Are 3D CAD companies adding the features that users really want? We asked you, cadjunkies, to tell us what you find most face-bashingly frustrating about 3D CAD tools today. The first half-gross of responses are in, and as it turns out…

First of all, let it be said that 3D CAD tools are fantastically wonderfully super great. Who wants to go back to the bad-old-days of lungs full of urethane foam dust, hand-drafting phantom lines and hand-calculated conic splines, and spending sixteen hours on a marker rendering only to learn that a design change requires a complete do-over? 3D CAD makes our lives as designers absurdly easy by comparison. (With the added benefit of allowing middle-management to be less decisive than ever! But I digress.)

But problems we have a plenty, and I have the lucky pleasure of witnessing lots of these issues in the wild. In addition to normal design consulting work, I spend a lot of time teaching people to use complicated 3D tools in classrooms and design offices around the country. As such, I get to see how dozens of companies use various 3D tools to design everything* from movie props to medical devices, gaming consoles to washing machines, bicycle accessories to cars, and everything in-between. I not only see what kinds of problems people tend to encounter, but I’m often asked to find ways of managing those problems.

* I should mention up front that my purview is limited primarily to the design and mechanical engineering of manufactured hard goods (i.e. rigid materials like plastic, metal, and wood, as opposed to ‘soft goods’ like cloth, leather, etc). The kinds of problems listed here are fairly broad, but will always be written from that admittedly-limited perspective.

Survey Questions: How Annoying is…

So what kinds of challenges do 3D CAD users face? We decided to test the following prompts, all on a scale of 1-5 (1 = not very annoying; 5 = extremely annoying).

  • Creating quick sketch models of design ideas:
    1. Sure. No prob.
    2. I’d rather use popsicle sticks, hot glue, and the blood of my first born child.
  • Getting 3D data from one CAD app to another:
    1. Meh. Not so bad.
    2. Gouge out eyeballs in a raging fury.
  • Getting the CAD shapes to look like the design in my head:
    1. Easy peasy.
    2. More painful than shoving matchsticks into my nose and lighting them.
  • Dealing with gigantic assemblies of large-scale installations (e.g. an entire building, car, plane, etc):
    1. Works fine.
    2. Makes my very bowels rumble with vitriolic hate.
  • Making unforeseen design changes after initial CAD is complete:
    1. Sigh. It’s fine, whatever.
    2. Makes me feel like inserting my finger-nublings into my ribcage and ripping the beating heart from the depths of my bosom.
  • Creating physical simulations of working parts and assemblies (e.g. fluid dynamics, FEA, etc):
    1. Not bad.
    2. Have considered driving a bulldozer through (XYZ CAD company) headquarters.
  • Creating photorealistic renders of designs:
    1. No bigs.
    2. Hatred that sinks to the depths of my soul.
  • Sharing files with collaborators:
    1. Easy. No problems.
    2. I keep a cheese grater at my desk specifically to mutilate my own elbows whenever file sharing comes up.
  • Sharing files with clients:
    1. Existing stuff works fine.
    2. Would be easier to etch designs into stone tablets and walk them to client’s office in a blizzard.
  • Buying your favorite CAD tools through existing channels:
    1. Cake walk.
    2. Would take less paperwork to set up a nuclear power plant in Manhattan.

The Demographic

So far we’ve managed to round up north of 75 responses, about 2/3 of which are SolidWorks users. The other 1/3 are a smattering of Rhino, NX, SpaceClaim, Solid Edge, AutoCAD, Spaghetti (??), Inventor, and CATIA users. (Strangly, CREO/ProE is entirely absent from the sample.)

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 8.36.35 AM

The survey was promoted primarily via the cadjunkie email list and twitter following. Since we’re a SolidWorks training resource, it shouldn’t be surprising that the vast majority of responses are from that particular corner of the CAD-o-sphere. We didn’t ask for any other identifying information specifically, but we do know that the cadjunkie readership represents a pretty broad range of disciplines, from Hollywood VFX artists to shop technicians to industrial design consultancies to corporate design teams. It’s a mixed bag. (At least it’s as mixed as a group of SolidWorks users subscribing to a site called “cadjunkie” can possibly be.)

The Data

As the results started rolling in, I put together a quick chart showing the average response numbers for each prompt, which makes it easy to see which problems are, on average, most annoying.


But as I looked at the data, I realized that while the average response yielded one result, some topics seemed to receive more polarized responses, with many users flagging really extreme responses of either 1 (not annoying) or 5 (claw-off-my-face-skin annoying). The chart below shows the number of voters who voted a full ‘5’–i.e. maximally annoying–in each category. As you can see, the results are quite different.


So, for example, the prompt ‘Getting 3D data from one CAD app to another’ falls squarely in the middle-of-the-pack when the responses are averaged, it also received far and away more ‘5’ votes (“Gouge out eyeballs in a raging fury.”) than any other category. This tells me that while the crowd on the whole finds this topic moderately annoying on average, those individuals who find it truly annoying tend to feel very strongly about it. Interesting.

We aren’t quite done though. A high number of very negative responses could simply mean that it’s a very polarizing topic, with some users tearing out their hair in cold sweats, but just as many kicking back in a blasé nonchalance. If so we’d expect that entries with lots of ‘5’ votes to have a similar number of ‘1’ votes to balance them out. However, when we chart the number of ‘1’ responses (i.e. not very annoying), we see that actually data translation falls quite low on the list, meaning that comparitively few people think that data transfer is “Meh. Not so bad.”


My conclusion is that while the average annoyance level is a useful measure for the overall opinion of the crowd, it’s also useful to know that those who do find data translation annoying tend do find it extremely annoying, which could be read as a strong indicator of a serious pain point for a significant portion of the community.

For example, at the opposite end of the spectrum, “Creating photorealistic renders” fell quite low on the average annoyance level, has almost no ‘5’ votes (“Hatred that sinks to the depths of my soul.”), and also received a very high number of ‘1’ votes (“No bigs.”). Taken together, I think we can safely say that creating photorealistic renders is really not terribly annoying. (Keyshot comes to mind, nice work, Mingsy.)

The Top 5 Most Annoying Things in CAD

So, given that we have two very different metrics to define “annoying,” how do we rank the results? I’m no statistician, but I’m pretty sure there’s really no one correct answer here. The way I see it, the overall annoying-ness of something is going to be some combination of a democratic vote (read: average) and some sort of boost for those topics that seem to really get people’s blood boiling (negative vehemence). While we’re at it, if we’re going to add annoying-ness points for negative vehemence (‘5’ votes), it’s only fair that we subtract out the non-negative vehemence (‘1’ votes), just to cancel out any polarization in the crowd. I call this our ‘composite’ ranking, and it’s basically just an average ranking plus a normalized negative vehemence, and subtracting the equivalent non-negative vehemence.**

The resulting graph shows which items are annoying on average and get lots of extremely negative votes (and subtracting out non-negative votes just to cancel out polarization).

With that in mind…


** If any quants are in the audience, please feel no need to correct my naive statistical analysis. Suffice it to say that when the survey itself contains phrases like “Have considered driving a bulldozer through (XYZ CAD company) headquarters,” I think we can agree that it cannot be classified as ‘science’ in the first place.

The Most Annoying Thing In CAD Is…

1. Getting 3D data from one CAD app to another

Right out of the gate, this one came as a bit of a shock. Sure, file transfer is irritating, but the most annoying thing in CAD? Surprisingly, this one comes out as the clear winner for causing users to want to “gouge out [their] eyeballs in a raging fury.” We really want to dig into the details for this one, because this is clearly a serious pain point for CAD users. In hindsight, this should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever done real-world design in a multi-CAD environment. It sucks.

Are CAD companies actively trying to make it easier to translate files between CAD systems? They say “yes,” but I’m not so sure. Most of the big PLM players have some form of bill-of-rights like “Codex” of openness, swearing their never-ending commitment to interoperability. Some even give the topic plenty of public lip service, with STEP getting lots of love in recent years, and most systems–at least on paper–reading the native file formats of their peers.

STEP support is nice in theory, but it’s (a) extremely limited in its usefulness, and (b) surprisingly error prone. Sure, it gets (most of) the raw geometry from A to B, but we lose all design intent, associativity, assembly relationships, and boat loads of metadata in the process. It also has this nasty tendency to fail, producing strange geometry errors, inverted surface trims, and tolerance problems–so much so that I know a surprising number of people who prefer nasty old IGES files simply because they seem to be more reliably accurate in many cases. Native format importers have the same problems, but more so in my experience. I find that the promise of interoperability almost always comes with more fine print than actual content.

“I have an idea! Lets create a new file format and get all of the CAD companies to support it!” There’s an old joke that a programmer was frustrated with the complexity of having to support 17 file formats, so he created a new one to replace all the others. Now he has to support 18 file formats. Shucks. In all seriousness, I think there is room for a new XML-based interchange format that complements rather than replaces the others, but that’s a subject for a different post.

This post is about recognizing and defining problems–not solving them–and clearly CAD data interop is a big one.

2. Creating physical simulations of working parts and assemblies

Again, a dark horse. And again, I suppose it should be obvious to anyone who does a lot of simulation. I don’t. But then again, the reason I don’t use simulation has a lot to do with how terrifyingly complex–and expensive!–it tends to be. If I go around calling myself “the cadjunkie” and even I find simulation intimidating, things must be pretty dire.

Are CAD companies actively trying to make simulation easier? Well, this isn’t my area, but from an outsider’s perspective I’d say yes and no. Simulation is obviously a big area for R&D in the MCAD space, but I’ve yet to see anyone release–or even talk about releasing–a product aimed at making the process easier for non-specialist users. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that simulation is complex by nature, and that making the tools easier to use will yield less benefit than focusing on features and performance for power users. Maybe that’s my ignorance talking, but that’s how it looks from my perspective.

Regardless, it’s clear that the cadjunkie readership finds simulation to be the number two most annoying thing in CAD, and who am I to argue?

3. Sharing files with collaborators

Wow, another data transfer topic in the top three. Noticing a trend? Shoving data around between collaborators is a royal pain in the posterior, and the cadjunkie readership is pissed off about it. (Four of them claim to “keep a cheese grater at my desk specifically to mutilate my own elbows whenever file sharing comes up.”) It’s a jungle out there, folks.

Are CAD companies actively trying to make sharing between collaborators easier? This one’s a clear-cut “absolutely”: cloud this, social that, collaboration bla bla bla, it’s all we hear about these days. But if everybody’s working in their various clouds with PTC mobile apps, 3DExperience, PLM360, GrabCAD, and on and on, how does that make sharing files easier? Sorry, but that sounds like a nightmare.

So while “sharing files with collaborators” is probably the single most ballyhooed feature of basically every Cloudy new release, I’m not sure that these tools actually address the root problem. To be frank, it’s always been easy to share files with collaborators who use the same tools and techniques as you do. That’s really not a big deal. Where things get difficult is sharing in a heterogeneous design environment, and that’s something that the Cloud has not yet addressed.

4. Making unforeseen changes after initial CAD is complete

Ahhhh, and now we come to something expected. I should point out that while this one has low vehemence scores that kept it from the top of this list, if you look purely at the averages, this one’s right up at the top. Consensus agrees, in other words, that this is a big problem, even if it’s not the kind that makes me “feel like inserting my finger-nublings into my ribcage and ripping the beating heart from the depths of my bosom.”

Given that this one’s been a big topic of debate in the CAD world for many years now, it’s not surprising that the much-discussed failure of the “promise of parametric” is a sticking point for users. The fact is that while many kinds of design changes can be anticipated and built into a model, many simply cannot. Furthermore, I would argue that the “promise of direct modeling” is equally unfulfilled. No matter how many fancy direct modeling tools you have in your arsenal, making changes to CAD models is massively annoying, and often involves rebuilding from scratch.

So are CAD companies actively trying to make it easier to make big, sweeping design changes on the fly? Well, given how much energy has been put into direct modeling features–particularly on the Siemens end of things–it should be pretty obvious that CAD companies at least recognize the issue and want to find solutions that alleviate the suffering. That said, it’s clear that the problem has yet to be solved.

What’s more, I don’t have much faith that it can be solved: rework will always be annoying by nature, at least so long as we work in the current operator-driven CAD paradigm. It won’t be long before the concept of literally defining actual geometry in a CAD environment seems as cumbersome as carving your designs in stone, however. Instead, we will define input and output parameters, performance metrics, materials, and manufacturing methods, and the geometry itself will be algorithmically generated to solve for those inputs. Then and only then will the annoyance of rework become a thing of the past.

5. Sharing files with clients

Good grief people! Arguably this survey shows that three of the top five most annoying things in CAD have to do with sharing data! Are CAD companies trying to solve this problem? Yes, absolutely. And this is an area where I genuinely believe that cloud services will actually make significant progress. Since client deliverables require much less interoperability than does active collaboration, the tools being proposed by… well… everybody, should work quite well.

“But I can’t work in the cloud. XYZ Manufacturer doesn’t allow it for security reasons.” That’s true for now, but that will change. And in the meantime, sharing data will continue to be difficult, and XYZ Manufacturer will become increasingly isolated until it changes its ways.

The Takeaway

Apparently sharing files–across CAD systems, between collaborators, and with clients–is pretty damned annoying. In fact, according to six-dozen of my closest friends, it’s The Most Annoying Thing In CAD.

To be perfectly honest, the survey was initially published as a joke. We really didn’t think anything of it until the results started rolling in. Now that we have them, it seems like some follow-up is in order. Sure, sharing files is annoying, but what makes it so head-in-a-vice painful? What are the specific paint points people experience, and what would make them less painful?

As always, let us know what you think. Yell, roll on the floor, throw things, or send us nastygrams via SMS. Whatevs. Just as long as you don’t say nothing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have real work to do.


Adam O'Hern is an industrial designer, designing products ranging from laptops to power tools, classroom toys to bathroom fixtures, and pro audio gear to guitar tuners. In 2008 he founded, and in 2010 co-founded EvD Media with Josh Mings of, and the two collaborate on the podcast.