Overheard last week at Solid Edge University:

Customer: ‘This is the best assembly environment I’ve seen.’
Solid Edge guy: ‘Here’s what we’re doing to make it better.’

A lot of similar conversations took place last week at Solid Edge University, the Siemens PLM user conference devoted solely to that brand. There are some in the Twitterverse and blogosphere who are dismissive of Siemens’ commitment to its Solid Edge user base, but I honestly did not speak with a single user who was dissatisfied — yes, a feature might not work as a particular user would like it to and there are always areas for improvement, but everyone I spoke with was excited by the progress Solid Edge is making, how productive they are using Solid Edge, and the possibilities afforded by being part of the much larger Siemens PLM universe.

My top takeaways from the event:

  1. Siemens is investing in Solid Edge. Karsten Newbury, SVP and GM of the Solid Edge and Velocity Series business within Siemens PLM Software, said that R&D staff has increased by 20%, the marketing budget has doubled and the sales staff has tripled in the last 2 years.
  2. This investment is starting to pay off, not in the least measured by the happy customers I spoke with. Mr. Newbury said that Solid Edge revenue has grown by double digits every year since it became a separate business unit, with 30% growth in license revenue in fiscal 2011 (ended September 30, 2011) and 40% growth in US sales first half of fiscal 2012. He also said that new communities of users are critical to the company’s success. For example, the Solid Edge user community in China, 3dst.com, has 150,000 members — clearly, not all are paying users, but a strong community of interested prospects is a very positive sign of forward momentum, as is that fact that the company has seen over 50,000 downloads of the free student edition of Solid Edge since October.
  3. I don’t think we can read anything into the disparity between the increases in R&D investment and sales/marketing. Siemens always paid more attention to R&D than its go-to-market activities, so the 20%/100%/300% it item 1 above likely reflects increased focus on sales and marketing and doesn’t indicate any kind of shift away from core R&D efforts.
  4. That said, Mr. Newbury acknowledged that Siemens’ R&D team can’t do everything and that Solid Edge must work harder to build out a third party ecosystem. To address some of its most vocal critics, he announced a “first look” at an integrated CAM capability, provided by Geometric Software. [I’m not a CAM expert, so if any of you took a look, what did you think? Email me using the link below– Ed.]
  5. Siemens PLM chairman Tony Affuso reaffirmed the company’s commitment to Solid Edge several times, both in public and in private. He told me that the brand is crucial to reaching the company’s vision of “providing everyone in the [product creation] process a better view of the information needed to make smarter decisions and better products”. Not everyone needs (or can afford) an NX-scale solution, yet all users can benefit from the cross-development that Siemens PLM brings to the two product lines. During his keynote, Mr. Affuso told us that in 2011, “Solid Edge software revenue growth outpaced Solidworks and Autodesk”, which would put its growth at somewhere over 9% (SolidWorks revenue growth in 2011, in Euros), and 15% (Autodesk’s Manufacturing unit revenue growth for the year ended January 31, 2012, in US Dollars). Not bad at all.
  6. Mr. Affuso indirectly addressed questions about why Solid Edge hasn’t been a world-beater to date, saying that Siemens is now better organized to drive growth in its mainstream business, is actively recruiting resellers (90% of Solid Edge’s revenue comes via the channel), and has a long-range plan to invest in the brand. He sees momentum building for Solid Edge, both in attracting new users via attractive pricing (like for Local Motors) and in growing technical capability.
  7. Dan Staples, Director of Solid Edge Product Development, led us though many of the 1,300 enhancements users can expect in the ST5 release, out in July. He outlined the vision behind the release: “To be the best mechanical assembly design system,” with a focus on faster, smoother in-context assembly design; large assembly handling; sheet metal design and easy, fast drawing production. ST5 also adds new thermal analysis for steady-state simulations and introduces Solid Edge Insight XT, a new Microsoft SharePoint app to manage Solid Edge files and related documents. More on Insight XT in a separate blog post. I can’t cover all 1,300 enhancements here (and I’m sure Siemens will, once the release gets closer), but users seemed most excited by assembly and drawing enhancements and by constraints “relaxing”, where they will be able to momentarily remove a dimension, for example, to alter a model which would fail under the current constraint, then reapply it.
  8. Mr. Staples said that history-based modeling “is not going away”, since it is the best way to accomplish some tasks. Solid Edge users will be able to take advantage of history-based modeling “as long as you like” and use Synchronous Technology in “bite sized” pieces for a portion of a design, without having to “commit the entire design to Synchronous”; Synchronous models can be completed using a history-based approach.
  9. Local Motors, “the place for people to create influential vehicles together”, is very cool. CEO and co-founder Jay Rogers talked about how individuals can change the make-up of an entire industry, shifting how it creates value. In his view, the next industrial revolution belongs to individuals who can do more in groups and networks than entire nations could in the last because of the combination of cost-effective design tools, broadband access and creative commons licensing to protect intellectual property. The Solid Edge tweak, for those who don’t know, was intended to provide community members with a professional-level CAx solution at a reasonable price (to eliminate having to worry about use of unauthorized licenses of something else). Licenses start at $19.95/month per user and can be canceled at any time; the top-level package costs $299/month. For those interested, the current Local Motors challenge is to design the next Peterbilt (truck) rig; get involved at forge.local-motors.com/RIG2. But hurry – the contest ends June 26, 2012.
  10. I attended a number of sessions on CAE and assembly modeling at #SEU12 and was impressed by how well the Solid Edge team “gets” its users. Many presenters seemed to have been users at one point, understanding SE from the perspective of having to get a job done, rather than the cool technology underlying the solution. For example, the assembly design session I sat in on was very interactive, as the speaker talked about and showed ST5 features while the audience members tried to figure out (out loud) how the new stuff would make them more productive. Lots of “try it this way” and “you could”. We were in danger of running far past the allotted time, so I hope everyone caught up with Art afterwards.

Siemens PLM is teaming up with the organization Still Serving Veterans to help veterans of the US Armed Forces develop their skills for engineering-related careers. As part of the program, Solid Edge and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel enabled 15 veterans to attend Solid Edge University free of charge, to network and attend training classes. Each veteran will receive a license for Solid Edge which, it is hoped, will give them an advantage in their civilian hob hunt. There’s much more to the program, so click here for more info. Awesome.

This was the second Solid Edge University, with twice the number of attendees as at the first event. Nashville is, I am told, only a 90-minute drive from the Solid Edge homebase in Huntsville, which allowed Siemens to bring busloads of staff to interact with users — a great idea, and a sure way to deepen relationships and gain feedback on everything from the user interface to the coming integrated CAM package. It’s fun to watch Solid Edge become ever-more capable and take its place alongside its competitors. Its customers certainly love it, and Siemens’ investment in the brand is taking that vibe to a much wider audience.

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