A primer: How do I pick the best [CAD/CAE/PLM/CAM/etc] solution?

Aug 12, 2016 | Hot Topics

I get a lot of question from readers but, by FAR, the most common one is: What’s the best [CAD/CAM/CAE/CFD/PIDO/PLM/etc] on the market?

It would be so easy, wouldn’t it, if there were one easily identifiable answer to that question. And the vendors, of course, will tell you that their solution is so far superior to the competition’s that you should feel silly even having to ask the question. But the reality is incredibly complex; any one vendor may have superiority for a moment in a particular niche, but that’s quickly erased with the next releases of the competitors’ products. There is no one best universal solution, there’s only the one that best meets your needs, as you know them right now.

So what’s a buyer to do? Some suggestions:

  1. Don’t blindly buy into what the vendors put out there. Their job is to sell; if that means stretching claims a bit, they will. Note that I am not suggesting outright misrepresentation (that’s incredibly hard to do today, given the instantaneous and harsh reality of the World Wide Web), just that seller-speak is meant to be self-serving. An example: “We just signed a global agreement with [BIG company name here]”. That’s awesome but doesn’t mean “We’re the only vendor [BIG company] uses” even though that’s how the rest of the press release is meant to be interpreted.
  2. In fact, ignore the vendors at the start of your evaluation and focus on yourself. What do you need? Today? What does your current tool set not enable you to do? What’s the biggest bottleneck you need to remove, right now? If you’re an architect, for example, and you need to work better with MEP contractors, BIM may be WAY more design power than you need — or it may not. Ignore what’s out there and go back to basics: write a detailed spec of what your team does today, follow a typical project from concept to conclusion, write down every step and participant. Ask them what they do, why and how, and ask what could be better. This is an incredibly unsexy task; it feels so much more like progress if you can invite in a bunch of vendors and resellers to do presentations — but you won’t know how to evaluate what they say unless you’re specific about what you need. Very specific.
  3. One you know what you need today, stop. Let this sit for as long as is practical, so that you can go back with a fresh perspective. It may only be a weekend if you really, really need to fix something, but take that time. it’s amazing how often you realize that you’ve left out something important, or that someone’s perspective is skewed by a really bad day.
  4. Now that you’ve got current needs nicely defined, it’s time to move on to the future. How do you see your business changing and growing? Are you thinking of offering other products or services that mean you need additional expertise or capability? What does that mean, in detail? Who will do what? What skills will people bring to the job, and what skills do they need tools to backstop? For example, if you currently design and make widgets and you think your material costs are going to skyrocket, maybe you need to develop the expertise to simulate the widget to reduce the material quantities used. Does your team know how to do that? What kind of simulation tools do you have now, or need to acquire? If you don’t know how to do that, and your team wants to learn, perhaps a CAD+CAE combo makes sense. Looking ahead helps anticipate future needs.
  5. But whatever it includes, realize that your list of future needs is a guess — focus your on current problems when developing your criteria and list of questions. What’s your #1 priority? #2? #3? A shorter list is better, but be as specific as possible. [At an event a few years ago I sat in on a wonderful presentation by a gentleman who helped his company figure out how to prioritize what they needed in a PLM system. Lists turned into spreadsheets as that calculated weightings for each criterion — it was impressive and not at all analysis paralysis. Do what you need to do to create priorities, but don’t let that take the place of action.]
  6. Check your criteria against friendly outsiders. In fancy business-speak this might be considered benchmarking, but it can be as simple as calling a former colleague and asking them what tools they’re using, and how. You’re not looking for business secrets, but trying to validate your thought process. For some people, speed and ease of use is everything; for others, it’s about accurate toolpaths for precision machining. If you’re looking at CFD, perhaps you need solvers optimized for certain applications to minimize compute power — talk to people solving problems like yours to see how they approach their tool decisions. Once you’re confident that you’ve captured your needs as completely as possible, sanity-checked them against outsiders and prioritized what matters most.
  7. Create a test scenario or benchmark. That might be as simple as a part or assembly you struggled to create using your current tools, or it could be simulation you can match up against physical results, or — well, anything that matches what you will need to do with the solution you are about to select. A couple of things to watch out for: don’t get crazy and make the benchmark too complex. That will just make it harder to evaluate; all of today’s solutions are decent at many things and excellent at a few. You want to focus on what matters most to you, your top priorities. Now,
  8. Start looking at what’s on the market. You have to keep working, but try to carve out a few hours per week to download and play with trial versions of products that look like they might fit your particular set of needs. Try out your benchmarks but realize you’re not (yet) an expert user of that software and might not have the perfect hardware setup; cut yourself some slack here. You’re trying to get a sense of usability, whether the help mechanisms can accelerate your learning curve, if there’s a strong user community (local to you and/or online) to help if you get stuck … All of the intangibles that might make one or two products stand out. Your goal here is to create a short list of vendors and products.
  9. Invite those vendors to show you what they can do. Let them show you on their parts/models/assemblies/CNC machines. Assuming that goes well, ask them to perform your benchmark case while you watch, on your hardware if possible of with a very clear explanation of what they’re doing if it can’t be done on your machines. If they won’t do it, walk away. (Don’t be unreasonable; if they legitimately can’t do your benchmark, try to understand why.) You’re also trying to understand how this vendor treats customers; be sure you’re embarking on a mutually positive relationship. Does their services capability meet your needs? Are they local, if that matters to you? Equally as important, what’s their future roadmap? Does it go in the same general direction as your future needs?
  10. Make the decision. You’ve made lists, figured out what’s important, looked vendors in the eye as they describe what they can do. Now pull the trigger and sign the PO.

Notice that I haven’t once mentioned price. That’s because to some people, a $300,000 Mercedes Maybach is a reasonable option for transportation while for others, a $1,500 motor scooter will suffice. Don’t think about price; think about value. More expensive tools often come with very specific benefits; if you need that particular attribute, you’ll be willing to pay for it. If you don’t need that, don’t even consider that toolset. Especially today, when so many products are offered in many different configurations, price may not be as relevant as it once was. But do realize that you get what you pay for: you’re a business, you want support and a product that will continue into the future.

A couple of last things:

Compatibility matters. If you’re coming from a legacy system to a new one, will you need to rebuild parts? Or can you more easily migrate them to the new system? Don’t underestimate that effort or cost. Similarly, what do your customers and partners use? How will you import/export or otherwise interact with them?

Partners extend the value of whatever solutions you’re considering, so put that into your decision criteria, too. If you’re looking at CAD tools, what applications are built in, what are supplied by partners via APIs or similar mechanisms, and what gaps are left between what they provide and what you need? Ideally, none.

How big is the pool of trained users? Your staff will change over time, and if you can’t find new team members who already know your tool set, you’ll need to teach them both your business and how to use your tools. Try to select something taught in the schools and universities around you.

Licensing mechanisms matter, too. If your people sit at workstations all day, it may not be as important but if your team members go out to the job site or travel to manufacturing plants, you’ll want assurances that their licenses can go with them. This can be complex if a Bostonian is going to a facility in China, but there should be a way to accommodate most needs.

So. I know you want me to tell you that NX is better than … or that PDMS is better than … or that Nastran is better than …  — and they probably are, in specific cases. But then CATIA is better than … SmartPlant is better than … ANSYS is better than … in other cases. It comes down to what you need most, right now, and how that supplier can meet your future needs.

What did I leave out? What other primers would you like to see? Sound off below in the comments section!

Image is courtesy of pixabay.