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By Ralph Grabowski, January 30, 2012
Interview with Dan Staples on the progress of history and progress of Synchronous Technology, Solid Edge, and its role among Siemens PLM products.
Solid Edge was once called "the best MCAD program you won't buy1," and so CADdigest is putting together a series of articles and reviews about Solid Edge. To start, Ralph Grabowski interviewed Dan Staples, director of Solid Edge product development at Siemens PLM Software. He is better known as the "father of Synchronous Technology," and has been with the software since its birth on Jupiter Island. That was where Intergraph in the early 1990s formulated its plans to start developing object-oriented CAD software.
(The results of the planning meetings were SmartSketch [a.k.a. Imagineer] for general 2D drafting, SmartPlant for 3D plant design, and Solid Edge for 3D MCAD design. Later, Intergraph decided to concentrate on plant design, and so sold Solid Edge to UGS. At UGS, Solid Edge became the mid-range CAD system competing against SolidWorks first, and Inventor later. UGS was subsequently purchased by Siemens AG, and renamed Siemens PLM Software. NX is the high-end system that competes against CATIA and Pro/Engineer.)
We asked Mr. Staples to begin by giving us an overview of Synchronous Technology, the company's combination of direct and parametric modeling.
He said that they looked at history-based and history-free modeling, and noted that there were good and bad points in both. Synchronous Technology (ST) was designed to take the best of both. On the one hand, it has feature-based and dimension-driven modeling from history-based design systems, and the other hand it has direct, intuitive, snappy editing from direct modeling.
Siemens PLM Software launched synchronous technology in 2008 for Solid Edge and NX. it was brand new technology that no one had ever done before. But it needed time to reach into every area of design. "It was a progression that took time in building up functions from that initial release," he told us. "For instance, ST didn't do sheet metal until its second release; history makes very little sense in editing sheet metal tabs and flanges. Using ST is much more productive and intuitive than doing sheet metal in a history-based system."
For the first two releases of ST, users had to choose whether new models were history-based or synchronous. (It’s not correct to equate history-based modeling with parametric. Synchronous is in fact parametric, using driven dimension, equations, and so on.) ST3 integrated history-based (called “ordered” in Solid Edge) with Synchronous; users could now mix the two, and store the result in the same file.
ST4 was released last summer, and by localizing operations it improved performance. ST is fast because no history tree has to be recomputed; it uses live rules to determine what is co-planar, concentric, and so on.
ST5 is due to be shown at Solid Edge University in Nashville, Tennesse, this coming June, and then released in July. It optimizes more specific geometric cases, along with other enhancements that we can’t reveal until later.
Beyond ST5, there are still some areas Siemens PLM Software would like to tackle. Swoopy industrial design and some really complex models are some of the design areas that still need to use a mix of ordered and synchronous. The company now updates the software annually, each June or July.
Mr. Staples summed up: "Synchronous technology keeps you from having to strategize for CAD; simply design."
Q: Synchronous Technology is developed by Siemens PLM Software. Is it used in Solid Edge and NX equally?
A: There is a core group of synchronous technology developers for both CAD programs. However, we choose different ways of implementing the details. There is some overlap in ST functions between the two, but no overlap in many areas.
Q: Do Solid Edge and NX have separate customer bases? Or do you use Solid Edge to feed customers to the more expensive NX?
A: It's largely two separate customer bases, with some overlap -- like SolidWorks and CATIA. Prospects tend to self-qualify by being interested in one or the other, and usually not both.
Q: Do you find this true for CAD in general? Or does Siemens PLM Software help push customers in a particular direction?
A: People sort of understand brands innately, as along as the CAD vendor has some sort of voice in the market. For instance, when you think aerospace, the first CAD systems you think of are NX or CATIA. In the same way, we hope customers think of Solid Edge when they think of machinery design. Most of our customers are still in machinery design, with some in consumer products design.
Q: Does Solid Edge have a third-party developer program?
A: It has always had one, but we didn't promote it until recently. Last summer, we made Mark Burhop manager of the Solid Edge ecosystem. Solid Edge has an open API [application programming interface]. Developers can join at no cost, and they get Solid Edge seats free for development. A couple of years ago, we counted over 250 developers, and new applications for our program in 2011 were up over 40%.
Q: Is most of the development in-house or third-party? By in-house, I mean corporations customizing Solid Edge for their own purposes; by third-party, those who sell their add-ons.
A: The 250 are third parties. I can't tell who might use it in-house, because every customer can do that due to the open API.
Q: Two trends in CAD right now are the cloud and portable devices. What is Siemens PLM Software doing in these areas?
A: I am not speaking about NX or Teamcenter, just about Solid Edge. The benefits of the cloud to end users -- such as lower administration costs -- are interesting, and we want to focus on benefits. We have not seen a huge demand from users, but will continue to watch this and deliver what our users want.
As for mobile, I am not certain where modeling technology will be five years from now. For now, viewing has largely gone to mobile devices, but I can't see 24/7 modeling on a 7" screen.
[Director of public relations for Americas Branco Liu stepped in to note that Teamcenter Mobility is available for iPad devices.]
Q: A major change for you was the reduced-function, low-cost version of Solid Edge for Local Motors members. Do you have plans to expand the offering to beyond Local Motors?
A: I have nothing to announce.
Q: Is Solid Edge as capable as anything else in the market?
A: In specific markets, yes. But we don’t target production auto body design, for example. But to make a machine that makes stuff, yes, it doesn’t get any better than Solid Edge.
Q: In this case, does Synchronous Technology give users an advantage over competitors?
A: Synchronous technology gives huge advantages in speed and productivity for the markets it addresses. Our traditional strengths in drafting and sheet metal remain important advantages.
Q: How well does Siemens PLM Software support your Solid Edge division? Is it better now?
A: I think it is going great. Four years ago, I would not have given you the same answer. For instance, I grew my development staff by 15% last year, something that came with the support of Siemens PLM Software to run Solid Edge like a business.
Q: How many seats does Solid Edge have?
A: As a business unit, we are not allowed to share seat numbers or revenue numbers.
Q: Who is your biggest competitor?
A: SolidWorks has the largest market share. They have a large marketing budget and have done a good job in that category, and so they are more well-known. However, when we compete with them head-to-head, we can win on functionality, ease of use, and quality. As we continue to expand our install base and spread the word about the power of synchronous technology, we are confident we will continue to take market share from our competitors.
1 Solid Edge-- The Best MCAD Program You Won't Buy - Roopinder Tara, CAD Insider, June 2, 2006
Ralph Grabowski is the owner of upFront.eZine Publishing and hosts the WorldCAD Access blog. He has written over 100 books and several hundred magazine articles about CAD. In addition, Ralph has served as technical editor for Cadalyst magazine, and has been a columnist for CADENCE and AutoCAD World.
Ralph holds a civil engineering degree from the University of British Columbia. He was awarded "Best CAD/AEC/PLM Editor" by Strategic Research in 2005, and received the CAD Society's "Community Award" in 2002.
Complete bio on upFront.eZine