How PLM holds everything together – Duro Q&A with Former GrabCAD VP

Shaun Kennedy

Content Marketing Manager

June 26, 2024

CADHardwareHardware EngineeringManufacturingPDMPLM


Former GrabCAD VP and Duro board of director Jon Stevenson discusses the evolution and future of hardware development using his 40 years of CAD and PLM experience. Jon talks to us about the significant role of PLM in transforming hardware development, advancements in CAD technology, and future trends shaping the industry.

CAD in the 80s & 90s

Tell us about your background in PLM and CAD

I’ve been in the CAD world for over forty years, starting in the spring of 83 after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering. I began as a software developer at Unigraphics. We were one of half a dozen CAD systems in existence back in the early 80s. Unigraphics is now known as Siemens PLM, a ten-thousand-plus leader in the industry that generates billions annually. When I joined, there were fewer than fifty people.

For 13 years, I developed CAD/CAM software, geometric modeling, drawing creation, drafting, machining, etc. After that, I became managing director of ShapeData in Cambridge, England, where we developed the Parasolid Modeling Kernel, the math engine inside Siemens NX, SolidWorks, Onshape, and hundreds of other manufacturing software applications. We were a company of 82 people, including about 17 PhDs in math from Cambridge University. Parasolid now underpins the manufacturing software solutions that engineers use today.

Important work that stood the test of time. What came after Cambridge?

I moved to Boston, where I eventually became the executive vice president of CAD at PTC, running the CAD business. At the time, it was about a $900 million company. Most of that was from Pro/Engineer. We also had solutions for engineering analysis, machining, industrial design, and many other manufacturing disciplines. I then took ten years outside manufacturing, working at three successful startups in data center automation and software application security.

The Growth of GrabCAD

Was it after ten years away that the GrabCad journey began?

Yes, I moved back into manufacturing with GrabCAD.  I started as an investor in the company and later became a full-time employee.  We developed not only the world’s largest community of mechanical engineers and parts library but also the Workbench solution, a very popular PDM application for engineers. In 2014, we would get about 6,000 new confirmed community members daily. By the time I left, it was probably double that. GrabCAD now has 13 million community members and is still up and running. It’s the best place to get CAD models, which lots of engineers need to perform their jobs.

GrabCAD Workbench

The Evolution of Hardware Design

How has hardware design changed since you first started? Was it gradual, and did COVID-19 supercharge it?

In all industries, COVID accelerated the adoption of tools that work across sites because more people realized they could be productive working remotely, and remote team members are valuable. COVID pushed the adoption of cloud-based tools with collaboration functionality built into them. You certainly see this with Onshape with adoption professionally by serious manufacturing companies. That wasn’t the case in 2018 or so. People increasingly use tools like Onshape because of the collaboration features, not just the CAD features. 

So, it was already heading that way. We developed GrabCAD Workbench from 2012 to 2014 before it was retired in 2022. Workbench was a cloud-based CAD file management solution with hundreds of thousands of users. It was the choice for hardware startups because it was easy to deploy in the cloud and worked across sites, allowing engineers to communicate virtually. This change in hardware design has been in the works for a while, and the first true mechanical CAD cloud solution has already been released. With more people working remotely now, the adoption of these tools is accelerating.

The Rise of Cloud Solutions

How does the cloud impact development? Why do you think the industry took so long to adopt it, and could it have been done sooner?

They could have done it earlier, for sure. The first cloud solution that I supported was a security testing platform, and that was in 2008. So cloud solutions, complex cloud solutions have existed for a while. With GrabCAD initially, people were slow to adopt it because of security concerns and IT policy. The reality is cloud solutions are more secure than desktop solutions. You’re safer having your data in the cloud, where it can be managed, rather than everybody’s individual computer, with easy access. You can also lose data for other reasons. So, in most IT policy and security concerns, the adoption of cloud software has been slower than it could have been. But it certainly is happening now.

Not that long ago, we worked in spreadsheets, constantly saving and renaming files.

Exactly, it’s just a better way to work; the software is of much higher quality. Software developers can see every bug and access the logs to quickly get the fixes out to customers. So, all customers are working on the same version of the executable. Everyone within an enterprise works on the same data, making it a much higher quality experience for the customer. It’s much easier for a software developer to produce high-quality code, which is far better than any desktop solution. It’s a shame that it has taken so long to reach the adoption it has so far, but we’re on the way.

The Manufacturing Industry in 2024

What do you think are some important trends in the industry today?

Of course, AI is the next big wave, and people are now figuring out how to apply it to engineering and manufacturing. There are dozens of startups focused on that right now. AR and VR have been used in manufacturing for about ten years now. But people have been very slow to adopt them because the utility isn’t very high. You can imagine great use cases for AR and VR manufacturing, but the payback hasn’t been there, so adoption is still low. Blockchain is interesting, as it is a more secure, decentralized way to manage data, and it makes sense for a multi-author dataset to be secure. I don’t know what applications for blockchain are in manufacturing yet, but there will certainly be some.

Where are we now with AI? Is it close to having a strong impact on PLM?

That’s a good question; generally, some startups have limited the scope of what they’re trying to accomplish to something to deliver in the short term, i.e., a year or two. Things like parsing part data sheets to facilitate search or checking for fitness of use, etc. Those are near-term solutions and large language model-type solutions. Others are trying to use neural networks, so they are solving more engineering-type problems. But we’ll see people generating geometry from requirements and things like that.

What do you see as the market pressures & challenges for the industry to overcome?

For mechanical engineering, the challenges have been similar for decades; people are trying to produce higher-quality products faster for less money. CAD has been a big part of that, as design for assembly and manufacturing can only be done with 3D CAD. Many products today are much higher quality because of CAD. PLM is a necessary component that provides the successful adoption and integration of CAD and other engineering tools within an enterprise.

Duro CAD Integration

When you got in your car in the ’70s, the chances of getting to where you wanted to go, if it was more than 100 miles away, was 50/50. The engines and car bodies were low quality. Today, people expect to reach their destination because the cars are of much higher quality. I attribute a lot of that to 3D CAD and automated manufacturing. You can now design components in the context of an assembly fit and finish for much better machining that is much more accurate, so things are expected to work. But people are still solving the same problem— produce better products faster for less money, and they’re looking for tools to do that, whether design, simulation, or manufacturing tools.

In industries like aerospace, design data is reused for decades. How did engineers do this without something like PLM tying it all together?

They did it with drawings, filing cabinets, and hand-sign off of drawings. When a drawing checker approved a drawing, it was all done manually. In the early 80s, when they made the payload components that went up in the satellites, they would have one big room of people sitting at drafting tables, six wide and 20 deep, and each of them would create drawings of parts for manufacturing. When they created their drawing, it would go to a drawing checker and get signed off on whether it was ready for manufacturing. Those drawings were duplicated and put into a draw drawer or vault. They would also go to manufacturing, where a machinist would interpret the drawing and machine the parts. It was all a very manual, paper-based process.

The Future of PLM

How do you see PLM tools further adapting, and how might they look years from now?

The industry’s adoption of PLM and PDM is still very low, with two-thirds of manufacturing companies yet to deploy these tools. They manage their data through conventions, company rules, or homegrown solutions, often using a NAS storage server on their network. This low adoption is because PDM solutions were developed in the ’90s by big CAD companies like PTC as a second revenue source. The CAD market was slowing, so these companies developed solutions with their biggest customers in mind.

At Unigraphics, we developed what’s now Teamcenter with the requirements of our biggest customers, like Boeing and General Motors. Their requirements are very complex, with dozens of people to assist in deploying a software solution and thousands of engineers to use it. Most manufacturing companies are small and can’t deploy a Teamcenter. Those tools were built for big companies, not small ones. So, many CAD users, whether using SolidWorks or NX, don’t have commercial PDM or PLM solutions.

Also, remember that tools are continuously being developed with better algorithms and cloud-based solutions in other disciplines like engineering, simulation, analysis, and design. These fields will always change, so what PLM has to manage will continually change, too. The market is really underserved and has been for decades, and we’re at the very beginning of the PLM/PDM revolution. It’s tools like Duro that are going to change that. This is what excites me about Duro: it’s virtually a green field opportunity.

Duro PLM

Today's Hardware Engineer

Do you think it’s a much better time to be a hardware engineer now?

No doubt, no question about it. In the 80s and 90s, at the beginning, you were running on mainframe computers and then Unix workstations. So, hardware engineers had low access to applications. Today, hardware engineers have far more computing power on their desks than their entire department or company in the 80s. When I started, we used to write our code on paper, and we’d have to sign up to access a computer terminal to type it in.

Finally, could you have ever imagined getting to where it is today?

Certainly not; it would have been considered a fantasy to think it is where it is now with cloud computing and the power that engineers have at their fingertips. No, nobody saw it getting this far this quickly. We used to have one computer for word processing that the entire department would share. So, if you wanted to create a Word doc, you had to wait for your turn. And, then, you’d have a dozen workstations that you shared with all of the engineers. And those workstations were very expensive. So, we’ve come a long way, fortunately.

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