PTC Creo 1.0: Breakthrough technology?

PTC revenue from desktop products, primarily Pro/Engineer, have been slow for almost a decade. Will Creo turn things around?

By L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E.

The forthcoming release of Creo marks the third development phase of Parametric Technology Corporation’s venerable Pro/Engineer CAD software. The second phase began with the announcement of Wildfire in 2001, which was PTC’s attempt to catch up with the technical and marketing innovations pioneered by SolidWorks and Solid Edge in 1995.

10-year history of PTC’s “desktop” software revenue, in blue. (Pro/Engineer, CADDS, CoCreate, Arbortext & MathCAD)

As shown in the above graph, despite the introduction of Wildfire and purchase of a slew of desktop software applications, PTC’s overall desktop revenue has risen at an average rate of just 1.5 percent annually over the past 10 years. The company has not rebounded after the recession, making this introduction especially critical for PTC.

Most of the Windchill sales I have studied suggest the bulk of PTC’s Windchill PLM revenues are derived from existing Pro/Engineer and CADDS customers. If PTC fails to reignite its CAD software sales, the growth of Windchill is likely to slow. Creo is PTC’s second major effort to turn around its CAD business. If it fails and present trends continue, PTC could be a likely candidate for acquisition and dismemberment. This fate has befallen other CAD leaders including Computervision, Applicon, Calma, and CADAM.

Worthwhile goals

PTC hopes to accomplish the following objectives with Creo:

  • Improve developer productivity by deploying programming teams in small groups.
  • Accelerate the pace with which its core CAD/CAM applications are improved and new applications developed.
  • Combine the benefits of both feature-based, dimension-driven solid modeling (pioneered by Pro/Engineer) and direct-face editing (employed by CoCreate) in a single product suite.
  • Simplify the Pro/Engineer user interface by dividing it into manageable chunks.
  • Rebrand its CAD software under a new label that doesn’t connote aging technology epitomized by both Pro/Engineer and CoCreate.
  • Enhance the ability of PTC’s CAD software to work in heterogeneous environments with CAD models from other suppliers.
  • Renew a sense of mission and excitement that have been lost since the early years of Pro/Engineer.

At its annual customer meeting in Las Vegas (dubbed PlanetPTC Live) June 12-15, PTC plans to deliver the first release of Creo. In October 2010 PTC had unveiled its plans for Creo, but the sneak preview  has caused confusion among many customers, and technical details have been sparse.

PTC acquired CoCreate in 2008. At about the same time, UGS (now Siemens PLM technology) and Dassault Systèmes CATIA V6 were unveiling techniques to combine both dimension-driven features with direct-face editing in the same CAD package. PTC needed to offer a similar capability to avoid being technically outflanked.

Integrating two CAD systems with unique origins isn’t easy. PTC has opted to continue offering two distinct products (which it now calls “apps”): Creo Direct, with capabilities similar to CoCreate, and Creo Parametric, with dimension-driven features like Pro/Engineer that also permits direct editing of faces. Models created by the Direct or Parametric apps can be opened and changed by either program.

When models created in the Parametric app are opened in the Direct app, designers will not see the dimension-driven features. However, they will be able to perform direct edits on Parametric models as if they had been created with the direct application.

When a model created in the Direct app is opened in the Parametric app, designers will be able to convert some existing features, such as holes and slots, into parametric features. They can also add parametric features to the solid (as is possible with any feature-based modeler).

The tough technical aspect of this integration is how to handle changes to dimension-driven features that were made by direct edits. PTC has not said much about how it has addressed this problem. However, a short YouTube video gives a little insight into how PTC plans to reconcile direct and feature-based modeling:

When a file has been created either with Creo Direct or Parametric, it can be opened in Creo Parametric. If features have been added or changed using direct modeling, these appear in green in a “View Changes” list. The changes also are highlighted in green in a graphics window. The user has the choice of accepting or rejecting changes produced by direct edits. If a change is accepted, it becomes part of the feature-based model. If it is rejected, it disappears from the parametric model.

Apps not extensions

Integrated CAD systems such as Pro/Engineer have so many commands and options that navigating them has become confusing. Creo addresses the problem by dividing Pro/Engineer into a family of applications targeted to specific tasks. The idea is that each app will contain only those functions needed for a specific activity.

Creo release 1.0 will have nine apps including direct and parametric modeling, p-element analysis, 3D viewing and markup, printed circuit viewing and markup, and several 2D sketching applications. In Creo 2.0 and beyond, PTC plans to add additional apps for numerically controlled milling, detailed drafting, realistic rendering, a freestyle app that employs subdivision surfaces, two assembly automation apps, and others. Mike Campbell, PTC’s divisional vice president for design and visualization products, said he expects PTC to offer between 30 and 50 Creo apps in the future.

To further complicate matters, apps will have extra-cost extensions that add capabilities not found in the basic apps. For example, Creo Parametric will have a Flexible Modeling Extension that will enable designers to perform direct-face edits on parametric models without leaving the Parametric modeling app.

PTC has indicated that the Creo apps will be built using existing portions of the Pro/Engineer and CoCreate codes. Creo will retain the file types and file-name extensions of Pro/Engineer. Existing Pro/Engineer and CoCreate files can be opened by Creo. In some apps, cascading menus will continue to be used.

By dividing Pro/Engineer into relatively simple applications, PTC hopes to break down its product-development organization into small teams that can work independently. These teams are employing what is called an “agile product-development process” in which small teams release code frequently in what are called sprints. PTC hopes this method will enable it to improve usability, reliability, and capabilities faster than was possible when most programmers worked on the monolithic Pro/Engineer system.

PTC’s development strategy isn’t new. Dassault Systèmes CATIA V5 employs a component architecture that enables it to deploy CATIA Workbenches that perform task-specific functions. Borrowing from rugby terminology, so-called scrum software-development teams were deployed over 20 years ago.

Unanswered questions

Any product overhaul as extensive as Creo is bound to entail risks. The PlanetPTC Live event offers customers an opportunity to assay those risks before making the leap to Creo. Here are some questions they should ask:

  1. What will be the upgrade paths from the Creo Elements (a.k.a. Wildfire 5 M080) packages to Creo application suites?
  2. How much will it cost (in both initial charges and annual maintenance fees) to upgrade each Pro/Engineer or CoCreate user?
  3. When will the Creo apps have all the equivalent capabilities of Pro/Engineer Wildfire 5?
  4. How consistent are the user interfaces across all the Creo apps?
  5. Will all changes made using direct-modeling techniques be represented as dimension-driven features in Creo Parametric? Or will changes made with direct modeling have to be recreated in the parametric program?
  6. Are there direct edits that will cause parametric features previously created to fail?
  7. What changes to the company’s Windchill PDM or Intralink software will be required to support Creo?
  8. How much retraining will be required to use Creo?

Few could take issue with PTC’s goals for Creo. Improving the ease with which models can be changed is laudable. So is simplifying the controls so that more people in an organization can use PTC software.

The challenge will be execution. Unless PTC offers customers CAD/CAM software that is less difficult to use and more productive than its competitors, it’s unlikely to accelerate the growth of its desktop business. If the changes PTC makes impair reliability, it is unlikely to get a second chance.

Pro/Engineer revolutionized the CAD business in the early 1990s. But PTC’s track record with Wildfire has not been so good. According to many customers, PTC still hasn’t finished the overhaul of its user interface promised in 2001. With Creo, it must do better.

L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E. is a contributing analyst with Jon Peddie Research.