That’s right, it’s not too uncommon to retain one seat of every CAD system or version used in the past on hand, and not to open a museum, either. Need that file from 1996? Let’s fire up that old Sun workstation in the basement and hope for the best.

If such CAD antics are just a Band-Aid solution, what does real digital stewardship look like? Leave it to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to provide some succinct concepts with respect to file formats:

“Our ability to preserve digital objects is dependent, among other things, on whether the file format used:

•Is openly documented (more preservable) or proprietary (less preservable);

•Is supported by a range of software platforms (more preservable) or by only one (less preservable);

•Is widely adopted (more preservable) or has low use (less preservable);

•Is lossless data compression (more preservable) or lossy data compression (less preservable); and

•Contains embedded files or embedded programs/scripts, like macros (less preservable).”

Along with the statement above, they provide a handy matrix:


The short, short version: open and fully documented formats are best, preferably unencumbered by licensing. In other words, completely opposite of what the CAD world is today. We’ve established in last week’s article that moving towards such a high-brow data retention concept will not happen organically. That’s where the coercion component comes in, i.e. government regulation in the name of digital stewardship. But how can such a thing be remotely justified? As product complexity continues to rise, the long-term integrity of design data continues to rise in importance, especially in relation to consumer protection and safety. The criticality of digital stewardship scales with the service life of the design and the consequences of failure. So perhaps the canary for future digital stewardship lies in the longest lived, most complex products where human life is very much a strong consideration: aircraft. Witness the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Advisory Circular 21-48 (best read with a furrowed brow and a restrained frown):

How will the data integrity be assured throughout its life cycle? Include a process to verify and ensure that data integrity and continued access is maintained during hardware and software upgrades and conversions, system maintenance, and other life-cycle activity. Once the data is approved by the FAA, it must not be altered. This doesn’t prevent amendments to the design if the amended design is separately identified, approved, and maintained. Type design data must be retained and accessible for the lifespan of the product. It is possible that technical support for the original software will be terminated during the product lifespan, so your procedures manual must explain how access to the data will be retained or transitioned to a new software system.”

That’s pretty heavy. Requirements for full preservation without alteration. The only way to effectively accomplish this over the long term is by utilizing an open and fully documented format, unencumbered by licensing. The bigger question to ask: will this remain in the narrow purview of type certified aircraft or is this a harbinger of regulations to come? It’s not unfathomable that this begins to trickle into automobiles, and wearables/implantables, among other things. Will that be enough to coerce the CAD market to respond?

  • Joe Brouwer

    The inoperable term is “CAD Market”

    CADtopia?? What the industry needs is a standardized CAD engineering environment. You would think with computers it would be more productive than the past based on the drawing.

    Boeing’s Dreamliner based on PLM/MBD spent “5 TIMES” the estimated 6 Billion to develop the 787 at 32 Billion!! Yes, there were other factors but introducing an unproven , unworkable, non-standard engineering process added to the problems. And it hasn’t gotten any better!

    The Death of the Drawing

    I chuckle as PTC is now releasing “Unite Technology”. I looked for references of it on the PTC website for this comment and couldn’t find it. Now it seems to be called only Multi-CAD Design.

    Unite Technology

    They could have done this years ago. I was beating the drum for adding direct edit functionality 15 years ago, knowing that this would open the door to CAD data standardization. Even in those days I was easily working in a multi-cad environment as PTC was locking its somewhat ignorant user base into their convoluted CAD format. But this is a doubled edge sword for the CAD Software Vendor, if they make it too flexible it will soon not matter what system you use. Lucky for us, that day is already here.

    Universal CAD Compatibility is Here!!.html




    Manufacturers need to “demand” that the CAD vendors deliver a certifiable solid model in a neutral file format. It would also be nice to have a compatible AID (Associated Information Document) process available.

    I have been working in multi-CAD environment for decades. I supplied less expensive hybrid CAD systems to the Boeing Suppliers. As Boeing suffered with the limitations of Catia 4 and 5, their suppliers easily modified the data as they saw fit using direct edit functionality.

    But remember that interoperability is not a problem for many manufacturers. Many may never use outside data. This may be the reason that there has not been much attention on this problem. But today the high end systems are being locked out of the small manufacturer market and are finding many of their customers moving to less expensive equally productive CAD solutions.

    I really see the market moving toward a standard CAD system for conventional design with 3rd party programs for simulation and a variety of other specialties.

    Leverage Your Engineering Data throughout your Organization!

    In the following article, the first item was delivered as a concept model by an Industrial Design firm in Pro/e. We could read the native Pro/e files and easily modify the design directly. This was 10 years ago.


    Today you write about it, while I have been living it for years!!!

    • Regarding “But remember that interoperability is not a problem for many manufacturers. Many may never use outside data.” don’t you think this is becoming less common as product complexity increases and vertical integration has given way to outsourcing? While it’s true certain major OEM’s dictate delivery, it’s certainly a problem for any company in the middle of the supply chain who is serving multiple masters.

      • Joe Brouwer

        I would not consider suppliers or manufacturing depts involved in the interoperability problem. They never change a part and send it back to the original design group. They may make
        a note of a required or suggested change. A couple of times they had to tell
        Boeing the parts could not be made. Most of the time the supplier just asks
        “How high?”

        Decades ago they would receive the IGES, then STEP files from Boeing. Soon they were reading the native files of both Catia 4 and 5. But until lately they had an AID to inspect
        to. Today they may use a validation program to assure the model they are
        utilizing for the pattern for CNC is the same as the original Catia file. This
        could be solved by a certified standard neutral format and an AID. As I think
        more about it I cannot see how we can standardize on the native CAD file as the
        deliverable. I am sure this is what is creating the problems with PLM.

        I still have observed that virtually all engineering is done by a group in one system. If
        you would outsource your design you would set up strict requirements, first
        being the CAD system. Now the future may change when there is a standard that
        offers complete or close to complete interoperability. But trust me all of
        Boeing design partners used Catia 5. Not the OEMs, like Lav, galley, Seats, and
        other non-Boeing supplied parts. That is the biggest problem with Catia 5, it
        really offers no Interoperability for the Boeing designer to utilize non-native parts.

        NX and Creo are trying to break through but the products are full of patches and Band-Aids
        slowing the design process. We need look at new options. The goal of tomorrows
        CAD is Hybrid modeling, virtually no limits. It has to have all of the design
        paradigms integrated into one easy to use system. Not a bunch of modules trying
        to work as one.

        CONCEPTUAL DESIGN – Which CAD Paradigm is Best?

  • Ryan

    Any chance that you might take the U of I model and apply it to the current PLM Vendors and their tools/components? It would really be interesting to see where each company shows up along the bars in the Format Support Matrix.

    • Ryan, that’s certainly an interesting thought! I will certainly look into exploring this topic on the PLM side as well.

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