Big business invades the engineering industry

Science and engineering have been using engineering tools such as CAD, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), finite element analysis, and simulation applications since the early days of the computer. In the last three years, these tools have become affordable and easy-to-use. Many excellent tools are coming to the engineering market with a price tag low enough to land them on every engineering desktop. The price is right, and these tools all have a usable standard interface in a stable, user-friendly, multitasking environment: Windows NT.

Windows NT: The Driving Force
Two factors are pushing the NT landslide in engineering. First, the sudden onslaught of affordable, well-written, and usable engineering software based on Microsoft standards makes inexpensive hardware feasible. NT lets high-end software run on widely available hardware. Second, engineers need access to ordinary business software.

Five years ago, elite (and expensive) engineering tools were available only on UNIX platforms (sometimes, only a proprietary one), and inexpensive tools were available for DOS. This division was far more than an OS choice. It was an architectural and even a paradigm choice. The 386 Intel chip fared reasonably well in integer and floating point-comparison tests. But, without a solid, stable, multitasking OS to build on, the cheaper Intel-based hardware was not possible, or pleasant, for high-end engineering tasks requiring extensive mathematical and graphical horsepower. So serious engineers with the budget to buy "real" tools did not consider DOS-based IBM and clone PCs. Big companies spent their money on Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment, HP, and Silicon Graphics. These UNIX machines provided state-of-the art performance at state-of-the art prices, and because of the limited market, the engineering software that ran on them was beyond pricey.

Like the rest of the corporate team, engineers now need business software. No UNIX applications for project and time management, communications/groupware, and office automation exist in affordable, usable, or standard format, so engineers have not used them extensively. However, the engineering community is having to re-evaluate its operating environments as companies move toward standardizing business operations on one platform. MIS departments are dropping PCs on engineers' desks. Why not use these PCs for engineering work, too, instead of having multiple systems? Now the role of NT in engineering emerges: It provides a robust and powerful environment to run engineering tools and to run business tools.

More Than a Technical Solution
Besides NT's technical implications, you have to consider economics. The Model T would have failed if not for its revolutionary price, and the same applies to NT. Beyond its low $300 price tag, NT workstation lowers the price of the overall computing solution by allowing more affordable engineering software and hardware, too. And, solid evidence shows that the market is supporting enough competition for this trend to continue.

Without NT, this highly competitive climate would not exist. Workstation vendors would continue to argue that you can't compare machines based on power, but that you also have to consider the architecture and OSs. UNIX-only vendors claim NT is slower, or "not stable enough," or "just as expensive once you compare NT head to head with a UNIX workstation." But such claims just haven't held up. After customers review NT's price/performance on Intel, Alpha, MIPS, or PowerPC, the market will shift toward NT. NT is the only solution that lets an engineer run 32-bit Microsoft products simultaneously with high-end engineering tools on one of four hardware platforms. No longer do buyers have to worry about OS idiosyncrasies, availability of ported software to a particular hardware and operating system platform, and strange marketing ploys.

In the Engineering Workplace
CAD/CAM companies were the first big group to embrace NT. While other software developers are still deciding whether to port applications to NT, some CAD/CAM developers are on or near their third release of NT-ported software, and they aren't turning back. Two years ago, Parametric Technologies released its previously UNIX- and VMS-only CAD/CAM solid modeling software (Pro/ENGINEER) on NT. Now it's on its third release for NT. More than 30% of Parametric's customer base now has the NT version. Intergraph, which was a proprietary UNIX hardware vendor, now pumps out high-end NT hardware and built its new NT CAD/CAM software from the ground up. Autodesk, which less than one year ago recommended DOS, is now porting first and primarily to NT. In the last six months, just in the CAD arena, five companies released affordable solid modelers, such as SolidWorks and 3D/Eye. Many companies in engineering disciplines, such as finite element analysis and dynamic motion simulation, are following this path, too.

NT is not the save-all solution to an engineer's computing woes, and NT certainly will not replace UNIX. Openness is an issue that UNIX vendors harp on, but most engineers don't give a hoot about it. A more relevant concern is that NT is still missing UNIX functionality that some users can't do without (e.g., an efficient multiuser environment that lets several people use a computer resource simultaneously). But NT is providing a stable platform for engineers--even if they are not especially computer literate.

Many skeptics said the horseless carriage would never be viable for the masses. Some in engineering say the same about NT. Don't believe a word of it.