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PTC User World Event 2010: Lightning to Reinvigorate CAD and PLM

A cross section of the audience attending PTC User World Event 2010.

A cross-section of the audience attending PTC User World Event 2010.

Jim Heppelmann, PTC's CEO-elect, plans to reinvigorate CAD and PLM with Project Lightening, set to launch on October 28.

Jim Heppelmann, PTC's CEO-elect, plans to reinvigorate CAD and PLM with Project Lightning, set to launch on October 28.

Brian Shepherd, PTC's executive VP of product development, borrows a line from Apple iPhone's marketing campaign to explain Project Lightening: "There's an app for that!"

Brian Shepherd, PTC's executive VP of product development, borrows a line from Apple iPhone's marketing campaign to explain Project Lightning: "There's an app for that!"

Jim Heppelmann, PTC’s CEO-elect, thinks CAD has become “less exciting.” He plans to energize the industry with a new offering, a family of products presently known only as Project Lightning.

On Monday June 7, the first day of this year’s PTC User World Event (Orlando, Florida), when Heppelmann addressed the crowd inside Rosen Shingle Creek hotel’s 95,000 sq. ft. ballroom, he said, “[most CAD releases are] characterized by ongoing refinements to user interfaces, new modules, and so forth … There hasn’t been a revolutionary departure since Sam Geisberg’s innovation of 1985 [founder of PTC, credited with developing the first commercially marketed parametric CAD program].”

If you say, the dust has settled in CAD frontier because it’s a mature market, Heppelmann would ask, rhetorically, “How can it be a mature market if it still has such big unsolved problems?” He pointed to three issues as symptoms of market lethargy: usability, interoperability, large assembly management.

“It’s very difficult for a casual user to pick up SolidWorks, Inventor, or Pro/ENGINEER and start working with it. When I think of easy-to-use [products], I’m thinking Visio, Google SketchUp; I’m thinking of something you can download and, 30 minutes later, be off with the first design.”

Heppelmann believes, “There’s an opportunity to … start targeting [at] a whole new [level] of usability.” PTC’s answer to these issues is Project Lightning.

Lightning Strikes October 28
“Solving these problems [that Heppelmann referred to] requires a fundamental breakthrough,” said Brian Shepherd, PTC’s executive VP of product development. “Mechanical CAD has been too focused on the needs of the few, the consumers of CAD information [engineers and designers] … But some are better served by a different approach. An analyst, for example, may just want to take a parametric model and make some quick, easy changes to it, without having to worry about the history that it was created with or the features it was modeled through … A product manager might be better served by a markup approach or a configuration planner, an application that doesn’t really resemble CAD today, a hybrid between CAD and PLM (product lifecycle management) … It’s also important to note that these [individuals’ needs] change throughout the lifecycle.”

PTC doesn’t believe the answer is, as Shepherd put it, “one massive, monster, monolithic application.” To explain PTC’s vision, he borrowed a line from Apple iPhone’s advertising campaign. Whether you need 2D sketching, 3D direct modeling, surfacing, parametric modeling, or something else pertaining to product development, “We want to be able to say, there’s an app for that,” said Shepherd.

But those who want to see a glimpse of Lightning would have to wait. Its launch date is set for October 28. For now, here’s the best description we can infer from the scant details that have been revealed:

  • A CAD program, presumably a lot easier to use than what we’re typically used to, serves as the base platform.
  • 2D, direct 3D, parametric 3D, markup, configuration, surfacing, and other components may be added to it as modules or apps.

Not Anti-Cloud, Just Anti-Hype
Whereas Apple iPhone’s app store relies on cloud computing to deliver and run its programs on demand, PTC’s Lightning may still be deeply rooted on a desktop. During the executive Q&A, Shepherd said, “We’re neither pro-cloud nor anti-cloud … We’re ambivalent, or open, or agnostic about the way we deliver software. We don’t want to be a Salesforce.com that can only deliver functions on cloud; we don’t want to be able to deliver only on-premise software either … We don’t sense a customer demand to move CAD [specifically 3D CAD] to the cloud. It [cloud] be a facet of our Lightning strategy? Time will tell, but that’s not one of the fundamental problems [usability, interoperability, large assembly management] we’re addressing with Project Lightning …”

Heppelmann said he is, “Not anti-cloud, but anti-hype.” He feels, “Nowhere is there more hype than when conversation turns to cloud.” He acknowledged certain uses of cloud computing — such as running computer-aided analysis and assessing environmental impact — could be legitimate applications.

PTC’s Windchill is available as an on-demand solution (through NetIDEAS), in the classic SaaS (software as a service) implementation, but the company doesn’t feel there’s enough demand among its core customers to justify an aggressive push. “It hasn’t changed the PLM industry,” noted Heppelmann.

You can see video posts featuring Heppelmann and Shepherd discussing their visions and plans at PTC’s dedicated page for Project Lightning.

For other news, also read “PTC User World Event 2010: Social Enablers, Techpub Composers, and Subdivisional Modelers.”

For more , listen to my conversation with Jim Heppelmann at the conference, recorded on June 8, 2010, edited for length. (Anita whom Heppelmann referenced in one of his answer is PTC’s corporate communications manager, Anita Berryman, present during the interview.)


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About Kenneth

Kenneth Wong has been a regular contributor to the CAD industry press since 2000, first an an editor, later as a columnist and freelance writer for various publications. During his nine-year tenure, he has closely followed the migration from 2D to 3D, the growth of PLM (product lifecycle management), and the impact of globalization on manufacturing. His writings have appeared in Cadalyst, Computer Graphics World, and Manufacturing Business Technology, among others.


  1. Umm, isn’t this what SpaceClaim already offers?

  2. What could be done that has not been done in Acad thru Zcad already?
    From one whom has been doing CAD since punched card days.

  3. Once again PTC has missed the point. The only application in the bunch that is difficult for the casual user is THEIRS and new users have been screaming that since day one. Both Solidworks and Inventor have been dominating the market because of their user interface but in typical PTC sales jargon, they are breaking away from the pack…..
    Once again, too little, too late.

  4. Pro/e is in good hands with this guy (I am being sarcastic if you couldn’t tell).

  5. Babaloui: PTC recently made Pro/E much easier to use with the introduction of push-pull parametric edit option (something borrowed from CoCreate), but I agree that it can use more user-interface refinements to make it less intimidating for casual users and beginners.

    Chris: You should have put your comment in sarcastic font. 😉

  6. Kenneth: “more user-interface refinements to make it less intimidating”….I wouldn’t call intimidating. It’s more User friendly interface and less pro/e style dialog boxes that are antiquated. I realize V5 is somewhat different, but still, there dialog boxes refuse to die.

  7. What I see here is good on one hand and probably VERY BAD on the other. Imagine an advance Pro/E user who has been working with the 3D software since version 10 or so. Now somebody comes along with a version that some high school graduate can use. What is this going to do for contract rates and incomes for those of us who would have normally had a niche that pays the bills?

  8. You know what Mike L. … It’s not the software that makes a designer, it’s knowledge about the product line in which he works that makes them a valuable asset to their company. I was once a die-hard Pro/E user until SolidWorks came along and I went grudgingly along, but now after using it for well over a decade, you couldn’t pay me enough to get me back…and my company pays me for what I know, and how I can translate that to a successful product, not what kind of software I use…don’t take that as knock on your abilities, but do consider it as a way to see your contributions to your company in a different light…good luck making the transition…

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