The 2D To 3D Bottleneck

At one of the many discussions that I was a part of at COFES 2008, someone started lamenting on how many years ago everyone said that 3D was the next big thing and it would trample 2D out of existence. And yet that has not happenned. Someone else suggested that it would never happen. It is my view that 2D will always have a rightful place in the CAD world. Not as the beginning of the design process, but rather as one of the end products of design. Things like workshop ready drawings, contour maps, etc. will always be in 2D.

But this begs the question. If 3D is “the” way of doing it, then why is so much design still being done in 2D? There are as many answers to this question as there are people trying to find an answer. And here is my own.

First let me ask you a question. What is the first thing you do when you start to model a new part in a 3D parametric solid modeling system like SolidWorks, Inventor or Solid Edge? Correct, you create a sketch – a parametric sketch. You then extrude it and then maybe create another parametric sketch on a face and so on.

So if parametric solid modeling relies on parametric sketches, which are essentially 2D drawings, then doesn’t it make sense to add parametric sketching to 2D CAD systems to help people make the move from 2D to 3D. After all, the most popular reason given for not moving from 2D to 3D is the “you-need-to-change-the-way-you-think” excuse, which I believe, is a perfectly valid one.

A perfect example is AutoCAD and Inventor. Clearly Autodesk wants its AutoCAD customers to move to Inventor, but it has not added parametric sketching to AutoCAD in all these years. Why? Because if they do, they will essentially be opening a door for their cutomers to get out. But on the other side, their customers will have a choice of many doors to enter and only one of them will be called Inventor. A pretty nasty Catch 22 situation for them. So it is in Autodesk’s best interest to keep AutoCAD users happy with wonderful things like non-rectangular viewports, fancy layer editing tools and pretty interfaces. If they choose to give their customers a helping hand across the 2D to 3D chasm, they run the big risk of losing them altogether.

Autodesk can easily add parametric sketching to AutoCAD. They have had it in Inventor since the start. They change their file format every three years. So they can accomodate just about anything into a AutoCAD DWG file, just like how they encode parametric sketching data in an Inventor IPT file. If there is any company that can help 2D users move to 3D it has to be Autodesk. After all, almost all of 2D is AutoCAD.

So am I blaming Autodesk for the 2D to 3D bottleneck? Hell no! Autodesk is not here to do social service. They are not going to do anything to reduce their customer base. And why should they? It is up to their rivals to find ways of relieving Autodesk of their customers. And it it up to 2D users to decide for themselves if and when they should make the switch.

I understand that the issue is not as simple as adding parametric sketching to AutoCAD. I used it only as an example, as one of many things that will help 2D users make the move to 3D. My point is that 3D CAD vendors need to make it extremely easy for 2D users to move to 3D. And last weekend at COFES 2008, I saw something precisely along those lines.

Not surprisingly it came from SpaceClaim. Roman Walsh from SpaceClaim took the time and showed me SpaceClaim 2008 in the lobby of the Scottsdale Plaza. As I watched him model a differential I was amazed to see that he was literrally “drawing” in 2D just like how you would in AutoCAD and 3D parts were simultaneously being “modeled” in another window. After he was done I asked him to rotate the 2D view, and just as I suspected, the 2D views he was “drawing” into were actually full blown 3D section views of the same model that was being constructed in the 3D window.

I turned to Mike Payne, the CEO of SpaceClaim, sitting across the table and said, “Mike, you guys are going directly after AutoCAD customers with this”. He replied, “Naw… now why would we do that?” but could not hide a wicked smile.

I believe the approach of convincing 2D users to switch to parametric solid modeling is not going to work as well as the approach that SpaceClaim has taken, and now Siemens PLM Solutions is taking. As far as I can forsee, my kids are going to learn about parametric solid modeling, but only in their CAD history class. It will be a chapter titled, “The Great Skip” and it will describe how 2D users skipped parametric solid modeling and used direct modeling as their express elevator to the 3D world.

However, the 2 billion dollar question is: What role is Autodesk going to do play in that chapter?