SolidWorks World 2010 – Next generation picture starts to clear

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Right. This is late. Very late. My apologies. The reason for my tardiness is that I’ve been gallivanting about the place the last week or so, but more that that, I’ve been mulling this over for the past two weeks since I left California, adding bits and bobs here and there, wondering how much to speculate (note: much of this is speculation), but I think I’ve got a good handle of what went down in California. I’ve been going to SolidWorks World for the last 11 years apparently. It said so on my badge. I think I missed one in Boston but that was about it. So I’ve been there for all the major announcements, the major shifts, seen the staff change and evolve over the years. But 2010 saw the most dramatic shift for the company in nearly a decade.

SolidWorks have always avoided showing technology too far into the future. That’s always been a good move. When you have 5,000+ people who’s business is based on a core technology, the last thing you want to do is build expectations of things that are a little too far over the horizon. The same is true of users as it is of resellers (SolidWorks World is a bifurcated event, running a reseller conference and user conference in parallel – hence the big attendee numbers).

Bernard comes to play

For 2010, this changed and on the first day of the event, the company took a bold move on two fronts. The first front came when SolidWorks’ CEO, Jeff Ray, after a brief chat with the crowd, moved aside to introduce someone that should have been at the event years ago. Dassault Systems CEO, Bernard Charles. Yup. The mothership landed in Anaheim. For me, this was fundamental shift in how SolidWorks is presenting itself to its community. Since Dassault acquired SolidWorks over a decade ago, there has been a separation of the two organisations. Dassault does its thing with Catia, with Enovia and Delmia (for factory automation and simulation), while SolidWorks does it’s mainstream thing. The two has an incredibly successful relationship based on separation. things started to merge when Dassault acquired Seemage, reinvented the product and integrated it into its 3dvia business line and the SolidWorks channel brought 3dvia Composer to its customers. This was the first public sign that the Dassault and SolidWorks relationship was anything more than a financial one – but it’s clear that this was the starting point.

Bernard talked to the assembled crowd and while I only heard the occasional “Who the **** is this French guy?” it was deemed a success (apparently, some American’s don’t like French people – usually the ones that couldn’t point to France on a map, I’ve found). He discussed the various business groups, how they interacted and what differentiated SolidWorks from Catia. For those used to seeing Bernard present in the context of a Dassault event, the slide stack shown was dramatically reduced. The content was also simplified. As I sat at the back of the auditorium I was trying to work out why – and it quickly became very clear indeed. And this is the second fundamental shift shown at the event.

Following Bernard and over the next few days, SolidWorks showed what they’re working on. Apparently, it’s a three year project that’s been conducted in extreme secrecy. I’ve spoken to someone old friends that now work in development and apparently, this is the team to work on. The guys building out the company’s future products. But what was shown? Let’s deal with that.

The future?

The demonstration was a mix of video and live demo. there were mentions of everything that’s hot at the moment, from Multi-Touch (Josh has some tasty treats on that front), from OS independence (Yup. there was a Mac being used on stage) and that rather hateful phrase “the cloud”. There were demonstrations involving direct modelling mixed up with more traditional modelling methodologies, direct interaction with geometry, live search and reuse for data both within your organisation and out on the web, there was a whole load of things that looked incredible – as you would expect.

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But at it’s core, what was shown was that SolidWorks are building their next generation of product using the V6 platform on which Catia, Enovia et al are being built. So what does that mean? Let’s look at it.

The next generation of SolidWorks will use the same underlying base of technology as Dassault’s V6 products. Taking that further, that means the same underlying product design technology as Catia, but alongside this, it means that it’ll also be built on the Enovia platform.

Now. The reactionaries will read this and think “Christ, they’re dumping Parasolid“. Probably. Yes as a core modelling engine. But Parasolid within SolidWorks won’t disappear purely for the sake of being able to read legacy data. But it’s a lot more simply switching kernel and it’s something to embrace and take some time to understand the immense potential for users.

Dassault’s V6 platform is possibly the first time that the data management backbone for a product development system has been so tightly integrated with the authoring tools – not just 3D and 2D design tools, but everything, mechatronics, digital factory, simulation.

At present, there’s a disconnect between the two disciplines across the board. Whether you talk to Dassault about V5, whether it’s SolidWorks and EPDM, whether it’s Siemens and Teamcenter. The 3D tool creates the data, the data system manages those packets of data. Ever linked, but ever separate entities.

Enovia V6 (although having been around for sometime as MatrixOne) is becoming a new wave of tool where that distinction is fundamentally removed. Within V6 everything is managed to a highly granular level. We’re not talking revisions of parts and assemblies, we’re talking live updated and tracking of data to feature and sub-feature level on a massive scale – both in terms ability to handle huge datasets (which are inherent in the granularity), but also in terms of people creating, editing and accessing that data (this was one of the key reasons for the MatrixOne acquisition). Granularity is something I’m going to talk about in coming weeks.. But for now, it’s this granular platform and the way that it interacts is what enable much of what both Dassault are showing with Catia V6 and this past week with the next generation of SolidWorks.

Geometry engine

Alongside this, looking at the demonstrations of the core modelling tools, it’s clear that the SolidWorks R & D team are using the Catia V6 geometry modelling kernel (though I’m not entirely sure it’s a thing that even exists – it’s all mixed together at a very base level). The tools demonstrated for geometry creation and modification, for data search and reuse, match the same shown in V6 demonstrations in terms of capability and focus. What differentiates the two is down to one thing: user experience.

And for me, this is key.

What I believe SolidWorks showed was the next generation of the product and the future for all Dassault products whether that’s Catia, whether that’s SolidWorks. Everything is built on the same core platform, a very powerful platform and one that has huge resources behind it. In the future, what will differentiate the two business groups will be the focus of the business and the user experience.

  • The Catia product line will always focus on the strategic user where business process is hand in hand with complexity (relating to product, of teams, of supply chain, etc etc).
  • SolidWorks will always continue to focus on the mainstream community, where cost vs functionality reigns supreme.

The user experience will differ between the two. There are different requirements, different tools and capabilities, some of which are unique to each set of users. But for me, the key is that there’s the potential to use technologies from both groups to the benefit of the other. They won’t look or work the same, but they’re converging onto a common technology stack – another key fundamental.

Mixing the tech stack

Take an example discussed this week. Terafugia (we talked about it recently on the blog). These guys are developing a hybrid car/plane (it’s a car AND a plane, not mixing fuel types). The core product, the mechanical design was done with SolidWorks, but when it came time to develop the carbon fibre skins, this was conducted using Catia’s highly specialised tools.

For me, that’s one of the huge reasons that SolidWorks users should be enthused about this shift. Being able to access all of the technologies that exist within the Dassault product range (there’s 190 orso different modules in Catia alone) – whether they’re allowed to remains to be seen, but the potential to make it easy is implement is there.

The Cloud…

I’m trying to avoid the puns. I’m sure there are umpteen of them out there already but in this very instance, the ‘cloud-based’ tools that SolidWorks demonstrated – both in the futures demo and in more immediate tools, ‘the cloud’ was referenced almost to ad naseum. I also believe the definition is something that should be avoided – as should rather hackened analogies with Google Apps.

In this space, “The Cloud” refers to a technology running on a web-server. That’s all. The V6 platform is a server-based architecture. Your data is stored and served from that server. Whether you’re interacting it with it in a browser-based tool, whether it’s with a thicker client installed on your local workstation (something that might be key for mobile workers or those without higher-bandwidth), or whether you’re doing it through an mobile device. The data is centralised and managed.

The first thing that most people discussed when I asked them about the cloud-based tools shown was “Does that mean I don’t own my own data?” and many seemed uncomfortable with it. No. It doesn’t. Whether you opt for the hosted service (using Amazon’s services for example), whether it’s installed in a privately maintained server from the vendor (Dassault are gearing up for this already) or whether it’s all behind your firewall – it doesn’t really matter. Your organisation will have options. think of it more of “A Cloud”, rather than “The Cloud.” When you do, it becomes far less intimidating.

Pricing?

One interesting thing that was brought up at the event was that the potential to save money is there when you move to a cloud-based, browser-driven environment. Everything is stored on the server. If your client crashes, it’s just the client that goes pop. Not the data. That is a huge time saver and time means money. Another thing to consider is that if these tools are browser data where you’re essentially interacting with data live, your reliance on workstation technology is lessened.

There’s also huge potential for things like simulation and rendering – compute heavy tasks. If you’re working on a server-farm with 100s of core available, you can generate those types of assets immediately and as you need them. Rendering was demonstrated with Luxology’s Nexus engine (the same one powering PhotoView 360) creating photo real images in realtime, on demand. Again, time is money.

Will the tools get cheaper? I very much doubt it. I’d imagine you’ll see a service-based charging structure become the norm. You want to use them? log-in. Buy a license. Away you go. Want your simulation tasks run over 10, 20, 50, 100 cores? You pay for the speed in which you get your results, not the tools you use to create them. Get a job where you require carbon fibre design tools that aren’t in SolidWorks? Log-in, buy the license for the Catia tools and use them. When you don’t need them, switch them off and stop paying for them. What happens if you’ve got your data locked into one vendor’s service, in their own format, in a remote location and you switch it off – this is an interesting thing, but there’s no clear guidance there. I’d imagine read only access would be the default. Otherwise it’s simply not going to fly for users.

Route to market?

But what about the channel? The group of resellers that have built SolidWorks to the point it’s at today? With this new approach, many have asked what their place will be in the grand scheme of things. For me, it’s obvious. They’ll be going nowhere. Yes, business operations have changed, but a product like SolidWorks needs to be sold to people and supported. For me, a cloud-based approach will mean even more engagement with both existing customers and new alike. The technology changes afoot will mean that now, more than ever, having some local to talk to, a group of people to support your workhorse tools, will be more relevant than ever before. Yes, the delivery mechanism might change, but the need to interact both during investment, implementation and use will be more critical than ever. Some people have rather loudly been questioning the Value-Add part of the VAR acronym, but with everything that’s coming, that value will be more justifiable than ever before and more needed by users.

A few final thoughts – on change and on fear

The things discussed where represent a brave move by the company. And it could have backfired in spectacular fashion. The combination of bringing Bernard of stage, talking about how the companies would be working together more closely – alongside a pretty groundbreaking demo of future technology could have gone horribly wrong and for many other vendors, probably would have.

But as far as I can see, it didn’t – a very difficult job, executed almost perfectly.

Let’s cut to the chase. SolidWorks is now over a decade old. We’ve all seen what happens once software reaches a certain age – it starts to clunk, look clunky and perform in a clunky manner. While fixing that code becomes a herculean task, it’s an even braver decision to build something new, built on new technologies.

That’s what Dassault did with V5 and now with V6. Yes, it causes problems with older generation systems hanging on, something that’s plagued Dassault for nearly a decade, but change has to happen. It’s often painful, but the results can be rewarding.

What you have here is that, finally, after it’s been talked about in hushed tones for years, is that core Dassault team and the SolidWorks team are working together. Both have very different requirements from their users and market and the resultant product will always been different to a larger extent.

Do I see a day where it’s all CatiaWorks or some new product? Probably not. Do I see a day were users in both communities are using tools where the influence of both sides of the fence, the strategic vs the mainstream, feed each other to create a set of tools that suit their use case and benefit from each other? Absolutely.

Can a web-based, served architecture support that cross pollination? Absolutely. Have SolidWorks users got a bunch of tools that, in their shear power, have the potential to blow their minds. I can almost guarantee it. I’ve been covering Dassault and Catia for long enough to know that while they don’t like to talk about product and what Catia can do, the thing is quite simply breathtaking in what it can achieve and the limits it can push in terms of what can be done to capture a product, in a digital, in the most holistic manner.

The coming years are going to be one of transition for SolidWorks and it’s users (as it will for the IT world in general) and I’m sure when it settles, many will be asking all manner of questions and queries about what’s coming. There’s also the fact that change often causes fear, particularly if you’re talking about technology products that are a core part of many many organisations daily processes and workflows. But if you’re a SolidWorks user, don’t be afraid. Be Excited. Because when this stuff comes to market, it’s going to be incredible. But the path between then and now is going to be rocky. But sometimes, rocky is fun.

Also note, as I said at the outset. Much of this is speculation, particularly the geometry engine parts. SolidWorks’ team wouldn’t be drawn on the subject and with this being a futures project, things could change. But I think I’m about there with what’s happening, why and how. The only questions are these. When? And are you ready?


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