The Greater Boston 3D Design Cluster

In the movie 21, three MIT students who know their math go to Las Vegas and play blackjack. Eventually they get thrown out, after nearly breaking the bank at the casinos’ card tables.

Well, as we’ve reported before, it’s a true story. And one of the three MIT geniuses was Jon Hirschtick, who invested his winnings from the adventure wisely, founding Concord, MA-based SolidWorks and developing the first 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software that ran on an ordinary PC.

But while that was a key moment in the evolution of CAD technology, it was the second or third chapter in the development of the New England region’s cluster of CAD software makers, which one of the world’s strongest. Companies here lead their industry in the development of 3D design and engineering software, which help engineers create visualizations and specifications for everything from cars to buildings to the consumer products on the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart. Indeed, CAD software is so central to the construction and manufacturing industries that without it, innovation and economic growth would be far slower.

That’s why Xconomy will be featuring leaders of the local CAD cluster during a breakout session at our June 17 XSITE event, the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. Entitled “Designing the Next Economy,” the panel will include multimedia presentations by speakers from Autodesk, Newforma, Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), SolidWorks, SpaceClaim, and Z Corporation, followed by a discussion of the cluster’s key role in accelerating innovation.

SolidWorks assembly modeling illustrationLike most regional technology clusters, Boston’s CAD cluster started out small and, to some extent, accidentally. In 1985, Sam Geisberg, a Russian immigrant and math genius, left Bedford, MA- based Computervision, an early pioneer in CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), to develop the first “parameter driven” CAD system, later named Pro Engineer. (In computer-aided design, parameter-driven systems are “associative,” so if you make one small change in a model the corresponding parts that need to be relocated will be updated automatically. This speeds up the design process considerably compared to earlier non-parametric systems.) Together with Mike Payne and others, Geisberg founded PTC in 1985. The company quickly lined up its first important customer, John Deere. PTC went public in 1989, and today its products have almost 800,000 users.

Another pioneer is Jim Heppelmann. In 1996 Heppelmann left Metaphase Technology to start his own business, named Windchill Technology. His goal was to develop a new Internet-capable system for “product life cycle management” (PLM), the art of keeping product data from CAD models and other sources consistent and updated through a product’s entire lifecycle. He succeeded well enough to attract the attention of PTC, which acquired Windchill in 1998.

Today companies like PTC, SolidWorks, SpaceClaim, and MathWorks all have their headquarters in the Boston area, as does the architecture, engineering, and construction devision of San Mateo, CA-based CAD giant Autodesk. (Our detailed list of these companies follows on page 3 of this story.) While most of the companies are branches of the same big family tree, they also form a competitive ecosystem, frequently hiring engineers and programmers away from one another and pushing the technology forward in a race to make their systems more useful, quick, and attractive.

But the CAD companies will need to become more innovative than ever if they hope to stay competitive. Twenty-five years ago, CAD programs were used only by design engineers; they were expensive, ran only on equally expensive workstations, and required a lot of training to master. Innovations like SolidWorks’ brought about a huge shift, allowing any engineer with access to an ordinary PC to model structures on screen and verify them for mechanical strength, manufacturability, and the like. (These math-heavy tasks are aided in part by software from Natick, MA-based Mathworks, another key player in the cluster.) Today, however, that revolution in accessibility has largely run its course, and how the local CAD companies deal with a new set of common challenges will determine whether the Boston area remains a capital of the engineering software industry.

For one thing, CAD software is becoming a commodity; it is to product design as Microsoft Word is to writing. Most CAD programs can run on regular PCs, can handle 3D as well as 2D data, and are available for lower and lower prices. To differentiate their products and stimulate demand, vendors are busy adding suites of features such as simulation, compliance management, and PLM.

Furthermore, the CAD industry is increasingly being absorbed into the larger discipline of PLM itself. In product lifecycle management, digital data about a product—including its initial 3D design—is structured so that it can be used all along the chain of design and manufacturing, including production planning, customer service and repair, and end-of-life recycling. That means basic product data only needs to be entered once, and is kept consistent during a product’s entire existence, making it easier to streamline processes and methods.

Vendors like SolidWorks long confined themselves mainly to generating and managing design data, but today they’re adding more features to their systems, such as PLM functionality in the cloud, as well as version of their software that work on Apple products and touch screens. This is happening both because the market for 3D design software itself is becoming saturated, and because customers in the manufacturing and construction industries are demanding more interoperability in the systems they buy.

Architectural rendering using Autodesk's 3DSMaxIn fact, the customer call for open interfaces now has grown into a chorus that the CAD vendors can’t afford to ignore. Just as with standards like HTTP, HTML, and XML on the Web, open formats in the engineering business facilitate the exchange of information across platforms. Older CAD formats were proprietary and made data migration troublesome. But the Internet itself has hastened the doom of this approach. Autodesk’s DWG format for 3D data has become a de facto standard, with other vendors such as Solid Works and PTC modifying their software in recent years to support it.

And if standard formats are becoming more common, so is direct editing, also called direct modeling or “non-historic” CAD software. A more sketch-like approach to 3D modeling, direct editing programs leave out the “parametric tree” of physical and engineering data that underlies traditional CAD models. They are easier to use than full CAD systems and run faster on most computing hardware, and are gaining use during the early prototyping and testing stages of product design. SpaceClaim is one leader in direct editing, but Autodesk has also taken a big step in this direction with new features in Inventor 2011, its program for mechanical engineering, which allow users to switch seamlessly between direct and normal editing. PTC is also walking this road, allowing users to switch between ProEngineer for parametric modeling and CoCreate for direct editing.

With prices falling for standard 3D CAD software, vendors are also working on new enticements such as Hollywood-style realism in onscreen graphics, and even mobile applications. So the flow of development continues—but it’s very unlikely that any new CAD program will be developed using money from the casinos in Las Vegas.

Continue to 3D Design Cluster List

Andover, MA
CEO: Peter Schroer

A small, Massachusetts-based company, Aras was the first to offer open-source product lifecycle management (PLM) software for Microsoft platforms. The company was founded 10 years ago and it started out as a traditional proprietary system. But the founders did not care much for marketing and selling—they loved programming—so in 2007 they decided to give their code away for free. Consulting and revenues from a partner network bring food to the table. A special feature in Aras is the built-in support for change management and quality planning.

The Aras Innovator suite consists of software for PLM, for quality and global supply  management. Being open source, it is hard to track the numbers of Aras’s users, but the software has been downloaded more than 31,000 times.

Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Division
Waltham, MA
CEO: Carl Bass
Senior Vice President, AEC Solutions: Jay Bhatt

Autodesk was founded in 1982, and now has more than 9 millions users within manufacturing, building, infrastructure, media, and entertainment. Even for a company of Autodesk’s size, being one of the world biggest CAD companies, it has an astonishingly broad software portfolio, adding up to about 100 different programs for 2D and 3D design.

Revit, Autodesk’s software for conceptualizing and modeling new buildings, was originally created by engineers from Parametric Technology Corporation (see below) who left to start their own business. These engineers coined the term Building Information Modeling, or BIM, to connote the consistent sharing and and storage of information in building and construction projects. Autodesk acquired Revit in 2002. Navisworks, which aggregates multiple 3D models to provide real-time visualization and reviews, is another big product for the AEC segment. Europe is Autodesk’s biggest market, followed by the Americas and Asia/Pacific.

Kubotek USA
Marlborough, MA
CEO: Naotake Kakishita

Kubotek Corporation began as a medical electronics equipment company in 1979 in Japan. However, it developed its the 3D MCAD program, Cadkey, one of the first direct modeling systems, here in the United States. In 2004 Kubotek launched KeyCreator, the evolution to Cadkey, with enhanced functions for for the design of tooling, complex machinery, fixtures, molds, other equipment used by the CAD/CAM industry.

Natick, MA
CEO: Jack Little

MathWorks, founded 1984 by Jack Little and Cleve Moler, develops and supplies software for technical computing and model-based design, a method used for developing complex products. Matlab lets users carry out mathematical modeling in a range of areas from energy to space exploration to biotechnology, and MathWorks’ Simulink family of products helps with the modeling, simulation, and verification of semiconductor devices such as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The programs are often used in conjunction with, and to verify, more complex CAD designs. MathWorks has over one millions users around the world, including researchers at 5,000 universities.

Manchester, NH
CEO: Ian Howell

Newforma was founded in 2003 by seven industry professionals. The company launched its flagship product Newforma Project Center, in 2005. It is used by architects, engineers, and construction specialists to organize and manage project information. The software has modules for project monitoring, contract administration, BIM/CAD reviews, and the like. Newforma just over 28,000 users

Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC)
Needham, MA
CEO: Jim Heppelmann

PTC was founded in 1985 and is focused on software for manufacturing. The company’s main product is the Windchill suite, a portfolio of integrated product life cycle management products. PTC also markets the 3D program ProEngineer, widely used within the automotive industry for the design of power trains and engines. ProEngineer is a classical 3D-parametric MCAD-program, but PTC also offers CoCreate, a direct editing program suitable for early design phases and collaboration. PTC’s fastest growing product, however, is InSight, a software system for environmental compliance.  PTC has about 775,000 users world wide.

SensAble Technologies [[Story updated with company addition on 6/29/10]]
Woburn, MA
CEO: Curt Rawley

SensAble Technologies was founded in 1993, and is a developer in 3D touch-enabled and haptic design technology, for products from dental restorations to toys to robotics. SensAble’s technology is based on 3D pixels (called “voxels”) and its haptic design device allows users to feel designs evolve as they are creating them, rather than just see them on screen. In 2006 the company launched a division specifically dedicated to designs in the dental industry.

Concord, MA
CEO: Jeff Ray

SolidWorks was founded 1993 by Jon Hirschtick. Together with his team, he developed the first 3D CAD system that worked on PCs. His idea was also that CAD software should be easy to use and affordable.

In 1997 SolidWorks was acquired by Dassault Systemes, a French company best known for its Catia program, which is mainly used in automotive and aerospace industry. Being a mid range product, SolidWorks complements Dassault Systemes’ portfolio (Catia is a high end program). SolidWorks has over1 million users.

Concord, MA
CEO: Chris Randles

SpaceClaim was founded 2005 by Mike Payne, now chairman of the board. The company aims to lead the market for direct modeling software for solid, 3D objects, expanding the use of 3D to non-CAD experts and for conceptual design, model preparation, industrial design, and manufacturing. Since models in SpaceClaim’s software aren’t constrained by rigorous physical parameters, it’s easy to change their geometry. So before engineers do time-consuming detailed design in a traditional CAD model, they can explore and validate concepts, simulate different outcomes and so forth.

The compay’s business is split roughly even between Americas, Europe and Asia. Space Claims customers are found within the automotive industry and other manufacturing companies.

Z Corporation
Burlington, MA
CEO: John Kawola

Z Corporation was founded in 1994 to commercialize 3D rapid-prototyping printers first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company sold its first machine in 1996, and has since deployed thousands of the printers to design, architecture, engineering, and manufacturing firms around the world. The company’s early printers worked by depositing a liquid binding material on a layer of powder, building up 3D models section by section. Its most recent device, the ZBuilder Ultra, creates plastic prototypes using a digital light processor projector to solidify a photosensitive liquid polymer, one cross section at a time. Engineers and product designers use the machines to make sure parts will work and fit together as intended before large-scale production.

Eva Regårdh is a tech journalist from Sweden. She is an Innovation Journalism Fellow 2010 at Stanford University and is working for Xconomy during her fellowship. Follow @

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5 responses to “The Greater Boston 3D Design Cluster”

  1. G. Courter says:

    Michael Payne was not the founder of SpaceClaim, but rather David Taylor and Blake Courter.