Citizens of CADtopia

CADtopia_JodiCADtopia must be a really nice place. All that endless storage, all those panoramic holographic displays, and not even a passing thought about CAD interoperability. Jodie Foster is probably on staff to ensure that all geometry and product structure information is passed along via a ubiquitous standard format. She remains ever watchful of unauthorized IGES use, or perhaps illegals translating data from one proprietary format to another. Violations result in revocation of citizenship, or in the case of illegals, the issue is efficiently resolved with armed robots, irritable mercenaries, or space missiles. Everything runs smoothly in CADtopia, and no one wastes any time re-examining translation chains or healing geometry. Then suddenly we wake up… Only to face the bitter reality: the persistent ridiculousness that is CAD interoperability today. CADtopia is but a dream.

CAD interoperability woes are rooted in the underlying math needed to bridge proprietary formats. The same formats closely coupled with the disparate internal models of each CAD kernel. Today’s market is defined by a multi-CAD reality: the variety and intermingling of the various CAD tools has never been more far-reaching, and there’s no turning back. Much of the pain is documented in Kenneth Wong’s great Desktop Engineering article The CAD Interoperability Monster Still Lurks. The CAD industry hasn’t solved the underlying interoperability problem, instead we manage it like some sort of incurable disease.

In the best cases, designs are exported into neutral and/or lightweight formats like STEP, PDF, or JT for sharing, reworked in the original proprietary formats and republished as necessary. In others, the new wave of direct editing tools are used to accomplish changes in geometry authored by another CAD source, but in many cases at the expense of design intent. In the worst cases, the models are just reworked. As a result of all of these cases, many workflows are necessarily one way, in order to avoid round-trip surprises, and the resulting math-induced headaches. Truly resolving the interoperability problem is unattainable, they say. It’s a pipe dream. We’re doing the best we can managing it with direct editing technologies and carefully validated quality processes. The price of multi-CAD freedom is eternal vigilance.

Maybe they’re right. But what holds us back from CADtopia is not some impossibly complex technical conundrum, it’s us. Or rather, the market. The market must decide to change or otherwise be coerced.

But who will be the catalyst? The hope of some independent standard being cooked up in an absurdly long specification is questionable, though many hopes are pinned on exactly that: STEP 242 ed2. It’s based on a 2009 initiative called <deep breath> “Development of a Convergent Modular STEP Application Protocol Based on AP 203 and AP 214: STEP AP 242 – Managed Model Based 3D Engineering.” Yes that sounds about as agile as it is. It would be nice if everyone could wait the thousand years or so for this noble attempt to come to fruition. The bitter reality is that such a classical standards approach will be ineffective. By the time the standard rolls around and gets properly implemented, it’s almost guaranteed to be obsolete. Assuming it’s even usable. One centralized entity (even if it’s a cross-industry collaboration) tackling the totality of the problem can’t keep up with every CAD vendor going in whatever direction they want to go. The pace of innovation is simply too fast and too broad.

If the standard approach won’t work what about the vendors themselves? As mentioned in the Desktop engineering article:

“Many software vendors recognize they should make a concerted effort to help users cope with the headaches of a multi-CAD environment. After all, their own collective welfare is inseparably linked to it.  As Siemens’ Paul Brown concludes, competing CAD vendors have to coexist: “It’s not in anyone’s interest for any one of us to make it really difficult for our customers to move data around.”

What a wonderfully optimistic thought. Gives me this sort of soothing yet uneasy feeling. Sort of like Jodie Foster singing a sweet lullaby to you right before one of the armed robots stabs you in the brain. From the same article:

“Getting all vendors to migrate to a common data model — the same formula for geometry creation and editing — is highly unlikely. After all, they’re fierce competitors. But there’s something else that gets in the way. The differences in their modeling formulas also give them the ability to develop unique features that they can claim to be exclusively theirs.”

Disparate models can be bridged. Let’s cut straight to the elephant in the room: intellectual property. This is about patent protection of the very technologies that define the livelihoods of the CAD vendors. Vendors will not do this willingly because it undermines their competitive advantage. They are fiercely competitive for all the right reasons.

Vendors are motivated to make their incoming translators as robust as possible. That’s where all the development focus goes with respect to multi-CAD. Focused on bringing the data in, with hopefully minimal problems, as long as you don’t send it out on a roundtrip. Round-tripping requires vendors on either end to effectively show their hole cards, essentially bridging alternatives to their own IP. The resulting consequence is an endless war of attrition, engineered towards a strictly hypothetical future where all customers are acquired by a single vendor and the problem is solved via monopoly. You could call that the Microsoft Office scenario. It ignores the central issue: the multi-CAD universe is here to stay.

So it’s safe to say you can’t count on the vendors to resolve the issue on their own accord, unless perhaps if you dissolve all software patents (as some suggest). That’s an approach I consider to be heavy-handed; i.e. the nuclear option. Vendors could also voluntarily open source, but again what would be their motivation? Unabashed belief in CADtopia?

A third scenario could be a mandate, and I’ll talk about that possible scenario next time, when I bring digital stewardship into the mix. In the meantime tell be about your dreams of CADtopia, and whether you think it’s attainable.