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Let’s say you sit down in your office chair, it absorbs you back to 1992 where a mustached salesman in a mauve shirt smiles and starts pelting you with hard drives. What a nightmare… And exactly how I feel about the process of evaluating 3D CAD software. I’ve been through it multiple times, as you likely have, but… it doesn’t have to be like that.

When you’re evaluating a CAD system, you want to actually use the software that will define your product development for years (if not decades) to come. But, before you even get to the testing, there are some criteria you should consider and some key questions you should ask. It will focus your requirements and weed out the undesirables before you commit to hours of screen time and cheek-slapping the features.

Onshape's Modern 3D CAD Buyer's GuideAnd wouldn’t you know it? Onshape has put together their own little guide that collects the criteria to consider. Want to cut to the chase? Grab your copy of “The Buyer’s Guide to Modern CAD Systems” here:

Download The Guide

Now, let’s look at that criteria and answer the most important questions. We’ll massage these in our hand like warm noodles and then–and only then–you tell me if these are ALL the critical aspects that make up the items to evaluate when deciding on a modern noodle… errrrm, CAD system.

What are the criteria? There are SEVEN.

1. The Modeling Tools

So, top o’ the list. If a CAD system doesn’t have the features you need, the rest of these don’t matter so much. Your CAD system needs to have the capabilities to model what you need to manufacture. On top of this, they need to NOT be a pain to use either. Any system that adds capabilities to ease the part-to-assembly-to-drawing workflow is going to pay dividends, not only during manufacturing, but if you ever have to revise or re-use that model in the future.

Top question to ask
How do your parametric modeling tools handle tough tasks such as part configurations, in-context editing, or multi-part design for assemblies?

The variation of 3D CAD software, against each industry, for each process and need seems exponential, but let’s boil this down. Parts have variations and some are driven by other parts. I want to set up part variations quickly, use context (without destroying it later), maintain that context with changes, and not have things blow-up without being warned. Here, consider the process of setting up multiple contexts (e.g. open and closed position) and how simple or difficult it is to do that.

2. The Interface

Of course, the best way to evaluate what modeling tools are available and how they work is through the the user interface. We don’t think about UI design… until it makes our life more difficult. For anyone who has migrated CAD systems, you know what this is like. Familiarity leads to productivity but, even more, productivity is compounded by usability. And when usability has been built around the workflow and the capabilities that allow each individual to be more productive, you have a system that gets out of the way, as it were, and lets the team get to work.

Top question to ask
How can we try out desktop and mobile versions and access our product design workflow?

This one’s easy. Ask a 3D CAD software maker for a trial and see 1) how long it takes them to respond and 2) how quickly you can get a trial. I can count on two fingers the software you can start using in under 10 minutes. Usability needs to be evaluated on the product design workflow as a whole, not only feature by feature. You may think your best CAD user is more suited to test the workflow but, if you’re able, have a less experienced user test as well and gather feedback from both. Though they may not be familiar with the system, the ways in which they’re able to access data, move through the process, and work together through the software is going to reveal where productivity will be increased and costs reduced.

3. Total Cost of Ownership

This may be at the top of your list or, based on the other criteria, at the bottom. Regardless, there’s a lot to consider here. Whenever I evaluated a software migration or upgrade, I’d just double software cost to budget for hardware and overhead. With modern 3D CAD systems, the lower cost of entry, subscription pricing, and reduced hardware requirements, total cost needs a closer look. There are costs for add-ons and maintenance to consider, costs for high-end computers or mobile devices, and finally cost for employees to support it and any downtime. Oh, and don’t forget about the cost of adding more seats later.

Top question to ask
What’s the total cost of all software and hardware required and what will be my cost to scale up?

In the past, I have budgeted the two-year software cost + maintenance + initial hardware cost + hardware upgrade + a percentage for overhead/lost time. It wouldn’t hurt to evaluate the same and I’m sure you’ll find some differences. What’s changed with modern 3D CAD systems is eliminating the barrier to entry with regard to cost. How many 3D CAD software websites can you go to right now to get pricing info? How long does it take to get a quote for 10 seats? What’s included? Are add-ons and maintenance required? Are transparency and the ability to get pricing info important? I believe it is.

4. Getting Help

This can really make or break a successful migration. It’s common for one person to serve as the go-to for support (If you’re that person, a high five to you). They’ll, in turn, consult the manual, contact their reseller or go into hiding. How long does that take? It’s important to consider here, because suddenly you can have time lost due to getting help and how accessible help and resources are. On top of all this, don’t forget about onboarding – your process to get users up to speed fast and become more efficient sooner. So, consider all your options for migration and determine how long your onboarding process would be for each system.

Top question to ask
If I need help, how soon can I expect an answer and how do you help us get up to speed faster?

People learn differently, so there are some things to check off here. First, look for these options:

  • Up-to-date feature documentation
  • Concise, accessible video tutorials
  • Active forum with involved users and staff
  • Responsive and helpful support

Ideally, you want content that 1) Gets you and users up to speed quickly and 2) Makes the migration to the new platform absolutely painless. Yes, it should be painless. Do they have migration support? Though a painless migration and getting every user up-to-speed quickly is something hard to promise, the software company should be there each step of the way.

5. Staying Up To Date

If you’ve been part of an upgrade where entire version or point releases are skipped, you know the pain that comes with upgrading, learning the new features and dealing with what has changed. It’s good practice to have a regular update procedure in place and to update everyone on the latest features. For that, you need reliability about the software release. Otherwise, as with getting help, you could be looking at lost time and additional problems that could have otherwise been avoided.

Top question to ask
How often do you release new versions of the software and what is the process to update?

A software company should be able to answer this question. Are software releases yearly? Monthly? Are resources for new features available with each release? From a CAD admin perspective, this is important. But when you can rely on a regular update schedule you then have the opportunity to not only plan for training on the new features, but also use them once they’re available. Then there’s the update process. Will it require other hardware or software upgrades or *gasp* involvement with I.T.?

So, that’s five criteria, you say? Where are the other two? Ah, they’re in “The Buyer’s Guide to Modern CAD Systems.” Yep, I just did that. But don’t worry. Even if I gave you the last two, there’s a CAD System Grading chart you’ll want to print out to score and evaluate the 3D CAD systems as you compare them.

Download The Guide

What’s your take on these criteria? Are there other things you would want to consider? I have one factor that I consider extremely important, especially for anyone migrating from one CAD system to another. Any guesses what it is?


Josh is founder and editor at SolidSmack.com, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.