SolidWorks World 2012 started off last week with NAO (pronounced “now”) — an utterly adorable 57 cm (just under 2 feet) tall robot from Aldebaran that that seems almost human — breakdancing on screen and on the stage.

(Image http://www.aldebaran-robotics.com/en/Pressroom/Photography/nao.html#10)

And it only got better from there. I attended keynotes, had lots of meetings and even had time to talk to users and resellers. Here are my top takeaways from my time in San Diego:

  1. SolidWorks is big. To date, SolidWorks says that 1.7 million units have been sold, 1.2 million of which were into the educational realm. SolidWorks says this equates to 2.5 million students leaving school with some training under their belts. Speaking of … There are over 50,000 certified SolidWorks users out there. From one of the PR team (apologies for not noting who told me), I learned that SolidWorks added 15,939 new customers and 250,000 new users in 2011, by SolidWorks World 2013, they expect to hit the 2 million license mark. Over 5,600 people from 32 countries attended SolidWorks World 2012, including 110 partner companies. And, finally, DraftSight has been downloaded over 2 million times.
  2. SolidWorks NextGen/V6 didn’t come up all that much in the conference content. CEO Bertrand Sicot mentioned in the first keynotes session that a “next generation CAD platform” to “keep users competitive” would be out sometime next year. He told the audience, “you will tell us when our next generation is ready. We will let you choose which application you want to use. No one will be forced to move to the new platform. When you choose to switch, we will make sure that the transition is seamless.” He was very clear on one thing: existing/traditional SolidWorks, “with no data format change”, will be supported until “users tell us they don’t need it any more”. Given our industry’s lack of success on that “seamlessness”, it will be interesting to learn how that will be done but no details were given at SolidWorks World 2012.
  3. I asked a lot of users about NextGen/V6; most of them don’t seem to be too worried, believing that SolidWorks (the company) will continue to support the product they rely on and would smooth the transition when the time comes. A few expressed mild interest in the capabilities the new platform could deliver but since SolidWorks (the company) hasn’t said much, they had little to get excited about. They were far more interested in SolidWorks 2013, which should be in Beta in the next 6 months or so. It feels a bit like everybody’s avoiding a problem you know is coming, but given the lack of timelines and other information and the “it’ll be OK” statements from SolidWorks, it’s an understandable reaction. SolidWorks does appear to be using a “carrot” rather than a “stick” by putting new features into the NextGen/V6 product that could attract users and make a switch worthwhile.
  4. New VP of R&D Gian Paolo Bassi gave a press conference and spoke with me individually. He said that the NextGen/V6 transition from Parasolid to CGM “will not be a disaster. We want the new SolidWorks to inspire users, and do not want them to feel forced to switch.” The NextGen/V6 product will be targeted at new and existing customers who have need of its “unstructured product development” tools, especially what DS is calling “extreme collaboration”, with data available everywhere, at any time, on many platforms. Mr. Bassi did amplify that the 2013 release is not time-driven; he said that it was more important to get the product right, and that early adopters would likely see something in 2013.
  5. V6 is not the only thing on Mr. Bassi’s plate. He wants to grow SolidWorks’ usability and flexibility, add conceptual design tools and ensure that the product’s overall architecture is “sustainable”, in part by leveraging the broad portfolio of parent company Dassault Systèmes’ (DS) toolkit. It’s important to him that SolidWorks be based on technology owned by DS because that offers technological (and presumably pricing) flexibility that is not available when working with third parties. Mr. Bassi’s vision is quite broad: he doesn’t see SolidWorks’ (the product) role starting or stopping with geometry, which has long been the case because of the focus on designing for manufacturability. Mr. Bassi instead sees great potential in “fuzzy modeling”, where less detail and precision are used to capture ideas. He’s an interesting guy with lots of vision — the challenge will be melding that vision with the hundreds of thousands of installed users who can only be moved forward at a slow pace. [Full disclosure: Mr. Bassi and I both worked for Attilio Rimoldi at Computervision many years ago.]
  6. SolidWorks has worked hard to address stability and quality concerns, but users remain skeptical. CEO Sicot mentioned during his keynote that “stability has increased in SolidWorks over the years”, to a deafening lack of cheering. Mr. Bassi and I discussed how SolidWorks (company) has changed its quality control and assurance processes over the last few years, seeking to “design quality in” rather than finding out at the last second that it is lacking. Perhaps the problem is that many in the audience are still on older, buggier versions; SolidWorks (company) really does believe that the 2012 release is at a very high level of quality. I’d be interested to hear from readers with experience: tell me, is SolidWorks 2012 better than recent releases? If you’re not convinced, when are you likely to move to 2012?
  7. SolidWorks picked some fascinating keynote speakers for this event. Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program pointed out that there is value in skilled labor jobs like carpentry. Engineers, said Mr. Rowe, bridge the gap between “blue collar” and “white collar” but all of us could stand to get “dirty”, using our brain and our hands to get the job done. Mr. Rowe is using his celebrity to point out that too many skilled labor jobs are unfilled at a time of high unemployment — perhaps because people don’t consider trades as real careers. But if the reason the vacancies aren’t being filled is due to lack of training, Mr. Rowe’s website, mikeroweworks.com, is a good place to start, offering information on trades as well as job listings. Mike and Geoff Howe (of Black Ops Brothers, also on the Discovery Channel) talked about how their tiny company competes against mega-conglomerates in the defense industry, winning contracts because they are relentless in their quest to solve problems one at a time and because, once they decide on a project, “failure is not an option. Design around the challenge. Don’t give up, figure out a way to get to what you want to accomplish.”
  8. I spoke with a number of SolidWorks customers, staff and resellers about data management/PDM/PLM. Not surprising, an awful lot of SolidWorks users don’t even use the data management tools that are bundled into the products they buy. There is, however, growing awareness, especially when SolidWorks and the resellers can make the argument that the startup costs in hardware and personnel are minimal compared to the eventual savings. Sales of EPDM (Enterprise PDM — a unfortunately named product for this target audience) are growing nicely, and n!Fuze is to be repackaged, repriced and rereleased later this year.
  9. Autodesk University was all about makers; SolidWorks World was all about community. According to Richard Doyle, who manages the community programs for SolidWorks, 21 local chapters joined the network, bringing the total to over 200 user groups in 44 U.S states, 5 Canadian provinces, and 27 other countries around the world. SolidWorks brought home the community/collaboration/”we”-centric message in innumerable ways throughout the conference, the most unusual of which was a Canadian project to crowd source discovery of the oceans. Dr. Maia Hoeberechts from NEPTUNE Canada, an underwater observatory that is really a network of hundreds of instruments and sensors in the northern Pacific, relies on researchers and the public to dissect the terabytes of data collected. The Digital Fishers project, for example, has people analyze 15-second videos and describe what they see so that scientists can more easily capture and analyze the data. Fascinating.
  10. Bottom line: SolidWorks, the company, is in transition. M. Sicot, the CEO, has been in this position for a year (but with SolidWorks in other roles since 1997); the VP of R&D, Gian Paolo Bassi, hasn’t even been there six months (though he has been with DS for a number of years). They are beginning to make their mark, but we won’t know for at least another year how the story develops. The risk is that Autodesk or another competitor announce something startling, definite and immediate that steals the thunder from whatever may be coming from SolidWorks — but that’s always a risk and the proof will be in how this management team deals with such a situation, if it comes. (It’s possible that Autodesk’s PLM 360 is such a product, but not much is known there, either.) SolidWorks has amazingly loyal customers, a very strong reseller network and the backing of a $2 billion parent company. It’s not going anywhere.

Wow – this got long. And I didn’t even write about the reseller channel, partner network, SolidWorks in Japan, more on PDM/PLM/ENOVIA/EPDM/n!Fuze, configurability and robotics, what’s coming in SolidWorks 2013 (but see a list here). I hope to get to some of these in future posts.

Note: SolidWorks graciously covered expenses and registration for the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

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