The failed promise of parametric CAD part 1: From the beginning
The modern era of 3D CAD was born in September 1987, when Deere & Company bought the first two seats of Pro/Engineer, from the still new Parametric Technology Corporation. A couple of years later, Deere’s Jack Wiley was quoted in the Anderson Report, saying:
“Pro/ENGINEER is the best example I have seen to date of how solid modelers ought to work. The strength of the product is its mechanical features coupled with dimensional adjustability. The benefit of this combination is a much friendlier user interface plus an intelligent geometric database.”
According to Sam Geisberg, the founder of PTC:
“The goal is to create a system that would be flexible enough to encourage the engineer to easily consider a variety of designs. And the cost of making design changes ought to be as close to zero as possible. In addition, the traditional CAD/CAM software of the time unrealistically restricted low-cost changes to only the very front end of the design-engineering process.”
To say Pro/E was a success would be a terrible understatement. Within a few years PTC was winning major accounts from the old-line competitors. In 1992, on the strength of its product, PTC walked away with a 2,000 seat order from Caterpillar that Unigraphics had thought was in the bag.
The secret to Pro/E’s success was its parametric feature-based solid modeling approach to building 3D models. To companies such as Deere and Caterpillar, it offered a compelling vision. Imagine being able to build a virtual CAD model of an engine, and, by changing a few parameters, being able to alter its displacement, or even its number of cylinders. And even if that wasn’t achievable, it would be a great leap forward to just be able to rapidly create and explore design alternatives for parts and assemblies.
Yet, things were not that easy. In 1990, Steve Wolfe, one of the CAD industry’s most insightful observers, pointed out that Pro/E was incapable of making some seemingly simple parametric changes.
David Weisberg, editor of the Engineering Automation Report (and from whose book, The Engineering Design Revolution, I have liberally cribbed for this article), pointed out the fundamental problem with parametrics:
“The problem with a pure parametric design technique that is based upon regenerating the model from its history tree is that, as geometry is added, it is dependent upon geometry created earlier. This methodology has been described as a parent/child relationship, except that it can be many levels deep. If a parent level element is deleted or changed in certain ways it can have unexpected effects on child-level elements. In extreme cases (and sometimes in cases that were not particularly that extreme), the user was forced to totally recreate the model… Some people described designing with Pro/ENGINEER to be more similar to programming than to conventional engineering design.”
Weisberg barely scratches the surface of the issues that can create problems.
In 1991, Dr. Jami Shah wrote an Assessment of Features Technology, for Computer-Aided Design, a journal targeted to people doing research in the field of CAD. He identified that there were problems with features:
“There are no universally applicable methods for checking the validity of features. It is up to the person defining a feature to specify what is valid or invalid for a given feature. Typical checks that need to be done are: compatibility of parent/dependent features, limits on dimension, and inadvertent interference with other features. In a study for CAM-I, Shah et al. enumerated the following types of feature interactions:
- interaction that makes a feature nonfunctional,
- non-generic feature(s) obtained from two or more generic ones,
- feature parameters rendered obsolete,
- nonstandard topology,
- feature deleted by subtraction of larger feature,
- feature deleted by addition of larger feature.
- open feature becomes closed,
- inadvertent interactions from modifications.”
The important thing to notice here is that, not only are there multiple failure modes for features, there are also no universal methods for validating features. It’s left up to the user to figure out. And that process, as Weisberg hinted, is much too difficult.
Since the early days of Pro/E, a lot of work has been done, both by PTC and other companies in the CAD industry, to improve the reliability and usability of parametric feature-based CAD software. Yet, the problems that Weisberg and Shah identified still exist, and still get in the way of users being able to get the most from their software.
Next: The problem is editing.