Is SolidWorks the New Autodesk?

One product, at the right place and the right time, can lead the revolution

by Roopinder Tara, Editor, TenLinks, March 2003

Back in the early 1980s, a quiet revolution was spreading across offices in America as computer applications were rapidly replacing manual tasks. The personal computer was starting to become popular along with applications like word processing and spreadsheets. But leading-edge design was being conducted on proprietary high-end CAD workstations - often at the cost of $50,000 a seat. One group of programmers knew they had a better way. In 1982, they left the glow of their monitors to preach the virtues of the product they knew was The One: AutoCAD, bargain-priced at $1,000. In the short history of computer software, a few programs have struck at the right place and the right time. A virtually unknown John Walker and his wild-eyed band walked into COMDEX, the biggest computer show in America, and proceeded to release the winds of change that would  blow drafting tables into back rooms and most of the high-end CAD companies into oblivion.

The original Autodesk had few in numbers but it was about to write the first and very important chapters in the history of PC-based computer aided design.
(courtesy of The Autodesk File)

By the mid 90s, there was no doubt of AutoCAD’s leadership. AutoCAD dominated the PC-based 2D CAD market it had created and now had millions of users. By now, Autodesk, the company behind AutoCAD, was a far cry from its John Walker days. It was showing signs of middle age. From its megalithic world headquarters in San Rafael, California, it kept a keen eye on Wall Street and its own bottom line – no different than the big companies it emulated such as Microsoft and Oracle.

Enter SolidWorks

But to the East, another band of fanatics had formed. Led by Jon Hirschtick, SolidWorks looked about the world dominated by Autodesk and felt not fear but opportunity. While AutoCAD ruled in the two- dimensional world, the three-dimensional world of solid modeling was more fragmented. Companies like Unigraphics and Dassault ruled in the glamorous fiefdoms of airplane and automobile design, but already a daring newcomer (Parametric Technology Corporation) had succeeded in carving out a decent following for itself. With its lead product, Pro/ENGINEER, PTC was making parametric, feature-based solid modeling an object of lust among mechanical designers and engineers. However, the high price of admission (a typical Pro/E setup cost $25,000) had kept most of them from enjoying its benefits.
John Hirschtick founded SolidWorks in 1993

Hirschtick’s battle plan was not to attack the mighty Autodesk head on, where many others had failed, but to attack from the 3rd dimension with a product that offered high-end 3D for a 2D price. The plan borrowed from the same irrefutable logic as John Walker’s plan: offering more for less. The timing couldn’t have been better as winds of a 3D revolution were starting to howl. CAD magazines showed 3D renderings on their covers. Trade show evangelists were converting engineering managers to 3D. Colleges and vocational schools were pumping out graduates with appetites that were not to be sated with simple line drawings. The revolution that was looking for a leader now rallied under the banner of SolidWorks.

Still, many wondered what chance a small company like SolidWorks really had. While it may have run circles around AutoCAD and Autodesk’s mechanical design product (Mechanical Desktop) it often faltered in making a production quality 2D drawing. Despite the 3D fever of the time, the end product in most companies was still the old- fashioned paper drawing - front, side and top view, all fully dimensioned.

First Meeting

I first met Hirschtick and his fanatics at a trade show in the fall of 1996. A review I had written of SolidWorks had just appeared in print and SolidWorks’ deficiencies - especially in the areas of 2D drawing - had just come to light. I was introduced to John McEleney, then VP of product marketing and Michael Payne, co-founder in charge of R&D. I was braced for a cool reception for I had called a baby ugly and was now about to meet its parents. I was expecting a disheveled bunch of programmers, maybe a little rough around the edges, devilish in the way of coding but naïve to the CAD world, 20-something propeller heads high on caffeine and delusions of grandeur. What I saw were guys that actually had suits that fit. Both Hirschtick and McEleney were degreed engineers and thoroughbred pedigrees arising from positions of importance at PTC and Computervision. They looked on me and the rest of the industry press with pity. With an air of unmistakable confidence and righteousness in their cause, they seemed to excuse us all as part of the Autodesk fold. We may be too dumb to understand the obvious right now, they seemed to say, but they’d check in with us a little later.

Slide from SolidWorks presentation, the red area representing the increasing acceptance of mid-range 3D CAD software.

Over time, there were other signs that SolidWorks was no ordinary company that would fade away. The next time I saw McEleney, I was told how SolidWorks would emerge the owner of the midrange, a big wide area in between the high-end market inhabited by a few (Parametric Technology’s Pro/E and Dassault’s CATIA) and the 2D systems (AutoCAD ) inhabited by many. John’s spiel was well thought out and well rehearsed. As editor in chief of CADENCE magazine, I had received my fair share of pitches. But here was the difference; the pitch wasn’t isolated to one person. The same message was delivered with a cult-like enthusiasm and uniformity by everyone at SolidWorks, no matter their rank. The fact that SolidWorks would create a new solid modeling-centered world order was a central belief and was delivered with a surprising clarity. This unified channeling of energy that was not in evidence anywhere else in the CAD industry.

Autodesk Goes Vertical

The Autodesk of the 90s was still known mostly for the success of one product: AutoCAD. The company’s domination in the 2D CAD market had saturated the market and the company relied upon upgrade revenue. However, by Release 14, AutoCAD was seen as a capable, full-featured and mature product that basically gave users everything they ever wanted in a 2D product. So, why would users upgrade if what they owned was good enough? Clearly, Autodesk was suffering from its own success, being a mature product in a mature market. Even its desperate attempts at a subscription program depended upon its customers willing to pay for improvements - improvements that were increasingly seen as merely incremental. The company needed to strike gold again, to tap into another unfulfilled need. In short, it needed another AutoCAD.

But introducing a new product is a big risk. Big companies that live from quarter to quarter are often disinclined to take such risks. Risk was for startups. Autodesk now had a lot to lose. The company had chosen to grow conservatively through acquisitions and by building more products on top of AutoCAD and its huge base of millions of users. To help with this, the company was reorganized along vertical markets, notably AEC, mechanical and GIS. Although in widespread use in AEC for making floor plans and elevations, it had only scratched the surface with the tantalizing mechanical market.

Autodesk had tried to take on this market with Mechanical Desktop. First introduced in 1995, it was essentially an AutoCAD add-on. As such, it always suffered from having to rely upon old Autodesk code, some of it purported to date from John Walker’s days. Not only did it look old school but most importantly, it lacked the high-end functionality that would allow it to hold its own against upstart products such as SolidWorks. It took years for it to add lofting (the ability to create solids from varying cross sections), for example.

SolidWorks Remains on Course

While Autodesk was able to sell Mechanical Desktop to the faithful AutoCAD users, many from outside the Autodesk fold, were unwilling to pay high-end prices. With many clear functional advantages over Mechanical Desktop as well as the look and feel of a thoroughly modern Window-based program, SolidWorks gained increasing traction in an increasingly 3D world.

The late 90s saw SolidWorks gain even more. While other CAD companies chased the windmills of Internet fortunes or abandoned core design products for EDM or PDM or some such trendy thing, SolidWorks maintained its singularity of purpose. With each release, SolidWorks chipped away at the high-end technology leaders such as Pro/E, adding advanced modeling features, large assembly capability, animation, and so on. They also added from the low end by enhancing the ability to create production-level 2D drawings. SolidWorks users were still few compared to AutoCAD users but Autodesk was continually coming up against SolidWorks when trying to sell Mechanical Desktop. This represented a serious roadblock to the success of its vertical market approach.

But giants move slowly and SolidWorks’ momentum kept giving the young company increasing market share. While it took 5 years for SolidWorks to garner its first 100,000 users, it took only two more years to add the next 100,000. Meanwhile, realizing the futility of trying to catch up to SolidWorks with Mechanical Desktop, Autodesk created Inventor: a fresh, Windows-based 3D product built from the ground up. Reaction came also from the high end as well, as PTC, itself faced with market encroachment, was preparing Wildfire.

The SolidWorks Party

Fast forward to the recent 2003 SolidWorks World Conference. Here was no coterie of a few dozen die-hard geeks meeting in some VFW post, but rather one of CAD’s biggest events in one of Disney’s biggest resorts in Orlando, Florida. As John McEleney, now CEO of SolidWorks, addressed 1,600 people assembled there, it was clear that SolidWorks had not only arrived but had firmly established itself. The rumpled, soft spoken Jon Hirschtick (now a group executive at Dassault, the company that bought SolidWorks in 1997) played down his role as a pioneer who had taken an idea and a company to success against heavy odds.

Need I say more? John McEleney, CEO of SolidWorks, demonstrates the product at SolidWorks World 2003

Another sign of the success of SolidWorks is the large number of vendors now attaching themselves to SolidWorks’ coattails. SolidWorks partners now number in the hundreds. It has more than 250 resellers in 70 counties. There’s probably not an MCAD program that has not considered SolidWorks’ share of the market and sought someway to be integrated or compatible with it. This rapidly building entourage of products and services tied to a product is also reminiscent of the early days of Autodesk.

Will Success Spoil SolidWorks?

Where to now? Will SolidWorks be able to capitalize on its position? Just as Autodesk was there when drafting board users were ready to pick up a mouse, will SolidWorks be there when they are ready to enter the 3rd dimension? And now that the sleeping giants have awakened and are answering back with capable products of their own, can SolidWorks maintain its growth?

While many in the CAD community are now on the 2D/3D cusp, SolidWorks needs to keep its hunger alive, its fires burning. There’s many more to convert, and conversion has proven to be a battle of attrition. There are smaller companies that also have good MCAD programs but may not have the critical mass to stay viable as they wait for the conversion to happen. SolidWorks now has powerful backing in the form of Dassault, a much larger company.

The race to the finish line to capture and convert all the current 2D CAD users is far from over. No company can simply and magically convert the masses with just a long list of features and capabilities. The battles do not simply go to the best product as some very capable 3D programs seem to have been neglected by the masses. CAD users have proven to be stubborn and conservative; winning them over requires more than reasoning and logic. Not to be underestimated is the tendency of the conservative masses to go with a winner - even a perceived winner. Who could blame an engineering manager who added his or her support for a product that thousands of others had already embraced. Surely, they all must have done their homework. And not only that, they must have blazed a precedent, popularized a file format and created a labor pool of trained users. This success – or the perception of success – is something that SolidWorks has excelled at. In the arenas of public perception, it has created a strong brand. Full page ads, big booths in trade shows have created an image that is even bigger than the company. A strong product by a strong company that looks like it’s going to be around for a while is something even the most conservative manager can live with. In addition, SolidWorks has succeeded in building a loyal and vocal reseller community that is galvanized in its support of SolidWorks and quick to defend it. This has created a force multiplier - an army many times bigger than its uniformed troops.

Perhaps most important for SolidWorks’ continued success is to retain the idea that corporate success is built on product success. While the really big CAD companies seem to be all about revenue, stock price and posh headquarters, their users only really care about good, reliable tools. Already, some chinks may be evident in the armor. Last year, SolidWorks declined to participate in a well-publicized head-to-head competition with Autodesk Inventor – something hard to imagine of a once feisty company that rose to every challenge. While the initial releases of Autodesk Inventor may have been dismissed as a me-too product, many argue that the latest releases are functionally equivalent. Also, the much-awaited Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire is already claiming that it is more efficient in use and could design a product with half the mouse clicks of SolidWorks. The merits of such a test may be dubious - especially considering that the test was commissioned by PTC - but does it make one wonder if SolidWorks’ complexity is increasing along with its functionality?

All things considered, SolidWorks still appears to be in a superior position looking down from on high at its challengers. It has potentially all measures of success, a robust product, a large and healthy reseller network, existing users and 3rd-party support. Last but certainly not least would be an unshakable motivation to put out a really killer product. Such was apparent at SolidWorks World 2003 when John McEleney paraded the most recent release of the company’s flagship product. By the way, I can’t imagine too many big CAD company’s CEOs demonstrating their product before thousands of people but McEleney looked quite at ease. In fact, in one golden moment, he brought down the house by - are you ready for this? - making all the balloons appear neatly arranged in an assembly drawing with just one mouse click. Okay, maybe you had to be there. But take it from a former CAD geek, in that one moment the CEO of SolidWorks confirmed that his company was all about the product and established a loyalty to the assembled users.

It may very well be that continuing pride in a quality product coupled with a return to the scrappy, feisty role of a challenger (instead of a company that would don the all too familiar trappings of corporate success) would be the most important qualities necessary for SolidWorks’ continued company success.

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