Why Solid Edge matters, part 2: It’s the best SolidWorks alternative
Solid Edge ST5 is an exceptionally competent CAD system. If you’re looking for a new CAD system, based solely on its merits, Solid Edge should be on your list of tools to consider.
Yet, there is one case where Solid Edge is not just an alternative, but is the obvious alternative. And that is if you’re considering migrating away from SolidWorks.
This is not a value judgment, or an opinion based on whether or not I like the companies. It’s a technical distinction.
Let me provide a bit of background to explain, first, why I’m even bringing this up, and second, why it is so.
SolidWorks is probably the most successful MCAD program on the market today, in terms of number of customers, users, availability of training, user group support, and a number of other factors. When Dassault Systemes bought the company back in 1997, they got the “goose that laid the golden egg.”
If you’re familiar with the Aesop’s Fable from which that line came, you might know where this is going. For 10 years, Dassault Systemes pretty much let SolidWorks do its own thing. I remember a press conference, where I asked DS President and CEO Bernard Charlès about this, and he said that all he asked of John McEleney (then SolidWorks CEO) was that he “deliver value.”
Charlès is a native French speaker. I assumed at the time that the term “deliver value,” when translated to French then back to English, would mean something like “deliver profits.” And that’s exactly what McEleney did, for many years.
In 2007, McEleney left SolidWorks, and Jeff Ray, formerly the COO, took his position. This changing of the guard signaled a change in the relationship between SolidWorks and Dassault Systemes. Though not obvious at first, it started to become clear that this was the beginning of the process of integrating SolidWorks into DS.
Today, even though much of the old-guard continues on at SolidWorks, there have been some notable defections. Jon Hirschtick, SolidWorks founder, left Dassault last year. Austin O’Malley, who headed up SolidWorks R&D, also left around the same time, and was replaced with Gian Paolo Bassi, who, by all reports, is heavily focused on developing SolidWorks V6. And Jeff Ray, the former SolidWorks CEO who had moved up to the Dassault Systemes Executive Committee, just left as well.
It’s not the same SolidWorks it used to be. The company’s strategy is being driven by Dassault Systemes, from Paris.
Whether the change is a good thing or not is something that only time will tell. Charlès and the other top executives at DS are smart and experienced business people. But they have a different perspective on business than the people who originally ran SolidWorks did.
A couple of years ago, DS SolidWorks previewed a new version of their software, called SolidWorks V6. I wrote about it last February, in the article SolidWorks V6 is not SolidWorks.
SolidWorks V6 is (or, will be) a cloud-based CAD program, built using technology DS originally developed for CATIA and ENOVIA V6. It’s not the same program as today’s SolidWorks program. One distinct difference is the use of the CGM geometric modeling kernel, instead of the Parasolid kernel (which is owned by Siemens PLM.)
At SolidWorks World last February, top managers from DS SolidWorks tried to reassure their customers, saying that they would continue to support the existing desktop version of SolidWorks for as long as customers want to use it. They clarified that they’re going to continue to use the Parasolid geometric modeling kernel in the desktop version, and pointed out that the development team working on SolidWorks 2013 is even bigger than the teams that worked on previous versions.
With these reassurances, SolidWorks users probably ought to feel comfortable about the long-term availability and support of their CAD system of choice. Probably.
Except, there are some things that, taken together, just don’t seem right. At least, to me. To start with, even though Siemens considers Parasolid to be a “level playing field” product, it’s pretty obvious that Dassault thoroughly dislikes having to pay royalties to a competitor to use it. Bernard Charlès is considered the “father of CATIA.” It would be remarkable if he were not highly motivated to move SolidWorks customers over to a plaform based on CATIA technology.
And, what of the SolidWorks 2013 team being “larger?” Numbers there can be deceiving. You can’t measure software development by “man months.” You have to look at the composition of the team. Is it made up mostly of expert-level in-house CAD developers, or is it made up mostly of offshore outsourced developers? Are SolidWorks’ “best people” working on the desktop version, or on the V6 version?
Many reasonable people I know are reading the tea leaves, and believe, based on what they’ve seen so far, that Dassault Systemes’ focus will shift to SolidWorks V6, and away from the desktop version. Not necessarily leaving it as crippleware, but possibly leaving it without the attention it deserves. If that happens, users will have to make some hard choices:
- Stay with the desktop version of SolidWorks, and hope for the best,
- Change to SolidWorks V6, or
- Change to another CAD system.
The costs of changing, whether to SolidWorks V6, or to another CAD system, are not just in software license fees, but also in retraining, and data migration.
Retraining costs may be a wash, whether you go with SolidWorks V6 or another CAD system.
The costs that can get out of control are in data migration between CAD systems using different geometric modeling kernels.
The problem with geometric modeling kernels is that they’re simply not cross-compatible. Not even CGM and ACIS—which are both owned by DS. And certainly not CGM and Parasolid. They vary enough in how they represent and manipulate data that it’s not possible to translate data from one to another with complete (or even entirely predictable) reliability.
There are a number of companies that offer translators that can do a good job of moving data between systems with different kernels. Some of these companies even offer model validation tools, to determine which files didn’t translate correctly. The reasonable estimates I’ve heard place the success rate at around 90 to 95% of files. That means you might only need to manually rebuild 5% to 10% of your CAD files.
That 5% or 10% can add up. For a medium size company, the costs of manually rebuilding those CAD files can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.
Consider past experience migrating between different Dassault Systemes CAD programs: The transition from CATIA V4 to CATIA V5 was exceptionally painful for users. Companies that specialize in CAD data validation still make a good chunk of their income from fixing problems in CAD files that have been translated from V4 to V5. And DS has never even offered a native SolidWorks/CATIA translator. There’s no basis to believe that migrating from desktop SolidWorks, which uses the Parasolid kernel, to SolidWorks V6, which will use the CGM kernel, will be painless.
It will be nice, for users, if this concern about SolidWorks turns out to be moot. In the best of all worlds, Dassault would continue to upgrade and maintain the desktop version of SolidWorks. They’d go back and fix the persistent and long-standing bugs and irritations, and add new functionality, such as history-free direct modeling. They’d make sure that the program is a viable tool for a long, long time. They’d serve the needs of the nearly 1.8 million product designers and engineers who count on SolidWorks to work right, so they can do their jobs.
The short list of alternatives isn’t that long.
The ideal alternative would be one that that supports history-free direct modeling, with tools to reparameterize dumb models. It would use the Parasolid geometric modeling kernel, to minimize data conversion issues. It would be priced competitively—in the same range as SolidWorks. And it would be from a financially sound and well-run firm.
There is only one well-known CAD program that meets those criteria: