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Real Users buy Desktop CAD

Well, there were a few small problems with this view of CAD/CAM users.

First, while this top-down, highly elegant and abstract way of looking at design and manufacturing is pleasing to the intellect, and certainly reflected the majority view of upper management of the Fortune 500, it unfortunately had virtually nothing to do with CAD/CAM as it was practiced by the majority of users in 1982.

Keep in mind that, even today, out of approximately 2,200,000 machine tools in existence in the United States, less than 10% of them have a computer attached to them. Computer-controlled machine tools need digital input, but all those others having human operators demand analog input. Typically, the source of this input is from light waves bouncing off a multi-view drawing into a machine-tool operator's eyeballs, and then passing directly into his brain. More often than not, this drawing will have been produced on a desktop CAD system.

Secondly, most parts in this world are designed and manufactured by small shops. You would be amazed to know how little of a General Motors automobile is actually produced directly by General Motors; most is produced under contract to small businesses.

As soon as professional drafting capability became available on PC's, the reaction of users was immediate; they went out and bought it in droves. As a result, the market began to be differentiated, and users with different requirements began to express themselves by buying different types of systems.

At the ``low'' end, where small, production-oriented companies tend to exist, desktop CAD was an instant success. Generally, these small businesses produce their products according to their own techniques and can't afford, don't want and don't need some gigantic, complicated, totally integrated, corporate-wide unambiguous model representation, when all they need is to produce a drawing, thank you very much.

At the ``high'' end, large companies bought large systems top-heavy with features. Where the practice of design and manufacturing allowed it, integrated techniques began to be utilized, and designers, draftsmen, and application engineers worked on the same system, all sharing the same database. For them, the turnkey approach was ideal.

Where integrated environments were not available within these large corporations ``pockets'' of traditional CAD activity continued to exist, and still exist today. These pockets existed in spite of corporate management, not because of them. It was here that desktop CAD found a home.

Within these large corporations, many users attempted to justify the purchase of the expensive turnkey systems on the basis of the enormous return the company would see in automating the production drafting process, but they rarely got a payback on the drafting alone. Before the advent of desktop CAD, many customers in fact found it cheaper, and just as efficient, to go back to pen and paper. With the availability of low-cost desktop CAD, thousands and thousands of users not only found that this was an attractive alternative to the turnkey vendors, but that it was exactly the right solution for their needs. They simply didn't require anything more.

The fact that the turnkey vendors should have seen this years ago is not only testament to their lack of vision but to their obvious ultimate, and totally inevitable fate. The fact that the desktop CAD vendors did see this (looking back, I'm not sure if this was through incredible foresight or simply a keen observation of what was happening, and then a reaction to the opportunity), is evidence that giving the customer what he really needs, and not just what you want to sell him, still counts for something.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, what is it about the turnkey vendors which cause them to believe in their own approach so strongly?

Keep in mind that the turnkey vendors saw themselves having a guiding purpose in life; a mission, really, which was to bring perfection to the design and manufacturing process. The achievement of one single, unambiguous and complete digital representation of real objects, so that a complete simulation of the manufacturing process could be performed, was thought to be within their grasp. The pursuit of anything less than this level of perfection was simply not worthy of their efforts.

Fortunately for us, Autodesk didn't labor under such a burden; making money, and providing useful solutions to satisfied customers seemed to be sufficient motivation.

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Editor: John Walker