The engineering-automation industry is seizing up from old age. It’s dominated by billion-plus-dollar companies that care little about customers, little about innovation, little about employees, and lots about shareholder value (and concomitant executive bonuses — but let’s not even go there).

Okay, before you, my friends at these companies, get mad, calm down. I love you. I love this industry. I love being part of the world of engineering design — the world that Carol Bartz, former president of Autodesk, referred to when she said, “If it hasn’t been designed by God — and most of the stuff around you hasn’t — then it was probably made using engineering software.”

As Carol says, most human-made stuff is now designed with the help of CAD. And it has been thrilling to watch this trend unfold. But all you CAD/CAM/CAE/PLM developers, what have you done for us lately? Given us release n+1 and a bunch of lies about how the additional features make it impossible for us to stick with release n? (Or, heaven forbid, release n-1.)

How long since there’s been true CAD innovation? Let’s see, the industry has given us associative geometry, solid modeling, parametric modeling, form features, direct modeling and its variations — anything else? “Many of these advances have been like putting cup holders in a car; they’ve made life easier but they don’t really get us where we need to go,” says consultant Peter Marks at Design Insight in Santa Cruz, Calif. (www.DesignInsight.com).

According to Marks, these changes are focused on ease of geometric modeling, which is just one of the problems facing manufacturing and construction. “I’d guess these advances have added a percent or two to overall engineering productivity. Remember we have never designed and built aircraft faster than in Word War II, before CAD even existed. In some cases, these gains may even get lost in the tools’ steep learning curves.” What is now required, but nowhere to be seen, are systems and processes that promote dramatically improved energy efficiency, sustainable design including reliability and material choices, and even ways of connecting our understanding of manufacturing economics to the national economies of the countries in which manufacturing happens.

Where is true innovation? Why does the CAD industry hire such a small percentage of top-of-their-class graduating engineers from the best schools? Where is the excitement? Where are the order-of-magnitude productivity increases?

And why is the coolest simulation happening in SimCity and Spore? (If you don’t know what those are, you really need to check them out.) Why is the greatest VR happening in entertainment? Why do companies like InfiniteZ (www.infinitez.com) with a true 3D engineering workstation, go begging for funds? (Picture your model floating above the workstation surface on an inexpensive device.) Why is there almost no artificial intelligence in CAD? Why can’t simple design tasks such as checking for problems in limited ways be augmented by agents? (The idea is not new; it’s just never been commercially successful.)

About four or five years ago, COFES (www.cofes.com) tried to put together a list of “40 under-40” engineering-automation innovators and their successes. We quickly narrowed our sights to try and find 14 under-40s. We couldn’t. And while we might have been able to pull together “4 under-40s,” this just seemed too pathetic.

It’s time for a new generation of leaders with fresh ideas, risk-taking, and vision. What are we going to do about it?

Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. Got a question or a comment? Reach Joel at joel.orr@cyonresearch.com

Edited by Leslie Gordon