Lost in CAD Translation

LostInCADTranslationThe amount of choice in the ever-expanding CAD universe is not without a strong caveat: the persistent interoperability woes for which no one authoring solution can fully conquer. CAD interoperability is treated as an incurable disease, the unfortunate cost of doing business within a diverse supply chain of industry conglomerates and nimble design shops adrift in an ocean of variable formats and constantly flowing technology. Coping mechanisms are in abundant supply, be it a variety of neutral formats, direct modeling tools, direct and indirect translation, or the good old brute force method: old-school remodeling. But the pain remains. Reliable direct translation seems to be the preferable solution, especially with regards to preserving design intent, but things are not quite so simple. When it comes to properly handling the abundance of CAD file formats in the wild, engineers and companies too often find themselves staring longingly through a window across a foreign landscape, knowing they are hopelessly lost in CAD translation.

When it comes to direct translation, traversing geometry kernels cleanly is not a trivial exercise. Translation software is necessarily complex, relatively expensive, and unfortunately creates imperfect results. It’s hard work battling asymmetrical math models, waging wars of attrition with vertices, B-reps, and NURBS. You’re outgunned right from the start, with nothing but a 64bit floating-point shotgun. Those infinitesimally small rounding errors are ganging up on you; it’s quite literally death by a thousand tiny decimals. Recognizing the challenge, the best translation software tools include a variety of healing methodologies to assess and repair the damage incurred when moving across topologies. But the expense and difficulty of properly leveraging these tools may be a bridge too far, especially if you don’t have the time for simultaneous PhD’s in Computer Science and Math. So this is often a job for specialists. Or you could just mash the translate button, toss it over the fence and hope for the best.

Could things get worse? Yeah, they’re worse. Larger companies purposefully limit their interoperability exposure through format mandates to their supply chain. It’s generally a sound data quality strategy, if you can exert that level of control on your subcontractors. But that’s where interoperability woes place a uneven burden on the smaller firms. What happens if you are deep in that supply chain? As you move further down the chain, the companies get smaller, but the potential of having to deal with multiple foreign CAD formats from varied contractor requirements increases. It’s all due to less leverage over other players. Such companies can find themselves in a difficult situation, unable to both afford and effectively utilize the available repertoire of translation tools. It’s even worse if you’re a freelancer. What to do? Ignore any new business that comes along demanding different file format requirements? Is there any way to reduce or remove the translation burden for the small company or the individual?

When costs and expertise make an internal process infeasible, it certainly makes sense to outsource. But when needs are variable or one-off, simple outsourcing is not enough, you need an on-demand model. So could CAD translation be turned into an on-demand service? One startup in particular, Online CAD Converter, is aiming to do just that. They are testing the service now, with an introductory offer of 3 free translations to give the concept a whirl. For some of the same reasons that the drive-thru (European readers will have to use their imagination) at your local burger palace provides a low friction meal on the run, no kitchen or pre-planning required, engineers could certainly use a similarly accessible and hassle-free translation experience. Given the right format support, it might be the next best thing to tater tots. So what do you think?