Main attraction

An ever-increasing range of products is helping to provide SMEs with affordable, large-company solutions. Charles Clarke explains.

Today’s so-called mainstream CAD market is becoming very crowded. Products such as Inventor, SolidWorks, Solid Edge, IronCAD, TurboCAD, CATIA V5 and now SpaceClaim by virtue of their ‘price point’ (about £5,000 or less) are all being promoted as mainstream products.

This market started in 1995 with the first release of SolidWorks and it is beginning to mature, but at the ‘features and functions’ level there is little or no product differentiation among the various players. Most have taken traditional routes to market and all the solutions are modelling oriented.

The traditional AutoCAD Dealer model does not work well in the mainstream market. Its section of the market requires a limited number of resellers with the technical knowledge of all the products it sells and knows the customers it is doing business with.

Contrary to popular belief this is not a ‘features and function’ market — prospective customers need the benefits of a complete software and services solution.

The focus of the industry is shifting from pure geometry modelling to a range of products that support enterprise processes. This requires a channel that has the capacity and creativity to offer a range of complementary solutions, in terms of both product and services.

Adopting new and innovative approaches gets you noticed by prospective customers rather than attracting the wrath of competitors. These kinds of approaches can make a significant impact. Things like changing the way licences are delivered, renting software by the hour or taking a business model from the photocopier market have not been attempted in the CAD market until now.

PTC is making inroads in the small to medium business sector with its PLM On Demand service, which is basically web-based PLM. Previously enterprise PLM solutions required significant up-front investment, dedicated IT resources and longer deployment timelines. These were barriers to PLM deployment in small and medium-sized companies that needed it, yet did not have the resources to implement or manage an in-house solution.

On Demand, delivered as a service and hosted by IBM, is an easy-to-use, comprehensive solution. It has all the benefits of PLM, such as data vaulting, document management, direct CAD integration, change control, collaboration, project management and visualisation, without the up-front investment. All you need is a web-browser.

‘Traditional PLM is out of reach for most small companies,’ said Lee Edmunds, CAD/PLM consultant at Birmingham PTC reseller Concurrent Engineering. ‘It is very expensive to purchase and even more expensive to implement. While the problems of a small businesses are the same as larger organisations, they still have the same issues and goals.’

With the hosted On Demand PLM service all the data is hosted, administered and guaranteed by IBM. ‘Immediately implementation costs are slashed by up to 80 per cent,’ said Edmunds. ‘Hardware costs are down as all the servers are taken care of by IBM and companies do not have to employ specialist staff to look after the system.’

On Demand also comes with web-based training so companies do not need to send key staff on training courses. Basic training takes two hours. ‘We say if you can use eBay you can use PLM On Demand,’ said Edmunds. ‘Cost saving is around 5:1 compared to similar ‘on-premise’ implementations and is spread out over a year as an operating expense rather than capital expenditure.’

This approach uses different budgets for the customer and requires different financial reporting and profit and loss procedures, all of which are established in the markets now using these methods.

Companies such as Fluent have offered hosted services. According to Paul Bemis, vice-president, product management, at Fluent (now part of Ansys) the largest potential segment is what he calls the ‘non-consumer’ — the person now denied access because the financial and technical entry thresholds are so high. The ‘pay-per-use’ model is throwing up interesting applications.

Such is the capacity of the internet and the sophistication of ISPs and their supporting hardware partners, that software and hardware solutions are already in place to support the hosting of multiple CAD services from remote web servers.

On the CAD side the VRML viewing capabilities of many vendors would allow sophisticated interaction, with software running on a remote host using relatively modest communications equipment and even ‘voice grade’ lines. One Space from CoCreate is already here and it proves that this concept can work.

Customer service is also a key differentiator, according to Graham Clapp, design director at Halyard (M&I), a Salisbury-based manufacturer of marine engine exhaust silencing solutions. ‘Our problems are unique and we were confident that Concurrent Systems would be able to tailor the solution to satisfy our requirements rather than us having to work round a fixed set-up,’ he said.

‘DDM was also seamlessly integrated with Inventor. With Concurrent Systems, we were talking directly to the people involved with writing the software. We were confident that Concurrent would be there to support us through the implementation and beyond.’

Halyard has invested in DesignDataManager, the engineering data management and reporting system from Concurrent Systems .

There is considerable opportunity here for new entrants to influence the development direction of this burgeoning new market. Product differentiation can also be achieved by providing the ‘Hybrid Design’ capability characteristic of many mature, traditional high-end products.

In this regard a new collaboration is beginning to emerge that is the interaction between Autodesk Inventor and AliasStudio, brought about by the acquisition of Alias by Autodesk. Again, the price point is mainstream providing Majenta Solutions, the UK’s only Alias reseller, with a unique offering.

Training and services that support business processes and enable specific software use are also crucial. Knowledge of customer processes gathered during training allows resellers to enhance their credibility within this sector and customise training for specific customer requirements. It also provides resellers with invaluable insights into the real business drivers of their customers.