WTF is Digital Prototyping?

That’s the question I asked many people at COFES 2008 last weekend. Not exactly the same words, but pretty much something along those lines. I got several replies ranging from decent to colorful, depending upon the level of intoxication of the person replying. Replies like “it’s nothing new” and “it’s just a marketing thing” to “load of crap” and “complete bullshit”. However, the average reply centered around “it’s being done for many years now” and I tend to agree with that line of thought. But I know that Autodesk Marketing is the best there is and when they say something, I listen and wonder.

So WTF is Digital Prototyping? Just like PLM means different things to different people, I happen to have a view about Digital Prototyping as well. If you care to know, let’s back track a little here. I had a long and animated discussion with Scott Harris, the co-founder of SolidWorks at COFES 2008. Among many things I asked him about the growing functionality being added to SolidWorks every year, and how this could eventually step on the toes of CATIA, if it hasn’t already. Scott put his drink down, sat upright and said, “No way! We each cater to a different set of customers who have different needs. We operate completely independently of each other and are free to do what we want.

Later that evening I had another long conversation with Suchit Jain, Vice President of Strategy of SolidWorks, and asked him the same question. His response was more elaborate than’s Scott’s but not very different.

The next day I was having lunch with Stan Przybylinski, Manager, Market Intelligence of Dassault Systemes and I found myself asking him the same question. I was expecting a similar reply as the other two, but was pleasantly surprised to hear him say, “Yes, we are concerned about this, especially since we are interested in making our solutions more affordable to a larger cross section.” So I was right. Dassault sees a conflict of interest here, and rightfully so. In these days when companies are looking to cut costs more than ever, Dassault runs the risk of losing the bottom tier of their customers to SolidWorks. No, not the Airbus type of customers, but the smaller companies which barely manage to afford CATIA and do not need all of its functionality.

So WTF does have to do with Digital Protoptyping? Patience, I am coming to that.

Now taking this argument to the Siemens household, we can see that Solid Edge runs into the same problem with NX. Whether they admit it or not, both SolidWorks and Solid Edge have to internally fight their way up. But there is no such glass ceiling for Inventor, the last of the three in the mid-range CAD market. It can push all it want’s to. And push it will. Like I mentioned on WorldCAD Access, Robert “Buzz” Kross, Sr. Vice President, Manufacturing Solutions of Autodesk, the man in charge of Inventor, was very clear when he said that over the next ten years Autodesk intends to acquire companies that will aid in giving Inventor the capabilities of Digital Prototyping.

So again, WTF is Digital Prototyping? My definition of Digital Prototyping is simply “the difference between modeling and designing“. Allow me to explain. Modeling is the act of fiddling around with the mouse and keyboard to arrive at a solid model, technically a set of trimmed NURBS surfaces, knitted into a watertight body. Designing, on the other hand, is something totally different. Designing is the act of testing and verifying whether a solid model will fulfill it’s intended use, modifying it if it cannot, and if it can, optimizing it to make it do a better job. In designing, you need to apply real world conditions such as loads, heat, stress, etc. and determine whether the part or assembly will work satisfactorily and efficiently. Although the “D” in CAD stands for “Design”, we have actually being doing modeling, that is, creating and altering geometry. When you “design” you essentially iterate though many versions of models of the same part or assembly and finalize on the best version which fulfill all your requirements. That, in essence, is “Digital Prototyping” according to me, and maybe according to Autodesk as well. I repeat, “Digital Prototyping is the difference between modeling and designing.

I believe Autodesk’s strategy for Inventor actually involves giving Inventor the ability to “design” parts and assemblies, as opposed to just “model” them, which it can do already. And so can SolidWorks, SolidEdge and just about every other software capable of creating a watertight solid model. Modeling is a solved problem. It was solved long ago. The “enhancements” that we see in every new release of SolidWorks, Solid Edge and Inventor and just more elegant methods of doing the same thing – modeling. However, designing is a problem that is far from solved and only the high end CAD systems like CATIA, NX and Pro/Engineer offer solutions close to what is required to design. And for reasons mentioned above, SolidWorks and Solid Edge will always be restricted in offering design solutions.

So when Autodesk says things like “Digital Prototying”, “ten years” and “aquire companies”, I believe that over time they are looking at offering a solution, or rather a set of solutions, that spans from the mid-range to the high-end CAD market. If that indeed is the case (and it should be if they wish to continue making a lot of money), then Autodesk may feel the need to make some noise about their plans. And I believe that “Digital Prototyping” is that noise. But more than noise, to me it appears to be a firm foundation of a sound business plan to truly rule the CAD world – 2D and 3D.

Now we know that Autodesk has loads of money to acquire companies and make this happen. They are not taking the stairs here, it’s the elevator. Buzz was very clear that they are not interested in developing these digitial prototyping solutions on their own. They intend to just go out and buy tried and tested solutions that work (or can be made to work) with Inventor. And when (not if) that happens, the rules of the mid-range CAD market game are going to change.

So while most of the world thinks of Autodesk’s Digital Prototyping mantra as a “load of crap” or “complete bullshit”, I would suggest that their rivals give them a little more respect and probably do something to about it.