A Bumpy Road to Market – Why 3D CAD Modelling Apps for the iPad and Android Have Been So Slow in Development

2 April, 2013

Diamond Ring in Simlab ViewerEvery so often, a question comes up among my students and colleagues: It seems, with the explosion in innovation in tablet PC’s and iPad apps, there appears to be at least one app out there for just about everything. Yet, while there are several apps for viewing or manipulating already made CAD models, still more apps for making 2D designs in CAD, and more than a few people who see the potential for using CAD tools on a handheld device, there isn’t much in the way of CAD modelling apps for the iPad or other tablet computers, for jewellery or any other purpose. Why is this?

I thought about this when the question was asked again the other day, and I’ve done my best to come up with some reasons why:

There Are Solutions Out There, But…

AutoQ3DAs it happens, there is now a recently developed CAD solution for iPhone and
Android called AutoQ3D. It’s rudimentary, and it has a ways to go before reaching the efficiency of CAD modelling on a Mac or PC, but it seems a step in the right direction. See for yourself in this sample video.

There are also developers experimenting with interesting and creative uses of the touch screen user interface to mould shapes in 3D. Again, this is very limited and seems to require a laptop as well.

CAD software developers have also tried to make a jewellery-specific CAD program for the iPad. The reason why you haven’t heard about it is because it failed commercially, and the app was withdrawn.

The reasons why this app failed, however, are rather interesting, and quite telling as to why it has proven so difficult to build a successful 3D CAD modelling app for a tablet.

Which Mouse Volunteers To Put the Bell on the Cat?

While this may come as some surprise, the first reason why I believe this app failed is because of the effort required to make the app’s functionality work. While it’s easy to say “we should make an app for designing 3D models on an iPad”, the execution would prove to be far more difficult, even more so than making an app for a desktop PC. While the performance issues we might have had in the past with running 3D on such a small machine have long since been overcome, and there are certainly many successful examples out there of elegant design tools which didn’t require that many buttons or tools to work, the problem is putting the time into coding such a program.

It’s very easy to underestimate how hard developing an effective user interface can be. If the interface is intended for design software, it is doubly hard to make it elegant and efficient. If you also consider that the market for 3D CAD modelling apps on an iPad is relatively untested as compared to other types of apps, the potential return on investment reduces still further, to the point where most developers would reconsider whether it’s even worth the trouble.

As in Aesop’s fable “Belling the Cat”, all the mice agree that it is a good idea to add a bell onto the cat, but no mouse will volunteer themselves to actually do so. No mouse was willing to take the personal risk, even though the entire community would benefit.

A Better Way of Working on an iPad

The second reason why this app failed is down to the limitations of the interface. While the iPad is a beautiful demonstration of user interface elegance, it has serious limitations in one key area: control. As any individual of advanced age (or bad circulation) can tell you, the iPad isn’t as sensitive to touch as you may think. As it relies on sensors for body heat to determine position of the cursor, if your fingers aren’t hot enough, the cursor’s movement will be sluggish or even unresponsive.

There have been clever solutions to this problem suggested though (gloves with coated fingertips, or even bringing back the use of a pen for touch screens), but both of these appeared long after the jewellery CAD app’s developers had discontinued the app. Perhaps the next generation of tablet CAD will be able to take advantage of these.

A CAD Tool For the Working Man?

But it does leave the question as to why the iPad and similar touch screen technology was made in the first place. While many technology pundits have their own theories to explain the popularity of the iPad, I hold with those who believe that the iPad was made to intentionally lower the bar for computer literacy for the general public. Everything that could be done to a user interface to make it as simple and naturally intuitive as possible with existing technology was done. Tablet computer success seems to have hinged on tapping an entirely new market of casual computer users (with lower levels of computer experience), and this market has been large enough to even force Microsoft to release a concession operating system (Windows 8) for this same market, cutting short the shelf life of Windows 7.

Bearing this in mind, this brings me to the third reason why I believe the app failed—it wasn’t suited to the iPad’s market.

CAD by its very nature is not a casual hobby, especially if the CAD model’s ultimate purpose is for some functional use. Most previous attempts to make CAD modelling tools into a toy have fallen into niche markets at best. That’s not to say it cannot be done, though. But it would require solving all the problems above plus an additional one:

Due to the iPad’s intentional design as a simple tool, the file transfer tools lack transparency and control, making transferring files to and from an iPad an awkward experience at best. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried to backup the software on their iPad or iPhone through iTunes. While this hasn’t proven an issue for simpler files like text or even images (I reckon mostly because mobile phone users are already accustomed to picture text messages and synching their tablet with a PC or Mac), sending larger and more complex files proves a time-consuming problem, inefficient enough to scare away most casual users.

Anything is Possible

Wacom Cintiq sample courtesy of Madeinchina.comIn a previous article I mentioned a big industry-wide push last fall towards tablet computing. As tablet computing has come into the market at so many different levels, it is only a matter of time before tablet technology and 3D modelling finally meet in a commercially successful way. We’ve already seen a shape of things to come in some of the newest generation of combination pen tablet displays. If 3D CAD on a portable tablet can be as powerful and elegant as working on one of these desktop pen tablets, then design tools will never be the same again.

Who knows? Maybe the next generation (or even release) of AutoQ3D may be a killer app…



Jack Meyer

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

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10 Comments A Bumpy Road to Market – Why 3D CAD Modelling Apps for the iPad and Android Have Been So Slow in Development

  1. If Google/Trimble’s Sketch Up were to hit Android OS, that would be sweet. Tablet PCs were nuts, dumbed down now they are hot. Technology of the tablet is improving. The only other thing that would work is cad in the cloud.

    1. You’re right that Google Sketch Up isn’t a bad program, and it’s user interface is about the easiest learning curve you’re going to find anywhere right now in a non-computer game 3D model editor. That being said, it was only ever designed for real time modelling (like you see in video games or simulators), and is very badly suited for the precision work required for product design or jewellery.

      You’re also right that tablet technology is indeed growing fast. Indeed, since I wrote this article tablets have been steadily creeping forward in every front. The large tablet PC’s are just as sensitive as a pen tablet, and for these even product design CAD might be possible with the right interface design. Once the smaller units achieve the same level of screen control, they’ll be ready for tablet CAD too.

      Right now, I think the only real obstacles left are producing a portable touch-screen device which can handle the needed precision at a sane market price, and for some developer to take the plunge and design for that market. As with most computer technology, it’s really only a matter of time…

  2. We develop 3D CAD for kitchen, bedroom and bathroom design and have been giving serious thought to porting the program to tablets.

    With the new Intel Atom Z3xxx processors, there is now sufficient 3D power on quite low cost tablets, but as commented above it is the interface that is the problem.

    With touch it is very difficult to compete with the use of a mouse which can have right-clicks, shift and control clicks and drags. For example to reproduce a control and drag to repeat would need the user to select a repeat tool and then drag. There will be a lot of extra operations and even then controlling an object’s accurate location with touch is far harder than with a mouse.

    I think CAD on a tablet will never match the versatility and control of a laptop or desktop, but for viewing rather than designing it can be the perfect tool.

    1. Well put, VR Pro. Pretty much the only user interfaces which seem to do well on a touch screen are the ones which either don’t require that many tools to work, or don’t require too much precise manipulation of the object. This is why 2D design tools work relatively well on touch screen, and 3D viewers work, but anything more complex runs into a bit of a dilemma.

      I recall similar problems with not enough buttons cropped up when we started trying to use the pen tablet with 3D CAD applications.

  3. I am agreeing but a mouse still moves in two directions and so does a pen on the tablet. Sketch UP has that orbit command which allows you to navigate the space.

    Take a look at an Android app called SPACEDRAW, bills itself as the Blender 3D on tablets. It has zones to move views and objects in 3d space. It is tricky to say the least. I haven’t viewed a complex model on it but it is pretty snappy.

  4. I am searching currently for this type of program to use for myself as I’m looking to go into business designing jewellery from home. Why not have a pen with two buttons to serve the purpose for left/right clicks and have it function wirelessly like a mouse? I would think it sounds simple, but that’s not my area of expertise. Having designed jewellery for several years I can see how it’s the intricate details that are hard to master in making an app but if it had to have a pen/mouse for fine tuning, I’d be happy to buy from a consumers perspective. At least starting in that respect then when/if able to those tools could always be removed..

    1. Hi Vashti:

      It’s a good idea, and I agree.

      It would be a good potential solution, provided the two technical problems I can see with this are solved:

      1.) Have you ever tried using a pen to work in 3D CAD? It works great even with multiple buttons on 2D CAD, but for 3D, the manipulation of the model can get tricky with your average multi-button pen and tablet. They would need to come up with an elegant interface for using such a clickable pen tool on a screen.

      2.) The interface for Blackberries and touch screen devices which use pens seem to be overwhelmingly based on a conductive tipped “pen” instrument rather than a mouse-like “pen with buttons”. I know that they have been successfully able to make video screens which respond to pens with buttons, but I don’t know how small these screens can go yet, nor do I know how sensitive these screens would be. So I suppose that would be the major hardware challenge to getting this working, notwithstanding losing the special clickable pen itself, of course!


  5. I’m sure that another factor in the lack of 3D CAD apps for IOS and Android is money. 3D CAD packages for PCs and Macs cost thousands. NOBODY is going to pay this kind of money for what basically amounts to a phone app. Without that kind of money making incentive, nobody would want to go through the trouble of developing a CAD app for IOS or Android devices.

    1. Fair point Matt, and I agree.

      One persistent problem with all industry-specific CAD software has been the high costs required to keep the software up to date. Unless they scaled back to a genuinely simpler method of modelmaking (which is still possible, considering Google Sketchup), it’s hard to imagine people being willing to pay £5000 for a iOS app.

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