The Chris Randles interview

2058 0

Brand new software companies that create 3D CAD modelling software are very rare. So when SpaceClaim set up in 2005, I paid it a visit in its Concord, Boston offices. At the helm was the then CEO Mike Payne, an industry veteran who had a leading hand in the creation of SolidWorks and Pro/Engineer. With that pedigree and track record, the industry waited with bated breath to see what was going to be released.

The product was called SpaceClaim and it was a new take on direct modelling, which had been championed by CoCreate, IronCAD and a few others. This modelling system didn’t rely on ‘history’ and allowed intelligent push/pull editing and creation of solid models. SpaceClaim came with a number of translators and could open many 3D formats, old and new, for intelligent editing.

With Payne at the helm, plenty of venture capital was found and the company attempted to set up a direct and indirect sales channel, pitching the product as a tool for editing legacy models, as well as being an easy-to-use 3D modelling tool. This was meant to be nonconfrontational to the other CAD developers but that wasn’t the way SpaceClaim was perceived.

Following SpaceClaim’s launch, in a relatively short period, PTC acquired CoCreate, Siemens PLM Software delivered Synchronous Technology in Solid Edge and NX and Autodesk experimented with a Labs product called Fusion. All of these products offered direct modelling capabilities, the very thing that SpaceClaim’s new modelling technology was differentiating itself with.


In some ways, it seemed like the established CAD vendors were closing ranks on the upstart and hoped that it would run out of funds and go away. However, SpaceClaim has steadily gained a profile in the industry and is winning a number of highly prized customers.

In 2008, once core development had peaked, Payne took the company’s chairman role with Chris Randles being brought onboard as CEO. Randles, a Brit, was former CEO of Mathsoft and, since selling off that company to PTC, had been associated with one of the key VC investors in SpaceClaim’s start-up.

In the opening to our conversation I presented my view that SpaceClaim was a niche player in the CAD market and that when the company first launched its message was that of being an adjacent seat, a simple modelling tool, not a replacement seat to any existing CAD application. Randles immediately took issue,

“Our initial foray was certainly non-confrontational but I don’t see us as a niche player. It’s possible to look at SpaceClaim and just say ‘it’s a direct modeller’ and that everyone does direct modelling these days but there are a couple of distinct differences. The first is that we have always focussed on expanding the market for 3D, not replacing existing CAD, and we still hold true to that mantra.

“Secondly, as we develop subsequent releases we are creating a product that is different from today’s CAD packages in more ways than just being direct modelling versus feature-based modelling. We consider today that we have the best and most mature direct modelling solution and the most accessible and powerful tools. We have done a lot of work over the last year with big customers modelling and editing large models and assemblies, so I don’t think you can say simple means underpowered.”

Our conversation then moved to examining the CAD market as a whole and identifying where SpaceClaim sat in relation to the other household names.

“We are 25 years into the feature-based parametric CAD experiment,” explained Randles, “Starting with PTC, they changed the world with Pro/Engineer, and SolidWorks took it to Windows, but since then not a lot has changed. It has evolved but not changed much. There are now just under a million 3D CAD seats under maintenance out there. If you talk to the analysts they will tell you that there are 200,000-250,000 seats of Catia, about the same for SolidWorks, the same for Inventor – although it’s hard to work out who is actually a real user.

“PTC published the number of 136-138,000 seats recently and maybe 150,000 seats of Siemens NX. Really, it’s not a very large number considering the huge number of engineers that are actually involved in manufacturing today.

“We think, in the future, every engineer should have access to some kind of 3D tool. We also think that in perhaps ten years’ time, it will not be the case that everyone is using feature-based CAD. Should it be PTC’s Creo/Elements Direct, Autodesk Fusion, Siemens Synchronous or SpaceClaim, these are the tools that will bring people to use direct modelling.

“The difference for us is that we are not selling direct modelling as a way to sell more CAD or PLM systems, in fact it’s a virtue that our product does not try to hack into the feature-tree because we only edit the geometry. We are still truly CAD neutral. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t anyone’s enemy, it means that we don’t care if you give us a JT file, a STEP file, or a Pro/E file – we edit them all equally well.”

We think, in the future, every engineer should have access to some kind of 3D tool. We also think that in perhaps ten years’ time, it will not be the case that everyone is using feature-based CAD

I must admit that I find it shocking that so many engineers are deemed to be non-CAD users, but then perhaps I am biased as I’ve written about CAD for over 20 years and don’t understand how anyone could get by nowadays without having the necessary 3D or 2D skills. Randles highlighted some typical customer experiences as an example,

“There are definitely companies where you can find that the majority of the design and CAE [Computer Aided Engineering] engineers are not CADcapable and they have struggled to learn how to use them. A senior manager at one of our largest corporate accounts told us that to ask the engineers to learn a CAD system is like asking them to learn to play a musical instrument. It just doesn’t happen.

“SpaceClaim can put 3D into the hands of engineers and make the training minimal, which is important because the hidden cost of owning CAD is the training for those that are not CAD experts. We have been dealing with a large company and did a very successful large pilot project. They had a previous initiative to get their engineers to use their CAD system of choice, so they put in place this program, and put a few hundred engineers through, but it wasn’t successful.

“It involved engineers spending eleven hours a week, for six weeks, with homework and at the end of it not one of them could really use the CAD tool. If you take the cost of 70 engineering man hours plus the cost of buying the software, we could licence and train, including the cost of the software, for less than the cost of training!”

Spaceclaim’s niches

While examining the different CAD solutions on the market, many are defined as being generic with add-ons to tailor them to specific functions. From the outset SpaceClaim targeted some very vertical niches. Being a small company, with such big competition, I figure this made good economic sense. A recent visit to the company’s website showed that this has greatly expanded over the last three years.

Randles explained the benefits of this highly focussed approach, “When you get a new modeller, you want it to work with existing geometry. Many firms get different CAD models from different sources and they want to mix and match. We have gone after a series of different user workflows – if you look at our website there are about eight or nine that we focus on.

“We started with CAE and then addressed concept/bid modelling, which is the majority of our business, but also rapid prototyping, manufacturing, partnering with companies like Trumpf. We sell a lot into manufacturing engineering, which led us into sheet metal, which is close to CAD, mould making and simulation. If you look at our UI, you can see that we are supporting more of these specific usercases and workflows.”

Legacy data

On the topic of legacy, SpaceClaim’s most compelling capability was its power to open up files from a multitude of sources – Pro/E, JT, DWG, Catia etc and just intelligently edit very complex geometry. In some ways, SpaceClaim was seen as a potential liberator for many engineering firms that were locked into proprietary systems. Randles, as expected, had very strong views on legacy systems and their impact on customers.

“For many years the CAD vendors preached to their customers that they had to have a single model and that that’s the only way they could reuse and capture design intent and it’s really a self-serving strategy,” he explained.

“Thou shalt not have any other God than me – a monotheistic doctrine. The reality is, almost every company we sell to, and maybe they are self-selecting, have acquired companies or moved from one system to another, or they had one CAD system and used multiple file formats.

“Our largest sector, to my surprise, has been automotive. They have suffered the most but that makes sense because they have ended up with CAD files from suppliers that went belly-up or they are really looking to reduce cost by using JT. In SpaceClaim you can configure it to read and write JT. So JT can be your native file format. So, they all have many different sorts of CAD files around and nobody has this perfect ‘Taj Mahal’ PLM system that has pure-bred Catia, NX or Pro/E files. The reality is; it’s messy.

“Now add to that the fact that companies are really changing the way they work. When I started in manufacturing software, almost every company I went to had a production department on the ground floor and above it was the design office. The guy making stuff, if he didn’t understand what the designer intended, would go upstairs and ask the designer for clarity. Now, that whole production and manufacturing is globally distributed and it might change from year to year. So, the focus of most engineering firms is outsourcing and that may even include detail design, in India or China.

“In a recent visit to a defence contractor, I was really excited to see design reviews being carried out on just two screens, one was Teamcenter, the other was SpaceClaim where they were taking the data out of Teamcenter and trying edits and then analysing their modifications. All happening very quickly and even though they had huge models, we could load the whole vehicle because we weren’t taking in acres of feature tree, just the geometry. I feel like we are three years ahead of everyone else who’s building their first direct modelling tools for engineers.”

So while SpaceClaim can augment an existing process, I asked if it is replacing traditional CAD seats. “In this respect, we aren’t replacing Pro/E or Catia as a production system,” explained Randles. “SpaceClaim is a new tool for new users. If we are replacing anything it’s these legacy 3D modellers, or a mish-mash of 2D and 3D tools. We replace an inefficient circuit where the engineer goes to the CAD and says ‘can you make it like this?’. The biggest saving that most of our customers see is that we can get the engineers to get a 3D prototype much quicker than if they were dependant on a third party to model it up in traditional CAD.”


I have watched SpaceClaim go from start-up to being a bit of a global phenomenon. There have been trials and tribulations along the way and at certain times I have wondered if SpaceClaim was going to make the leap to the mainstream market, establish a decent channel or just run out of VC funding. I asked Randles how the company had performed. He replied, “By definition in the last few years we have gone from a startup to a growth stage company. But we are obviously a fraction of the size of the traditional big CAD players such as Autodesk , Dassault and PTC. However, I think we punch above our weight.

“SpaceClaim did our first serious sales in 2008. We more than tripled our sales in 2009, tripled again in 2010- and I would argue that 2009/2010 were probably the hardest markets to sell engineering tools in the last twenty years. We will probably triple again this year; well, we should at least double. In terms of adoption, we don’t disclose our numbers but we have a license count that is now in five figures and we have some significant customers.

“Our latest news is that we have just got permission from Toyota to name them as a customer, who joins firms like Tyco, LG Electronics and Alstrom. Already our licenses per customer are at a healthy ratio, healthier than some of the more mass market developers, having between five and ten seats per customer. We aren’t like a SolidWorks that sells one, two, three licenses per deal.

“We believe that one day every engineer, which to us represents a market of at least four to five million seats that don’t use 3D today but might use AutoCAD or something else, will need a 3D seat. We have visited some companies that use Microsoft Paint to do design reviews! We think 3D will be part of their toolkit, just as MS Office is part of most people’s day-to-day productivity tools. Feature-based CAD won’t go away but it will look a little like FrameMaker looks today for layout.

“So, our go to market is now very well defined, we sell through resellers, OEM partners like Ansys, and we sell direct to a narrow range of large accounts. This year represents an inflection point because everyone is saying that direct modelling is the best way to bring new users to their franchises. What we have been saying for the last few years is now being legitimised by Autodesk, PTC and Siemens.”

[Fusion is] a validation that all the major players, with the exception of Dassault, have embraced direct modelling and acknowledged that there are limits to what you can do with featurebased CAD

The competition

On the subject of the competition, Randles appears to be thankful for the attention, “In terms of direct modelling, the ubiquity of Autodesk Fusion is actually exciting from our point of view. More exciting than what PTC is doing with Creo and what Siemens has been doing for a while with Synchronous Technology. What Autodesk is saying is that direct modelling, if not the dominant paradigm for how they introduce people to 3D, is certainly going to be the first experience for majority of people. It’s going to be very pervasive, by not only bundling it with AutoCAD but also with tools like Moldflow, means it will be everywhere.

“I don’t see Fusion as being mature, in terms of what we are doing with direct modelling. It’s a validation that all the major players, with the exception of Dassault, have embraced direct modelling and acknowledged that there are limits to what you can do with featurebased CAD. It’s great from our point of view.

“I am looking forward to Creo version 1 being out there as at the moment it’s us versus a PowerPoint or a video. Going back to Autodesk Fusion, this will expose a huge number of people, who have never thought about 3D, and who are going to have their first experiences with a direct modelling tool and in the long run, that is great news for us.”

SpaceClaim’s British CEO in conversation with Martyn Day

Leave a comment