Who Wants To Kill The CAD File?

Who Wants To Kill The CAD File?

The file is a fundamental concept in any operating system. Files are one of the most popular mechanisms for data exchange. At the same time, files are insanely complex and contribute to many problems. Here is what Steve Jobs said about files.

In every user interface study we’ve ever done […], [we found] it’s pretty easy to learn how to use these things ’til you hit the file system and then the learning curve goes vertical. So you ask yourself, why is the file system the face of the OS? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a better way to find stuff?

I wrote about PLM Files Detox. Check this out and also another article – The Future of CAD without Files I wrote back in 2011.

The files are here, but I can see some cracks in the way files are used, which can indicate changes that are coming. Although they know about files, the whole idea of using a file as a piece of information is becoming foreign to many kids (I’m not speaking about computer geeks). Instead, they use website paradigms and online documents (a-la Google docs) to refer to the information. The same about the applications. The idea of running an app as a “.exe” file is something that seems to them as strange and, instead, the app is something that either available on the mobile device or goes via the browser.

Going back to engineering and manufacturing software, things are divided into two major groups – (1) Files; (2) Databases. For a very long time, the first group was a clear winner. All CAD systems were storing data in CAD files. The same CAD files used to transfer information, data sharing between people, and different applications using the data. It is still the case and I believe a majority of product design data is managed in CAD files today. But, the changes are on the horizon. Because I can see CAD companies that are strategically focused on how to kill CAD files.


Autodesk is one of the first large CAD vendors who moved to use cloud computing and software back 10 years ago. Since then Autodesk developed Forge – an online computing platform capable of storing information, files and providing a variety of services used by Autodesk and partners applications. Autodesk Fusion360 is the main design platform that is moving away from files to data. Check the note from Steve Hooper, General Manager of Autodesk Fusion 360 – Mastering your Fusion 360 data.


Known by its Altium Designer, Altium is a company that has already made many moves towards cloud software and killing the CAD file paradigm. Altium 365 is a new cloud platform developed by Altium with the goal to unify data access and integrate applications. Besides that, Altium acquired Upverter, a Toronto-based company that developed a browser-based PCB design tool. In its earlier move, Altium acquired Octopart (octopart.com) – an online electronic search platform.

Dassault Systemes / SOLIDWORKS

DS was one of the first companies that decided to switch CATIA from the usage of files to the database. The development, which is now almost two-decades-long, is a core element of 3DX. The grand vision of DS is to target the pain of using multiple products and disparate data sources. It all comes together to be a key element of the DS strategy – The Platform. In their recent move, DS is developing many online apps running on any platform and using the data directly from 3DX. SOLIDWORKS is now connected to 3DX and capable of uploading files to 3DX and use them transparently. The adoption of the latter will be one of the most interesting changes to see – SOLIDWORKS is the largest community group in the world and it represents one of the biggest mainstream CAD applications used by everyone.

PTC / Onshape

Onshape was founded to invent a professional MCAD in the browser, as it was stated by Onshape co-founder, Jon Hirschtick (who is also a co-founder of Solidworks). Onshape is a pure browser application with zero files (except import/export, of course). PTC acquired Onshape and made it a foundation of the PTC Atlas platform. I can see PTC is SaaSifying their other applications including Creo and Windchill, so the process of “CAD file” killing is underway.

Who is still NOT in the game of killing CAD files from the list of large CAD vendors?

In my view, Siemens is one of the biggest sleeping giants and the most conservative company when it comes to the changes in the existing software. Both NX and SolidEdge are file-based and I didn’t see any changes here. Mentor (now Siemens) and other ECAD / PCB design companies are also mostly file-based. If you’re aware of something that I missed, please comment and share.

Are we going to see the death of CAD files in our lifetime?

This is a really good question to ask. The answer is no, but I expect a decline in CAD file usage as a primary source of information starting very soon. It might be at first a hybrid paradigm like we can see in Autodesk Fusion 360 and Solidworks 3DX, but vendors will be attempting to kill files and move to databases and cloud services. The development of online network-based platforms combined with the CAD vendor transitions from files to data will become a force to escape from the CAD file mess.

What is my conclusion?

The transformation is underway in the CAD industry. CAD files is the most universal mechanism to store data that is hated by both vendors and customers. The first group would love to have a better way to manage the data, but lock in the existing applications and customers. The customers hate files but don’t want to lose them because they are afraid of becoming prisoners of CAD vendors holding the data on the servers and databases. The development of online data management services capable to capture information from CAD files, Excel, and databases will be a trend towards moving from a “File-based” world to an online digital connected manufacturing ecosystem. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers and their supply chain networksMy opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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