The Two CAD Programs that
 Set the Path to 3D MCAD Chaos!

Years ago, engineering was incredibly simple. It was based on the standard drawing that was created manually on a drafting board. You learned drafting and you could get a job in the industry of your expertise. Rarely did you jump disciplines. As a contract engineer (Jobshopper) I could walk into the drafting room and be productive “That Day”.

My First 17 Years or "How did we do it without 3D CAD!"

So, you would think adding the incredible 3D MCAD system that could create a 3D model used for a variety purposes from associated information documents (drawings) to patterns for CNC would streamline the system and make the operation much simpler.

Why hasn’t it?

I will not go into the history of 3D MCAD here, but its original selling point was to create faster drawings.

The 1980's - 3D CAD - The Beginning

3D MCAD was instantly adopted by the large companies at huge costs of systems that were based on mainframe computers. Personally, I was introduced to 3D Computervision CADDS 4 in 1982, I saw Catia 3 while on contract at Boeing in 1986 where I introduced to PC based 3D CADKEY.  3D MCAD was well in place and was set as the standard.

The high-end systems were far out of reach for the smaller companies at hundreds of thousand a seat.

There were two PC based CAD systems widely available in the 1980’s, the electronic drawing package, Autocad and the 3D MCAD package, CADKEY.

The First System


AutoCAD was a poorly design architectural package. It was hugely overly complicated. All the functions were based on architectural design. Point to point lines and arcs. It is funny, they provided a grid and all the other CAD systems follow suite.

These were the tools of the architect. Lots of straight lines. But industrial/mechanical design was much, much different than this point to point drawing method. In manual drafting we used triangles to create horizontal and vertical parallel lines for our orthographic views. We extensively used arcs and curves (splines, do you know why they are called splines?).

Part List or BOM?

Autocad was not conducive to mechanical/industrial engineering industry!

Then why was it used by this industry?

It had no copy protection!

Wait a minute Joe, that’s crazy!

Sorry all, I was there.

Remember, in the 1980's the small companies were still using manual drafting. A drafting board cost a couple of hundred dollars. Now they were confronted with paying $3,500.00 for an electronic drafting package. 3D CADKEY was the same price but had a serial port (remember those?) dongle.

Autocad had no copy protection and was being passed around like hotcakes. This was the beginning of the PC (Personal Computer). No one was concerned about pirating software. The mechanical/industrial engineering companies were “NOT” going to spend $3,500.00 after already spending $3000.00 for a computer and a $2000.00 for a 19" CRT.

I was selling CADKEY in 1987 and would walk into a Autocad house and show them the advantages of 3D CADKEY. CADKEY was even a better electronic drawing package, by just creating the graphic entities in the top plane. It is funny the top view in CADKEY was the same 2D plane in Autocad, setting the standard for our views. Yes, we could import and export the "2D faux standard" .dxf.

I knew that all the Autocad seats were not licensed and there was no way they were going to spend 5 X $3,500.00 = $17,000.00 for 5 sears of 3D MCAD. They were happy to continue with Autocad. They really didn’t change their design process with Autocad. They would just plot to a vellum and create the prints. Remember this was more than a decade before the PDF.

Autocad spread like wildfire. It was everywhere. A bunch of disks would show up at my door with every new release. I did load Autocad on my IBM luggable around 1986 and designed a fence for my back yard. I was already into 3D and Autocad was a huge step backward.

Due to this lack of copy protection AutoCAD flourished. For the next 10 years it was the electronic drafting standard for the smaller industrial/mechanical engineering industry companies.

In 1987 I started TECH-NET, Inc. and started selling CADKEY to all the Boeing suppliers since it was the only PC based 3D MCAD system that could talk to Catia 3. Soon I became Boeing’s CADKEY dealer. I am sure that Boeing never realized the service I did. No small company could afford the IBM mainframe networked Catia.

Autocad had some failed attempts to provide 3D. So, Autocad was basically stuck in the world of the electronic drawing. This is where they started calling Autocad 2D. Yes, it was 2D, but it was used to create standard orthographic drawings. Soon, they were calling these drawings "2D Drawings", like there is any other kind? I am not sure why this incredible misnomer was created. Were there 3D drawings?

I don’t know when Autocad started the effort to get all the non-licensed copies with the threat of suits, but most everyone started buying the seats with the threat of a $100,000 fine. Sadly, the die was cast. They just had too much experience and legacy data, much like today, to move to a new 3D MCAD system.


Autocad hugely retarded the industry's move to 3D MCAD. Look at some of the requirements for today's 3D CAD engineer. Many still require experience in AutoCAD to access the huge amount of legacy data. Many were stuck in this electronic drawing world for the next 20 plus years and some still are.

Now for the second program.


In 1988 PTC introduced Pro/e. This was the first solid modeling MCAD system designed from the ground up. Computervision and Catia were dabbling in solids but did not release functional solid modeling for years.

It was a clever system, but it was obviously not designed by mechanical draftsman, who were the only ones making drawings at the time. It had a very convoluted hierarchy history design system based on complex constrained sketching. It also had separate part, assembly and drawing modules.

3D Modeling Techniques Defined

You must understand the purpose of Pro/e, like all other earlier 3D MCAD systems, was sold as a way for faster drawing creation. But in a few years the 3D model was also being used as a pattern for CNC. This made the separate part, assembly and drawing much more of a hindrance. They were sending out the 3D model along with a print of the, now, associated document (drawing).  

The Death of the Drawing

They found it was difficult to keep the 3D model and associated document (drawing) synchronized. Before, they didn't worry about the 3D model, it was only to be the basis for the associate document (drawing) and never left the system.

CADKEY used a single model design environment with integrated drawings where you could have complete projects in one file. If this 3D MCAD paradigm would have been developed, we would not be in this data management mess.

CADKEY or Catia? Boeing’s Billion-Dollar 3D MCAD Mistake!

Pro/e was a hit. Pro/e was very expensive, but nothing compared to the cost of the networked only based systems like Computervision and Catia. Pro/e being able to be sold as a single seat was huge. This was an incredible option to the large and medium sized companies and with PTC very aggressive sales force many seats were sold.

Solidworks was a poorly design PC based clone of an already overly complex and convoluted MCAD modeling system. Many of the development team came from PTC. If fact PTC sued Solidworks for that reason.

But Pro/e created the buzz: “History Based Solid Modeling”. I had been selling PC based 3D CADKEY into Boeing. I was introducing CADKEY to a new group and the fellow asked “Is it history based?” I answered no, why would you want that? “We have to have history based”. This was in the late 1990’s, I wondered if this fellow knew about Catia 5 that was just around the corner. I never thought of this, but there must have been a lot of scuttlebutt about a new version of Catia.

Yes, Solidworks was Pro/e on the PC! It was now available to anyone for less than $10,000 including the software, common PC and 19” CRT.

Pro/e was $65,000 average sale and ran on a Unix workstation.

In 1995 PC based Solid modeling was introduced to the industry with the ACIS and Parasolid modeling kernels. The industry was on fire. Before that we were designing in 2D/3D wireframe and surfaces. Fastsolids, a 3rd party program for CADKEY was being purchased for every CADKEY seat. Many different 3D CAD packages appeared, Trispectives (IronCAD), Think 3, Vellum, Solid Edge, Corel CAD, TurboCAD and, of course, Solidworks.

I must have been introduced to Solidworks in 1998 by a Solidworks representative to represent the product. I was selling both CADKEY and IronCAD and both were miles above Solidwork. I suppose this was my first exposure to the Pro/e paradigm. I told the fellow no one would buy this overly complex package.

I was getting lots of looks at the newly released IronCAD. Both Solidworks and IronCAD were being reviewed by the smaller companies that could not afford the Unix based Pro/e. Solid modeling changed the industry, the productivity increases could not be denied.

Many experienced designers were trying out both package and I was getting rave reviews of IronCAD. The single model environment, drag and drop design, sketch-based design and integrated direct edit made it much, much more productive than Solidworks and it still is.

Five Functions that Increase 3D CAD Productivity!

I was incredibly enthused, but something happened that threw a huge wrench into the works.

This was a new Age!

Both Solidworks and IronCAD had only a serial number and password. Both Solidworks and IronCAD were being passed around from designer to designer. Evaluations were being made. IronCAD management saw the serial numbers and passwords passed around on the internet.  Over my protests, IronCAD management put on strict copy protection moving IronCAD to a second-tier program.

Solidworks didn’t put on strict licensing until 2007 making it basically free to the growing user base. Everyone one was getting a copy. But due to the suits brought by Autodesk, no company would now allow unlicensed software on site. But many users were already very familiar with Solidworks having it on their personal computers and showed the companies, which made it an easy decision. Soon, Solidworks was the most popular 3D MCAD program.

Sadly, this expanded the complex Pro/e solid modeling paradigm.

Remember I told you about the Boeing fellow having to have “history based solid modeling”. Well I am sure Boeing and many of the large companies were now being made aware of the incredible functionality of Pro/e.

In 1994, Boeing was using Catia 4 networked version that was a Boolean system (now called direct edit) and I am sure history based solid modeling of Pro/e was being considered. They probably went to Dassault and said we "Have to Have" this history base solid modeling. Funny thing, Dassault bought Solidworks at the time for 315 million. I am sure they used it as the basis for the development of PC based Catia 5. Luckily they skipped the Unix workstation.

It is interesting why Boeing didn't look at Pro/e or Solidworks. I suppose their influence on the design of Catia 5 was important to develop a system that was more conducive to airplane design. Sadly, it has been a huge failure for Boeing. We will not go into the Catia 4 to Catia 5 fiasco here!

IRONCAD = Catia 4.5 The Catia incompatibility Solution

Catia 5 was the third Pro/e clone. I am not sure when NX came on board as the forth, but Autodesk follow suit with Inventor as the fifth Pro/e clone.

The 5 top 3D MCAD programs were now based on the Pro/e paradigm based on constrained sketching with separate part, assembly and drawing.

30 Years of 3D CAD Incompatibility - The New Generation of 3D CAD!

Is 3D CAD Productivity an Oxymoron?

Enter PLM (Product Lifecycle Management)

A PLM system was developed for Catia 5 based on this level of standardization. Locking 3D MCAD into this inflexible system made the development of newer more productive 3D MCAD virtually impossible.

Along with Catia 5, both NX and Pro/e were duplicated on the PC. No, not one looked to see if they could enhance the MCAD world just cloned this dated 3D MCAD Pro/e solid modeling paradigm. All innovation in 3D MCAD stopped, enhancements were added as extra non-associated modules. They did improve the user interface but it was just putting lipstick on a pig.

TECH-NET was selling CADKEY and IronCAD. We took on Pro/e when it moved to the PC. Sadly, along with the program came all the complexity of the system. We quickly found it took a large staff to support this program.  

We also took on Solid Edge, Solidworks and Inventor. We found they were much too complex to use in our engineering division that was already based on the much more productive CADKEY, IronCAD and ZW3D.

Enter MBE (Model Based Enterprise)

So, the success of Solidworks alone locked the industrial/mechanical into this overly complex Pro/e paradigm-based 3D MCAD system. This followed by the development of the failed PLM system and the ugly step child MBE, which tried to make this dated system more data management friendly.


Specific MCAD system Experience Now Required

None of these systems are compatible causing a huge problem with the lack of interoperability. Each one had its own unique interface which took a long learning curve, and access to the different MCAD systems was not easily available.

Many companies were abused in the beginning, finding themselves MCAD training centers and started demanding experience on the company MCAD system. This made experience in a MCAD system more important than personal engineering experience. Many engineers were soon jumping disciplines. Many industries, like the airplane manufacturers chose Catia 5 for no other reason than Boeing was using it.

Both CADKEY and IronCAD put on strict licensing and Solidworks was being passed around like hotcakes. It was very difficult to compete with "Free". Many users had a copy of Solidworks at home. Everyone I knew had a seat of Solidworks 2006. Things would have been much different if it wasn’t for that one fact.

Now what do both AutoCAD and Solidworks have in common.


That was the one and only reason why engineering is in chaos today!!

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Why TECH-NET Sells IronCAD and ZW3D   

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Joe Brouwer