The 1990's - 3D CAD/CAM Moves to the PC!!

This is the third in a series of articles documenting my experience with the introduction of 3D CAD into industrial/mechanical engineering. Please take some time to read them all. From board draftsman, to 3D CAD designer, to 3D CAD program dealer, to 3D CAD teacher, some of this information may surprise you. 

50 Years of Engineering

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

The 1980's - 3D CAD - The Beginning

The 2000's - The Age of 3D CAD Un-Enlightenment!


You could call the 1990's The Age of CADKEY. CADKEY was the only viable PC based 3D CAD system in the 1990’s.

All attempts to make AutoCAD 3D were a joke. Actually Autocad was not even a CAD package. It was nothing more than an electronic drawing package. You really didn’t use it for Computer Aided Design. It was nothing more than an extension of the drawing board. It still is an incredibly popular drawing package and it has spawned many clones. Today, you can get Draftsight for free to create electronic drawings. I have only created a backyard fence in Autocad in 1985 (??) on a IBM Luggable with a tiny amber display. It was painful. I have only designed in 3D CAD in my professional career starting in 1982. Sadly, since AutoCAD had no copy protection it became wildly popular, putting CAD on a very unproductive path. It is quite amazing an architectural electronic drawing package was so readably adopted by industrial/mechanical design engineering.

Autocad was called 2D. This was a horrible misnomer. This established that the drawing was now was synonymous with 2D. Which could not be further from the truth. This was an electronic drawing package. Just because we now had 3D CAD this was called 2D. We designed with drawings. Each part was defined by separate orthographically projected views. I suppose you could design in 2D by creating flat patterns. But that was about it.

To Draw or Not to Draw??

Redefining 2D/3D CAD

The Death of the Drawing

CADKEY could do both 3D wireframe design and create electronic drawings on a 2D plane in one unique Cartesian coordinate system. It was a much better mechanical drawing package than AutoCAD since it was designed by Industrial/Mechanical engineering professionals. It worked like you would design on the board. Where you slide triangles, used a T-bar or drafting machine. It was an easy transition for the experienced Draftsman.

The image below gives you a bit of an idea how this worked.  The left is in view 1 are separate non-associated views. These were made by copying and pasting the 3D model in the required orientation. We would flattened the 3D wireframe which would remove duplicate entities for efficient plotting. The right view shows the drawing rotated in the common 3D space.

Soon CADKEY developed the Layout mode as compared to the Model mode. This is where CADKEY was far ahead of the industry today. Most 3D CAD package called this mode the drawing mode which is an obvious misnomer. We did not draw anymore. The perfect name for this was the "Associated Document Mode". I have coined what we are now calling the drawing the AID (Associated Information Document). Until we understand this one small but important fact, we are still tied mentally to the board or electronic drawing. Today we are calling the electronic drawings and the AID the same thing, yet they are completely different.

This is a view of the same part in the layout mode. Notice the paper border and the highlighted instance indicating that this was created from a view of the original wire frame (shown on the right)

The 1990's were also The Age of Surfacing.

1989 introduced surfacing to CADKEY with a 3rd party add-on called FastSurf. Surfaces opened the door to CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing). With surfaces we could provide machinable surfaces for 3 axis CNC. We could also create faceted faces for Stereolithography (The predecessor to 3D printing).

Below is an example of surfaces created from scanned data. This gives you an idea how surfacing works with wireframe based entities used to construct the surface. CADKEY was now creating the building blocks to become the best Hybrid 3D CAD modelers.

Below is an example of a .stl.  This was created from a solid but in the mid 1990’s we would use net surfaced parts. This is sent to the sterolithography machine to create prototype parts. Which of course is now mostly done by popular 3D printers.

The only other programs that offered 3D CAD were the high end programs. They ran on expensive workstations and were out of the reach of many companies. In the beginning of the 1990’s all of these packages were still 3D wireframe. Boeing had 1200 seats of CADKEY. I was selling every Boeing supplier CADKEY and expanding 3D CAD use throughout the Northwest.

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

We do not want to forget Rhino. This was a PC based surfacing only package. Later they did add some Boolean solid modeling. It was a very good and cost effective solution for those that needed flexible surfacing.

It was very Autocadish and that instantly put me off. But I decided to become a dealer due to its popularity.

We took a one week class. It was step by step and most of us got lost by the second day. Most of the focus was on organic shapes. The first training project was designing a duck by pushing and pulling on faces. They never did get into mechanical design and most in the class were mechanical designers, drafters and engineers. I found it less useful than CADKEY with FastSurf so I dropped the product.

The high end programs were years behind CADKEY in functionality. Remember they all ran on expensive workstations. They didn’t have a concern about interoperability. We were reading IGES files from all of large system like Pro/E and Catia. There were some other systems out that but they were not used in the Northwest. Autocad was not even in the picture. All of the large companies bypassed the electronic drawing phase moving directly to 3D CAD. Yes, they were generating AID’s and printing them. Boeing called the AID the "flat file" as compared to the 3D model.

The sheet metal shops were some of the first to require 3D models. It was funny that the sheet metal shops lead the way. They could actually turn 3D wireframe sheet metal design into flat patterns automatically using software developed by the stamping machine manufacturers. Now, of course, these parts had to be designed correctly. You can imagine how much cheaper it was to do a one button unfold from a 3D model as compared to developing the flat pattern from drawings.

This is what a common wireframe sheet metal part would look like in CADKEY. Are you looking up or down at the part?

Here is the resulting flat pattern

So the die was being cast and CADKEY was benefiting.
It was soon to become a 3D CAD/CAM world.

Manufacturing was beginning to drive the use of 3D CAD. They soon were demanding the 3D model along with the AID or flat file. The cost of machining started dropping.

CADKEY was being enhanced by leaps and bounds. Creating the documentation was incredible. You could have fully details AIDs (drawings) in hours.  The days of creating a scratch drawing was quickly fading.

CADKEY was unique, you could have all of the parts, assemblies and AIDs (dwawings) in one file. We would design complete projects in one file and have all of the AIDs (drawings) included.

Yes, we were still communicating with the AID (drawings) being printed on paper. There were no PDF’s. The supplier would get the model as an IGES file with the paper AID. Actually we could translate the electronic drawings with IGES and DXF. DXF has been a faux drawing translator until this day. IGES was even worse. DXF and IGES would have dimensions and sometimes views all over the place.  But it was not perfect and we could not standardize on them. But the 2D graphics were relatively stable and could be used by CADKEY to help create 3D models and provide flat patterns.

Lost In Translation? A Guide to 3D CAD Translation Formats.

But something amazing was about to happen!!

The 1990's The Age of Solids

Surfacing is a very tedious way of design. It was a horribly time consuming way of creating parts that could be converted to .stl or provide machinable faces for CNC. That was all about to come to an end. Even though there is a bit of Surface design today in surface sculpting, it is now mostly to enhance our Solid modeling.

We started to hear about Pro/Engineer. But it was a very expensive and complex program and ran on a workstation. Boeing was deep into Catia. We heard about the high end systems like Computervision and Catia dabbling in solid modeling. But it seemed like it happened all at once for the industry in 1996 with the introduction of the Parasoldi (.x_t) and ACIS solid modeling kernel (.sat).

FastSolid was based on ACIS. It was a Boolean system which is what we call direct edit today. No history and you designed like you do today with extrusions, spins, sweeps and lofts. Then you would union, subtract or intersect the solids to create your parts. You designed on separate levels to create a bit of history. When you did something you never wanted to do again you would copy it to another level. It was easy and fast. Miles above history in productivity.

All of my CADKEY customers were calling ordering the beta of FastSolid. Soon all of my customers were designing in solid models. It seemed like Catia 4 came out at that time also using solid models. Sadly, there was no way to get solid model out of Boeing at the time and we were still using IGES exporting wireframe and surfaces.

CAM and CNC started booming. There were many new CNC programs such as SmartCAM, MasterCAM, SURFCAM, etc. But we were translating in IGES.

Soon IGES release a solid model translation code. It was used for a short time. But soon there was a new translator on the block. STEP. It translated wireframe, surfaces and solids. This became the standard export for the high end systems, which at the time were Pro/E and Catia 4. CADKEY and FastSolid could read them all. It was the standard hybrid 3D PC Based CAD tool. At least in the Northwest.

Soon these two new solid modeling kernel gaining popularity.

ACIS and Parasolids.

Soon many companies were licensing the above packages and creating PC based 3D solid modeling package.

We had Fastsolid, Trispectives, TurboCAD, CorelCAD and a variety of programs using the ACIS module.

All were attempting to be mechanical design packages. And some were surprisingly good. I really enjoyed CorelCAD. But they did not get the support and faded away. They were very inexpensive costing hundreds not thousands.

AutoCAD set the price for a CAD company to be viable. That is why we all pay around $4,000.00 per seat for the intermediate programs.

But Trispectives, a solid modeling graphic design package caught my eye. I started playing with it and it had drag and drop design concept, but it was no mechanical package with no documentation functionality. But it had realistic rendering and easy to use animation.

Trispectives being ACIS could export and import the common .sat file. Fastsolid also being ACIS allowed us to move parts and assemblies back and forth. I quickly became a dealer. The price? $495.00

We had a huge CADKEY user base in the Northwest that totaled over 750 on maintenance and another 1000 not on maintenance  (Boeing had an additional 1200). We would have huge seminars and user group meetings ever month.

There was one meeting where a couple of my customers gave a presentation of the mixture of CADKEY, Fastsolids and Trispectives. We had incredible graphics. Transparent views, graphic labels, sectioned realistic views. Etc. It would rival any of the products today. We were selling CADKEY, FastSolid and Trispectives hand over fist. These were very simple packages to use. My company was just me and my bookkeeper/computer tech. Yes, we had to be very PC savvy. We did it all from computer supply to computer networking. No, windows did not come with networking.

Here is one of the images from the above presentation, circa 1997.

That went on throughout the 1990’s.

CONCEPTUAL DESIGN Which 3D CAD Paradigm is Best?

But the late 1990’s were to lead the way to the PC being the Standard 3D CAD/CAM computer platform!

There were a few PC based solid modeling products that showed up but never really made it.

Think3, Solid Edge, Vellum, CoCreate and a few others.

All of the high end 3D CAD systems were moving to the PC, Pro/e, Catia 5 and UG.  They came down in price to around $12,000.00. But the base price did not reflect the complexity of the products. It was not an easy sale they would add module on top of module. By the time you were done you were into the tens of thousands.

Autocad was still struggling with 3D CAD. Nothing was coming out of Autodesk. They still were the King of the Electronic Drawing Package. Architectural, Civil, HVAC and the Industrial/Mechanical industries that had not moved to 3D were using this popular electronic drawing package. Autocad was becoming somewhat of a cult. I would show a manufacturing company the benefits of 3D CAD and they would seem to be scared to make the move or they were not paying for Autocad!

Enter IronCAD

Trispectives was sold to a company that OEM CoCreate. They started turning Trispectives into IronCAD. Since I was a Trispectives dealer, I was somewhat involve in the development. When it was released it was miles above any package at that time. It had integrated history and direct edit modeling (Probably the influence of CoCreate). The integrated direct edit functionality made making changes easy, even on imported parts. They added an AID (drawing) module. It still had its incredibly powerful realistic rendering and animation. This made IronCAD the most advanced and productive conceptual 3D CAD package ever created. And do you know what? It still is.

But there was another PC based 3D CAD package that was being introduced. Solidworks.

Many say Solidworks was some huge innovation, but it really was a poorly designed cheap knock off of Pro/E for the PC. Luckily it came out a couple of years before Pro/E moved to the PC. I was the biggest 3D CAD VAR with both CADKEY (which was purchased by Bob Bean at Baystate) and Trispectives. CADKEY bought both FastSurf and FastSolids from Robert White and was now the best and only hybrid CAD system available on the PC.

The Solidworks VAR representative came to me and offered me a dealership. I laughed and said “who would buy his piece of crap”. How was I to know that Dassault would pay over 300 million for it. I still think they bought it to help develop Catia 5 (I will get to that later). (I did start selling SW though an agreement they had with Surfcam in 2001)

It was very interesting Solidworks and IronCAD were both available and competitors. I had many opinion leaders looking at both packages and making a comparison.

But one of the worst things in my career happened. Both Solidworks and IronCAD had a serial number and password. Things were great. The software, like Autocad in the past was being passed around by CAD professionals. IronCAD was getting rave reviews. It looked like it was going to be the winner.

IronCAD corporate got wind of serial numbers and passwords being published on the “new internet”. It was the same with Solidworks. But they said this cannot be. And against my wishes quickly put strict copy protection on IronCAD. Virtually all interest in IronCAD stopped.

Solidworks used the easily copied serial number and password until 2006 virtually guaranteeing them the top 3D CAD PC based program position. Sadly CADKEY put on strict licensing and after years of being the most popular 3D CAD package they too, had their sales slow to a trickle.

It was funny many of the CADKEY VARS became Solidworks VARs, Bob Bean, Baystate Technology President, who had just purchased CADKEY got angry and cancelled their dealerships basically tossing CADKEY on the trash heap of lost CAD programs. We will get into the downfall of CADKEY in the 2000s article.

 The 2000's - The Age of 3D CAD Un-Enlightenment!

But CADKEY did something quite incredible.


The writing was on the wall. History based design was here and engineering liked it. CADKEY seeing this created what they called CADKEY Parametrics. They added parametric history based design on top of a wireframe, surfacing and direct edit program. Quite the opposite of what is happening today. It was truly incredible and quite functional even in the beta release.

I remember a presentation we did at Boeing. We did it all wireframe, surfacing, direct edit and finished off with history based design. It was by far the best presentation of CAD I had ever seen and it was done with basically beta software. The Boeing folks left drooling.

I started selling what was now fondly called “The Parametric Module”. We had quite a few CADKEY users from Boeing stepping up to the line for training. “History Based” design was the Buzz word and it was on everyone’s lips.  CADKEY was on its way to be the most innovative, flexible hybrid modeler of the day. It was destine to lead the 3D CAD industry to a new level of productivity. I was the only dealer in the Northwest, I was already counting my money!!

Introduction of Catia 5 into Boeing

Now, since I had virtually all the Boeing supplier CAD business tied up using CADKEY, let me tell you what happened with the introduction of Catia 5.

I remember calling a Boeing group trying to expand CADKEY in Boeing. He asked me “Does it have history based design?” I said “you do not want history it is very complex and difficult to use as compared to Boolean design” (Catia 4). He said “We have to have History”. I thought oh no, they are being introduced to Pro/e.

But I soon found out that Catia 5 was coming out. Oh yes, Boeing had developed "Pro/E" or history based design envy. I am sure that Catia 5 was directly influenced by Boeing wanting history based design. I am sure they went to Dassault and said we are thinking of moving to Pro/E causing the birth of Catia 5. Pro/E no matter how complex offered the ability to handle large models. And an Airplane is a large assembly. Of course, Dassault now had the Solidworks technology and a staff which included the knowledge of a very experienced former PTC design team.

Enter PLM (Produce Lifecycle Management and MBD (Model Based Definition).

PLM & PDM Defined

With Catia 4 Boeing was still delivering paper prints. This was a great expense and time consuming. Even though the AID (drawing) was in a native Catia 4 file the only way to view it was a print. I ask myself, was this the problem they were trying to solve with MBD (Model Based Design) and the introduction of the PMI (Product Manufacturing Information) format. What could only be called a 3D drawing?  It is quite bizarre they put the dimensions on separate planes in the 3D space. It requires the native Catia 5 software, Enovia (an expensive viewer) or a 3rd party viewer. It is not a viable standard and quite convoluted. They are trying to make it a standard but it is going to be a failure. Even today we do not have a standard “Free” PMI reader and it has been 18 years!!!

Adobe came out with Acrobat Pro that actually could read the native Catia 5 file and PMI. Then could export the model as a STEP. I really don’t know what happened with this. Adobe sold it off. Maybe it interfered with the Enovia sales or created a corrupt model from the native Catia part.

Free PMI Importer?

Sadly PDF was right around the corner. That would have kept the process standard and simple. With the solid model and AID as a PDF, you would have had a very simple engineering deliverable. Nothing had to change. Except there would be no more paper.

OnShape: The Ultimate Document Control System

But they were just too far gone. PLM and MBD have cost Boeing millions if not billions trying to implement. The suppliers were lost. Today Boeing demands that the supplier buys a 3rd party validation program to assure that the solid model is the same as the solid model they are machining. Apples to apples? Of course, but Catia 5 produces some of the most corrupt part files in the industry.

Compare and Validation Programs? Band-Aids for Self Inflicted Wounds!

One of the problems of moving from Catia 4 to Catia 5 was that the files could not utilized by either system. The only thing they have in common was the name.  Luckily there was not a lot of use of Catia 5 since all of the Airplanes were designed in CADKEY and Catia 4. But that changed in the beginning of the 2000’s. This change has cost and is still costing Boeing and Airbus billions in legacy data incompatibility.

"I have worked with Boeing and Catia for over 30 years. Dassault is responsible for keeping Boeing one of the most ignorant and isolated manufacturing companies. Their lack of interoperability is beyond belief.

I will get into more problems with PLM, MBD and Catia 5 in the next decade.

The beginning years of the millennium were full of new innovation and problems as all 3D CAD moved to the PC.

The 2000's were an exciting time for TECH-NET. CADKEY was getting ready to provide native translators for Unigraphics, Pro/E and Catia with their CADKEY 20. We became Pro/E dealers. Then took on Solid Edge. Direct edit became a reality that could not be ignored with the entrance of SpaceClaim and Siemens Synchronous Technology!! And so much, much more.

The 2000's - The Age of 3D CAD Un-Enlightenment!

Please feel free to stop by our website below for a variety of articles on the State of our Industry, interesting articles on 3D CAD Productivity and a few of our projects!

Viewpoints on Today's 3D CAD and Engineering Industry

Here is a taste of what is there. This is my favorite and most popular article.

The Worst to Best 3D CAD System and Why