CAD Predictions for 2018
Michael Alba posted on January 05, 2018 |
What lies ahead in the new year, and what trends are shaping the world of CAD?
From left to right: Jon Hirschtick, Gian Paolo Bassi and Kevin Wrenn. (Images courtesy of Twitter.)

Engineers, product designers and CAD professionals, keep this in mind: The world of CAD is in a state of transition. To be fair, CAD tools and techniques are always changing, with software providers continuously upgrading their products and developing new ones. However, even against this background of change, modern CAD is evolving, driven by technological advances like the Internet of Things (IoT), new paradigms like cloud computing and even the changing nature of engineering itself.

So, what does that mean for CAD in 2018? We talked to three influential voices in the CAD community to understand what’s in store for the coming year: Jon Hirschtick, CEO of Onshape; Gian Paolo Bassi, CEO of SOLIDWORKS; and Kevin Wrenn, divisional general manager of product lifecycle management at PTC.

Three Levels of Automation

Let’s start with a shift that’s not confined to the CAD world, but can be seen as a much larger engineering trend: automation. From autonomous vehicles to automated agriculture, automation is on the rise, for better or worse. The world of CAD is no exception.

“Automation of design is a fundamental trend affecting how engineers and designers work,” said Bassi. In his view, there are three levels of automation affecting product design: assistive automation, augmentative automation and autonomous automation.

“Assistive is to reduce the friction created by seemingly trivial tasks, repetitive in nature, that still require a lot of time,” Bassi explained. “For instance, creating assemblies—today we still have to indicate all the details of how components are connected, and we have likely done similar things with similar components many times over. Today, predictive assembly is refined in SOLIDWORKS R&D labs, and very soon it will come to the designer’s desks.”

The next level, augmentative automation, uses multiphysics simulations to help engineers make better decisions, according to Bassi.

“We believe simulation should be continuously part of the design process,” he said. “We also believe that simulation technology can not only optimize existing designs (e.g. topology optimization), but also automatically recommend optimal shapes altogether. In this scenario, the designer has to focus mainly on the formulation of the problem, in terms of constraints, forces and boundaries, and then the system will automatically provide the best shape options for the task.”

The topic of simulation was also on Hirschtick’s list of CAD trends. “We’re at the beginning of a renaissance in simulation that I’ve never seen in my career,” Hirschtick said. “And I’ve been doing this for a LONG time!”

Hirschtick points to two examples of how CAD simulation is evolving. The first is SIMSOLID, a simulation app that takes a meshless approach. “Meshless simulation completely eliminates the need for meshing, the most painful and time-consuming step in using analysis tools,” Hirschtick said. “Meshing is extremely difficult,specialized work and very error prone—it’s not unusual for meshing to eat up days or even weeks. But now, you can get simulation results right away, freeing you to focus on other critical tasks.”

The second example—a breakthrough, in Hirschtick’s words—is ANSYS Discovery Live, a simulation tool enabling real-time results. “You can edit geometry and see stress or fluid flow results update literally as fast as you can rotate the model,” he said. “You have to see it to believe it, and it definitely has the potential to speed up your design work significantly.”

ANSYS Discovery Live provides real-time simulation results. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)
ANSYS Discovery Live provides real-time simulation results. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

Hirschtick also expects generative design to become a more prominent CAD tool in 2018. “Continued improvements in generative design tools will result in new heights for simulation-driven optimization,” he predicted.

Bassi’s third level of automation, autonomous, removes humans from the equation entirely.

“This is, in a way, the highest form of automation, where things happen without any human intervention,” Bassi explained. “For instance, this could involve the programming of a coordinate measuring machine to quality-test a manufactured product or the generation of the cutting path for a milling machine. Feature recognition and smart algorithms will make the programming of those machines very easy, if not fully automated. The consequence, in case of manufacturing, is that every designer will be able, in real time, to understand the consequences, and the cost, of a design strategy and experiment accordingly.”

However, we won’t need to reach the level of autonomous automation in order to see big changes to the way product designers approach manufacturing. “Our whole notion of manufacturing is being rebooted,” said Hirschtick. “Manufacturing high-end and complex custom parts—either one-offs or in low-volume batches—has become as easy as ordering a pizza.”

Hirschtick expects to see a huge increase in online manufacturing in 2018 and beyond. He gives a real-world example of this trend: ZYCI, an online CNC machining and 3D printing operation. “Using an online platform such as, engineers can upload their CAD models and get instant price quotes and lead times based on the geometry and materials,” Hirschtick explained. “ZYCI also offers suggestions on the best manufacturing method. It’s not just on-demand 3D printing, but also CNC machining and molding.”

ZYCI (pronounced Zee-Kee) is “one of hundreds of on-demand manufacturers in the United States using cloud-based tools to accelerate their business,” according to Hirschtick. (Image courtesy of ZYCI.)
ZYCI (pronounced Zee-Kee) is “one of hundreds of on-demand manufacturers in the United States using cloud-based tools to accelerate their business,” according to Hirschtick. (Image courtesy of ZYCI.)

Mechatronics, the IoT and Digital Twins              

Another trend shaping the future of CAD is the IoT and, with it, a convergence of the previously distinct worlds of electrical and mechanical design that’s been labeled mechatronics.

“The distinction between mechanical and electronic design today is fading,” said Bassi. “Objects are mechatronic in nature and the design needs to be simultaneous. Let me make the example of a robot: Sensors are everywhere and so need to be the circuit boards, their geometry, location and airflow for cooling are essential to the function. In addition, design must account for the tolerances and the flexible nature of all mechanical components to predict, very precisely, trajectories and positions in high-speed operations.”

For CAD, this means engineers need an integrated approach to mechatronics design. Product designers in 2018 will be increasingly sensitive to how well their tools enable seamless electrical and mechanical coordination—not just because their designs will demand it, but because the designers themselves will.

“I believe that engineers will be more versatile,” predicted Bassi. “Specialization in the era of integrated design systems is less necessary. Modern integrated design systems will make versatility possible by reducing the knowledge gap among the various disciplines.”

Integrations like that between SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer will become increasingly important for mechatronics design. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)
Integrations like that between SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer will become increasingly important for mechatronics design. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

But that’s only one-half of the coming changes. According to Wrenn, the IoT also means that product designers can remain connected to their products and thus find new ways to improve their designs. “The IoT has helped accelerate innovation in the design process, making it possible for manufacturers to receive information from products in the field that can be leveraged to improve new or future iterations of products,” he explained.

Even as engineers create more connected products, they themselves will find ways to benefit from those connections. Their CAD tools must therefore allow them to make the most out of the IoT.

“The market is clamoring for smart, connected products, whether it’s an Amazon Echo, a Nest Thermostat or a Fitbit,” Wrenn said. “In order to sufficiently meet the expectations of customers, manufacturers need to transform their product development process to understand and leverage data from products in the field. Noting product information on a CAD drawing is no longer going to cut it as products become more complex. Manufacturers will need to become more organized with their product development process.”

One popular approach to this change is in the form of a digital twin, an entangled pair consisting of a physical product and its digital counterpart.

“With a digital twin, the digital definition is combined with the specific physical experience of the asset—for example, environmental conditions and performance data from an operating asset,” explained Wrenn. “This purpose-built digital representation allows manufacturers to analyze assets for future sales, recalls or update opportunities. Real-world usage can be leveraged to improve future products or future iterations of the products.”

CAD in the Cloud

Screenshot of the cloud-based Onshape, which runs completely in-browser and can be accessed in full on mobile. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)
Screenshot of the cloud-based Onshape, which runs completely in-browser and can be accessed in full on mobile. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)

Also coming in 2018, according to Hirschtick, will be newfound momentum for cloud CAD. “2018 will finally be the tipping point for cloud-based CAD,” he predicted.

Seeing as Onshape is still the only CAD program that runs entirely in the cloud, it’s hardly surprising that Onshape’s CEO would make such a strong claim. However, Hirschtick points out some concrete reasons why he believes 2018 will be a tipping point for cloud CAD.

“Seventy-five percent of Onshape Professional customers now use it as their primary CAD system of record,” he said. “This marks the shift of cloud CAD from a concept to a production-worthy toolset that equips modern design teams to do their best work.”

As Onshape proves the cloud CAD model, other CAD vendors are paying attention. Alongside its more traditional CAD offerings, Autodesk also offers its own cloud-based CAD platform, Fusion 360. SOLIDWORKS, too, has announced plans for a cloud-based CAD program called SOLIDWORKS X design. With these major players investing in the concept, it seems cloud CAD may be here to stay.

“Most engineers will be moving the bulk of their work online over the next 5 to 10 years,” Hirschtick predicted. “The most forward-thinking engineers have already made this shift and will eventually watch their competitors play catch up. It will become clear that cloud CAD is not merely old CAD put in the cloud. It’s also better CAD, period.”

Augmented CAD in 2018

A final trend shaping the future of CAD is the rising popularity—and rising capability—of augmented reality (AR). As Wrenn points out, AR tools allow engineers to collaborate on their product designs in an entirely new way.

“Using AR, team members are able to visualize, interact with and provide feedback on product designs from anywhere in the world,” Wrenn said. “AR makes it possible for stakeholders to interact with a 3D model of the product, such as walking around it and viewing different states of the model—including going inside the model itself.”

All of the factors discussed by Hirschtick, Bassi and Wrenn show that 2018 has some big changes in store for the world of CAD, all of which aim to make product design better, more efficient and more pleasurable. From advances in automation to new methods in manufacturing, from meshless simulation to digital twins, from mechatronics to the IoT and from cloud-based CAD to AR, engineers have a lot to look forward to in 2018.

What are your predictions for CAD in 2018? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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