CAD Report: Bricsys Wants to be Your 3D Modeler
Small Belgian CAD company sets lofty target with latest release of its 3D modeler, BricsCAD.
“I plan to make BricsCAD #1 in 3D by 2020.” That’s the gist of an outrageous sounding claim made by the CEO of Bricsys, a small CAD software company headquartered in Belgium. Erik de Keyser’s goal might make you reflexively choke on your morning coffee, given the long-established lead corporate giants like Dassault Systemes and Autodesk have in the development of 3D and associated technology – like PLM systems, point cloud manipulation or database storage of model parts – along with the necessarily incessant marketing.
But Bricsys is no new company. It was founded in 1986 as Bricsworks, which developed and then sold Bentley Systems their 3D architectural design package now known as MicroStation TriForma. Since 2002, Bricsys has been working on the AutoCAD-compatible BricsCAD, initially based on IntelliCAD, but now completely rewritten with its own code. In this article, I analyze the technology Bricsys is developing in its attempt to make BricsCAD software significant in the 3D market.
DWG as Foundation
Every CAD vendor finds a niche and then builds its strength within that confine. Dassault has its Enovia database; Autodesk is pivoting to subscription-based cloud applications; Bentley Systems is all about infrastructure; and Intergraph focuses on plant design.
The niche that de Keyser decided on is DWG. Now, this may not seem like a niche, as most CAD software reads and maybe writes drawings in DWG, a format that’s been called “universal.” The Bricsys twist is that it stores all model data in DWG files – whether 2D CAD, BIM, 3D MCAD or geospatial. There are external support files, but all 2D and 3D model data can be kept in that ubiquitous DWG format, thanks to internal extensions designed by Autodesk to store any kind of data (extended entity data).
Therefore, it is a niche because few other CAD vendors rely on just DWG for storing models from vertical applications. (PTC and Bentley Systems take a similar approach, but use their own formats, not DWG.) Not even Autodesk does this. It has a different file format for each of its MCAD programs, Inventor and Fusion; another format for its Revit BIM software; and so on. The result is that Autodesk’s vertical software is file-incompatible with DWG, and Autodesk went through years of incrementally improving its translators just to allow users to exchange data among its
stable of CAD programs.
By employing the universal DWG file format, BricsCAD is accessible to existing DWG users, and the company doesn’t spend energy writing translators between its vertical apps.
Extension by Translation
Not that Bricsys doesn’t have a translation problem. But the problem is external and distributed. To be #1 in 3D, BricsCAD needs to read models from other MCAD systems, and so Bricsys licenses software from translation companies, which allows BricsCAD to imports assemblies, models and drawings from Catia, Solidworks, Inventor and so on. BricsCAD Platinum, with the extra-cost Communicator translation add-on, handles assemblies (product structures), stitches non-watertight models, repairs broken models and optionally simplifies incoming models. (AutoCAD cannot work with assemblies, because it lacks 3D constraints; however, it includes the MCAD translators for free.) For AEC and BIM users, Brics- CAD imports and export models in IFC format at no extra cost. With the IFC and MCAD translators, BricsCAD becomes like SpaceClaim, in that it imports 3D models and then uses its direct editing functions to modify them.
Embracing With APIs
A way to measure the strength of a CAD program is the size of its third-party ecosystem. The size is based partly on the quality of the APIs [application programming interfaces] offered by the CAD vendor.
Autodesk pioneered open APIs in the 1980s in an era when established companies like Computervision and Intergraph customized CAD software on behalf of customers – an expensive extra. AutoCAD’s quick dominance of the market was due to its (then) low price, but also due to architects and engineers buying AutoCAD so that they could customize it themselves, and in some cases even sell the customizations as a new type of business.
To tap into the huge number of Auto-CAD users and third-party developers, smaller CAD vendors like Bricsys, Graebert and IntelliCAD replicate many of Auto- CAD’s APIs. These include AutoLISP, ARx, DCL and Diesel. The firms also replicate most of the support files needed by drawings, such as hatch patterns and linetypes.
In the case of Bricsys, the company says it now has 1,200 third-party developers and 1,500 third-party applications, 400 of which are listed at the Bricsys website. The remainder were developed privately by firms for internal use. Bricsys easily attained these big numbers because joining their developer program is free. (Autodesk’s fee begins at $1,400 a year.)
Large numbers of third-party developers and add-ons attract more customers, who look for add-ons that solve their specific design problems.
Market Domination through Direct Modeling
With a three-legged foundation in place – DWG, translation and APIs – Bricsys added one more necessary ingredient:
Direct modeling and editing with 3D parametrics and design history. The company even bought the Russian development firm that had written a constraint system. (Benefit: No royalties to pay to D-Cubed!) With the basic functions in place, de Keyser sees BricsCAD becoming the center of a multi- CAD development system, a kind of universal 3D modeler.
To prove that BricsCAD is capable, de Keyser had his staff develop two verticals that take advantage of its APIs and direct modeling: Sheet metal design (figure 1) and BIM (figure 2). These showcase apps are meant to encourage third-party developers and impress potential customers.
Bricsys felt the sheet metal add-on was so sufficiently developed that they could afford to spin it off as an optional extra-cost add-on for US$300; I expect they will do the same with the BIM add-on after it matures some more.
Whereas most CAD vendors spend between 5 and 25 percent of revenues on R&D, Bricsys spends just over 40 percent. The result is a torrid pace of updates that appear every 2-4 weeks.
Bricsys now has a 3D direct modeler to which third-party developers can attach custom info (xdata), use workspaces to customize generic commands and program with AutoCAD-similar APIs to end up with another vertical for sale or in-house use.
Spreading by OS and Cloud
Another tactic to beat big CAD vendors might be to support operating systems besides Windows. Bricsys offers BricsCAD for Windows, Linux and Mac. In this area, Graebert Gmbh of Germany is the clear winner as they ported their ARES AutoCAD-compatible software to six operating systems: Android, iOS and server-browser (cloud), as well as Windows, Linux and Mac.
However, I get the impression that Mac sales are not significant for new entrants like AutoCAD or BricsCAD. What numbers I’ve seen indicate that when a Linux version exists, it outsells the equivalent Mac version, perhaps because there are few mainstream CAD programs for Linux.
When it comes to server-based CAD, Autodesk and Dassault Systemes are so far ahead of all competitors to the point that Bricsys isn’t even trying. A portable version of BricsCAD hinted at a few years ago does not exist. The company does offer Chapoo.com as their cloud-based site for sharing files, communicating and tracking projects. I wouldn’t call it PLM, however, as it doesn’t track the lifecycle of products.
It might be missing out on a future “all the Web, only the Web” environment for CAD, but as there is no proven, profitable market for CAD on portable devices. For now, Bricsys concentrates its resources on the desktop, where users do design work.
Returning to the claim that Bricsys aims to be #1 in 3D by 2020: It’s great for motivating employees and enthusing customers, but could the company reach that point? In my opinion, it is building the necessary technology, but lacks the crucial marketing. The company is essentially unknown in the world’s largest economy, the USA; people don’t buy what they don’t know about. I get the feeling Bricsys doesn’t understand that it needs more than just technology, no matter how good it may be. It needs to redirect some of its R&D budget to an intensive, long-term marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, de Keyser is building what Space-Claim already did: A universal 3D CAD editor. The difference is that BricsCAD is based on the “universal” DWG format and that it employs “universal” APIs that are compatible with Auto-CAD. In both cases, SpaceClaim doesn’t, but its secret was brilliant marketing. The company made itself seem pervasive. However, until it was snapped up by ANSYS, we never knew that it had only ever sold 35,000 licenses. For comparison, BricsCAD has 250,000 users, AutoCAD several million (Autodesk no longer provides seat counts), and Dassault Systems says it has an even ten million on-premise customers.
Should you pick BricsCAD over AutoCAD? Not necessarily, but you should try out the demo version to see if it can replace AutoCAD for basic drafting tasks or as a primary direct modeler. BricsCAD starts at US$550 and then goes up from there. The full package – consisting of BricsCAD Platinum, Communicator translation module and the Sheet Metal module – is US$1,660. Thirty-day demo versions of all of them are available from the company’s web site.
Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD in his weekly upFront.eZine newsletter. He is the author of many articles and books about AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other graphics software. He maintains the WorldCAD Access blog at www.worldcadaccess.com.