For quite a while we’ve been noticing an increasing trend within the CAD market: the growing number of people who are using 3D CAD for personal business or side projects in addition to the work they do for their employer.
A great example is Bill Price, the subject of an Alibre case study included in the February issue of the Alibre newsletter available here. His passion for motorcycles and interest in designing one of his own led to his purchase of Alibre Design. His engine design went on to place third in the 3D InterOp modeling contest hosted by Spatial. A spectacular image of the V-Twin motorcycle engine Bill designed with Alibre Design is included in the case study.
A time is coming when owning a personal 3D CAD system will be as common for designers, engineers, machinists and others in manufacturing industries as a carpenter owning a set of hand tools, or a writer owning a word processor.
This isn’t uncommon; in many industries individuals skilled in a particular trade own their own personal set of “tools of the trade.” Writers have word processors, photographers have cameras and lenses, painters have paints and brushes, woodworkers have saws, drills, lathes, and a variety of other specialized tools. Usually the more serious one is about their skill the more advanced and professional grade the tools. This trend was also seen in desktop publishing and graphic design when formerly exclusive desktop applications became accessible to anyone. Now it’s commonplace to find a graphic designer who has their own personal copy of PhotoShop and Illustrator. I spoke about a related trend in a previous post calling it Democratization, wherein formerly exclusive technologies are becoming accessible to the mainstream.
In these times of outsourcing and “off-shoring” it’s also becoming important for people to take control of their own destiny. Rather than depending on a lifetime job at one employer, personally owning the responsibility of building and honing skills that make one valuable and employable is becoming the prudent path to ensuring long-term income potential.
In researching this article I came across the following thoughts from a technical recruiter and author Brian Graham:
Traditional employees plan on having a long-term relationship with each employer. They believe that if they work hard and do an outstanding job, they’ll be rewarded over the long term for their loyalty. They believe that their company deserves their trust and cares about their well-being. And many people still believe it is the company’s job to provide them with financial security, benefits, training, and opportunities for career advancement. That approach worked for decades, but this day and age it doesn’t work as well any more.
If that’s what you’re expecting from an employer, you may want to rethink that expectation. In all likelihood, it’s not going to happen. Instead, you need to have the mindset of what I call a “skills-based worker”. Unlike a traditional worker, a skills-based worker fully understands that there’s no such thing as job security, and focuses instead on long-term “career security.” Skills-based workers aren’t company men or women. Instead, they define what’s important to them and structure their careers around their personal goals. They’re also open to new ideas.
Unlike traditional workers, who expect companies to map out their career paths for them, skills based workers take charge of their own training and career advancement.
…technology advances so rapidly these days that your skills can become obsolete in a matter of years. To stay at the top of your game, you need to constantly expand your knowledge base, by reading technical journals, getting regular training, and taking every opportunity to learn new skills both on and off the job. Every new skill you pick up—whether it’s a new engineering competency, a foreign language, or perhaps management training, it will make you more employable somewhere down the road. Take stock of your personal career skills and knowledge every six months or so, and if you haven’t mastered something new, do it. You won’t regret it.
The personal CAD use that I am describing is not just about learning 3D CAD. Yes, that is an important skill and one that can be improved over time, but it’s more importantly about simply using state-of-the-art tools to exercise the more important skill of design and engineering, one of those tools being 3D CAD. As with any skill, the more you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, the more capable you become at problem solving and innovating, the key to survival for any business in today’s increasingly competitive global environment.
An interesting aspect of the growing personal CAD market is that it is largely free of the switching cost feared by larger companies, a cost that gradually increases over time as a chosen corporate CAD system becomes entrenched in their business. The personal CAD user has no switching cost, in fact, they benefit from learning another system. They not only learn a different tool that typically deepens their understanding of 3D CAD by exposing functionality in a different way, but they also improve their marketability by expanding the range of applications with which they are familiar.
For example, we find that those who purchase Alibre Design as a personal CAD tool for themselves often use another CAD system like SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER or Unigraphics at work. It’s a rare case when someone using one of these expensive products can justify its purchase for their own personal projects or skills advancement. We believe this type of personal CAD use has grown to the point that it represents a new, distinct and growing market segment.
We have also found that it can work the other way. An individual working for a company that uses 2D CAD, say AutoCAD LT, will oftentimes be motivated to purchase a 3D CAD product to develop a design concept or do some type of consulting well before their employer seriously considers the purchase of 3D software. The employer is then exposed to work their employee is doing with their “personal” product, often through actual work on company designs or projects that the individual decides they can do better in 3D on their own time. You can imagine once an employer sees the benefits of 3D in a real production scenario they are much more likely to invest in the tool themselves.
By Autodesk’s own stats, there are over three million AutoCAD LT users. Let’s say a third of them are doing mechanical drafting work, meaning one million people doing 2D mechanical drafting. Putting aside the logistics of engaging these people and all the marketing-speak of the various vendors claiming their approach to 3D is best, imagine if most of these AutoCAD LT users built the skill to use 3D over time while working for an employer who is doing 2D. I contend there would be a significant benefit to these employers by the simple fact that now their employees could intelligently leverage 3D when it made sense, or better visualize the designs they were working on in 2D by virtue of their improved ability to visualize in 3D. Imagine if every graduating engineering student had their own personal CAD system they took with them as they started their career.
This market is immense. Just to give a glimpse of the size of this market, take the one million 2D mechanical AutoCAD LT users, and add those using full AutoCAD, or IntelliCAD, TurboCAD, or any other 2D drafting application. This number is already huge. Then include the entire existing base of every production 3D product like SolidWorks, Pro/E, Unigraphics, etc. since these folks can also take advantage of a personal CAD product without any impact on what they use at work. This group is more than conjecture, because this is the one we’ve been seeing grow in our own customer base. Taken all together, it’s an enormous market that dwarfs the entire market of production 3D CAD users today.
As one would expect, probably the most important factors contributing to the growing popularity of personal CAD are affordability and ease-of-use. Not to mention the literal and physical aspects of accessibility. Now you can just Google 3D CAD, find a product and directly download a trial version. In certain cases, such as with SketchUp and Alibre Design Xpress, you can literally directly download a completely free product that actually works and isn’t crippled. The popularity of these products has shown that there is widespread interest in using 3D beyond the typical CAD Designer role for an employer.
I was discussing this with someone the other day and they said, but don’t some other CAD companies have personal versions too? It’s true that some have marketing programs that offer various levels of personal use, but all limit it to non-commercial work. For reference, check out the personal version of SolidWorks that can only be obtained by visiting a reseller who then has the ability to grant it to you.
Special Personal Edition TermsThis doesn’t even begin to address the personal CAD market I am describing. The market I am describing is a market characterized by commercial use, and in fact, motivated by it, where the personal CAD product can be used for anything from simple training and skills advancement, to designs or concepts related to hobbies or side projects, to activities with an explicit commercial intent like contract work or consulting or an entrepreneurial venture to design the next great widget. The software is owned by the individual permanently and travels with them; it’s one of the tools in their hopefully ever-expanding toolset.
…the SolidWorks Personal Edition does contain significant use restrictions and may not be used for any commercial purposes whatsoever. The creation of models for commercial use is considered a commercial purpose, and therefore, files generated or modified using SolidWorks Personal Edition software cannot be opened by commercial (or other, for example, educational) versions of SolidWorks software. Other use restrictions include:
• A Personal Edition license to use the software expires after 90 days, with option for renewal. It does not include subscription service, and is not upgradeable.
• A watermark which identifies both the software and the files created as a "Personal Edition"; is displayed with the model whenever the model is printed, making it unsuitable for use in a commercial or institutional environments.
• SolidWorks Personal Edition software is node-locked to you and your computer.
Commercial use of the SolidWorks Personal Edition is prohibited. If your company is interested in acquiring SolidWorks licensing for commercial use, please contact an authorized SolidWorks reseller. The SolidWorks Personal Edition software may not be resold, transferred, rented, modified or copied. Any misuse of the terms of the software license agreement will immediately terminate the right to use this software.
I am interested in hearing from others who use 3D CAD for personal business or those who feel they have a need for it, as well as from those who just have some ideas on the potential impact of the widespread adoption of personal CAD. I’d also enjoy hearing from those who disagree that this is a market at all, or that the growth of such a market would be beneficial to manufacturing at large or that it will improve an individual engineer’s or manufacturing professionals’ ability to maximize their earning potential or find better job opportunities. If you have some thoughts to share, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.