The Open Design Alliance prepares for the future

The industry consortium for CAD interoperability and collaboration prepares for a leadership change.

By Kathleen Maher

The Open Design Alliance was born of contention and it has grown through accommodation. President Arnold van Weide hopes the organization will go on to thrive through innovation. The ODA was founded originally as the OpenDWG by companies and individuals who depended on CAD data, especially DWG data in some form. DWG, of course, is the native format for AutoCAD. The founding members included representatives from DataCAD, Eagle Point Software, Parametric Technology Corp., Rasterex, ViaGrafix, and Visio all Autodesk competitors. Visio was one of the key drivers behind the movement. Visio had ambitions to be simple drafting tool like Microsoft Word is a simple word processing tool—it was a more innocent time.

Or maybe not so innocent. The head of Visio’s technical applications at the time was John Forbes, a former Autodesk executive who saw opportunity in offering an office-like drafting tool for a fraction of AutoCAD’s price. At Autodesk Forbes had been one of the major champions enabling AutoCAD’s support for interaction with other software applications such as Excel or Word.


DraftSight is a new 2D drafting package from Dassault Systèmes built on Open Design Alliance Teigha technology. (Source: Dassault Systèmes)

The other companies involved in the OpenDWG coalition also had designs on the AutoCAD user base. The alliance was started in 1998 to better enable people to exchange DWG data with other programs. Members wanted useful access to CAD data and the organization was built around the argument that people should own their own data. The dues paid by members went to the effort of reverse engineering Autodesk’s DWG file format. This is pretty old news, anyone with a need to share data has probably come across the ODA and heard their story.

Bentley Systems threw in with OpenDWG in 2003 when it opened up its DGN format to allow development using DGN. Also at that time the OpenDWG Alliance was renamed to Open Deisgn Alliance Interestingly, in 2008 Autodesk and Bentley also agreed to a cross licensing deal for their formats to enable better file exchange and exchange problems were eased for a sizable share of the CAD user community.

Arnold van der Weide came to the organization in 2007. After a management reshuffle his primary job was to return the organization to efficiency. When Van der Weide became involved, the ODA had not been, as he puts it “properly operating” and money was unaccounted for, but Van der Weide had more on his mind than just balancing the books. Van der Weide had also been at Visio at the founding of the OpenDWGs and he presumably shares some of the founders’ zeal for thwarting Autodesk’s efforts to protect its format, but he is considerably more diplomatic than the founders. He has not fired off challenges to the Autodesk overlords, and in fact he believes the focus for the organization should be more on business and on the increased success of its members.

Meanwhile, legal scuffles with Autodesk had resulted in a demand that the group not market their version of DWG as being the same as Autodesk’s. Over time, the group has gathered more base technology. They’ve added support for ACIS 3d, .NET, HOOPS, RedSDK. All these new formats came with new partners including Dassault Spatial, Microsoft, etc., which had been hearing from its users that people needed access to DWG data even if their primary product was Catia, SolidWorks, or some other 3D product.

Building on the present and preparing for the future

Over the years the membership of the group has changed significantly. It is no longer a competitive consortium bent on wresting market share from Autodesk. Instead, the real mission of the ODA is to enable its members to better work with data from AutoCAD and other CAD products. It’s the front line of multi-CAD. The membership has grown to be a far more powerful organization of customers from large companies who were frustrated by the challenges of exchanging data between the different groups of users and contractors within an organization. Today, the ODA has 1200 members, only 40 of those are CAD companies says Van der Weide, the rest are auto companies he jokes. Actually, the rest are a variety of companies who use DWG based files or DGN files. Over 20% of the members are interested in DGN files and 60% is interested in dwg as well as dgn says Van der Weide and that number is growing.

Among the current very active members of the ODA are the Graebert father and son team Wilfred and Robert who have developed their own platform for drafting. Graebert has used their CAD technology as a base to develop third party applications that work with AutoCAD but more recently, they’ve developed their Ares engine as a platform for standalone CAD products. The Graebert engine has been used for CorelCAD from Corel, DraftSight from Dassault, and Graebert’s own ARES CAD product for Mac and Windows. Dassault has crowed about DraftSight reaching about one million downloads. The company says DrafSight is making inroads at a number of enterprise sites where users rely on it to work on data originally produced in AutoCAD. Other companies in the ODA alliance include: 20-20 Technologies, Adobe Systems, Advanced Computer Solutions, Bentley Systems, Bricsys, Civiltech SA, CADian Software, GreatStar Software, Cadwork Informatik, ESRI, Foresoft, Graebert, IntelliCAD Technology Consortium, Intergraph, Nemetschek, Siemens,  SolidWorks, Tekla Corporation,  and ZwCAD Software. The IntelliCAD Consortium is itself a consortium with its own engine IntelliCAD. The group has just released a new update to the IntelliCAD engine based on the ODA’s DWG database. Brics/Net, GreatStar, and ZWCAD build their own CAD programs based on the IntelliCAD engine. Graebert has their own engine in Ares. Many of these companies including 20-20 Technology (kitchen and bath design), Bentley Systems, ESRI, Intergraph, and Nemetschek have very distinct businesses. They do not specifically target the AutoCAD base, but they are interested in DWG and DGN support in order to ensure their customers can work with a variety of CAD files.

In addition to the Teigha for .dwg files and Teigha for .dgn files DWG and DGN libraries, the ODA maintains the Teigha Xtension SDK to enable custom development on the Teigha platform via C++, and also the Teigha Viewer which has been incorporated into products such as the TurboCAD viewer.

Van der Weide is planning to retire in two years and the organization is discussing plans for the future. Van der Weide’s personal opinion is that there is not much to be gained from battling Autodesk on their own turf and in fact, he’d argue that the days of AutoCAD dominance are limited. Autodesk has clearly been focusing on the opportunities for its more advanced software Inventor, Revit, and applications in the works for collaboration, 3D printing, scanned data, etc.

The future seems headed for new platforms in a literal sense. The iPad has become popular in CAD houses and the major CAD vendors have been announcing tablet applications including viewers, like the TurboCAD viewer, Siemens Mobility, the Rhino viewer, and collaboration tools from PTC. Autodesk has famously embraced the iPad with several applications not the least of which is AutoCAD WS for the iPad and Android apps, but the company is doing very well with consumer apps like Sculpt123D and the SketchBook products. Van der Weide expects to see the evolution of tablet user interfaces and applications evolve for CAD. For instance, he expects to see screens get large for design and drawing tasks. Tablets, of course, are all the more powerful for their ability to access information from the internet when needed and to provide a window, often an interactive window, on data stored elsewhere.

“Our biggest challenge  going forward,” he says, “is to get ready for cloud computing.”  One of the steps the ODA took was to forge an alliance with AfterCAD, a Seattle based company, which builds tools for visualization and sharing to enable companies collaborate online. The ODA has also been working with Caustic Graphics, a company that builds rendering processors. Technologies like these leverage multiple processors to accomplish visualization tasks when they’re deployed via the Internet, they can enable people to work with the same data online. Van der Weide believes the ODA holds the building blocks for true collaboration,  PDM and PLM. “If the database is in the cloud,” notes Van der Weide, “you don’t need a different database for every single user, and people can work from different disciplines.” Van der Weide believes that this kind of model could lead to universal PLM. Suddenly, all that squabbling over DWG seems like small potatoes indeed. “I think it’s inevitable,” says Van der Weide, who admits however that there is a good portion of the ODA membership that still sees their future purely in the context of circles and lines.

The future path of the ODA will be up to the board as it chooses a new president and plots its future course, but Van der Weide says the ODA has an active study group working on projects like tablets and the cloud. Van der Weide seems impatient for the future to hurry up and get here.