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August 21, 2014


One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of working with SSI, for me personally anyway, comes from the range of types and sizes of clients we work with. No two organizations look at the world the same way. This difference becomes very apparent especially when major shifts occur around how and when technology is used.

Over the last 5 years we’ve seen an increasing trend towards the use of a single 3D CAD model throughout the process, especially through basic, detail and production design. The direction of our technology has mirrored that trend with products like MarineDrafting. While MarineDrafting has a number of other uses one of its biggest strengths is the generation of class approval drawings from the 3D model. Other vendors market the use of a common 3D model across design phases as well.

At first brush it seems like a no brainer. Creating a 3D model earlier in the overall design process ensures fewer errors in outputs like approval drawings, equipment arrangements and system arrangements both due to clash detection available in the 3D model, and to the greater ability for human beings to visually inspect and understand a 3D model. The 3D model can also be leveraged for other early stage activities like FEA, owner/operator design review, planning and more. Finally, using the same 3D model in multiple stages of the process eliminates errors that occur during the interpretation and recreation of the design between stages.

However, while we have seen this trend gaining momentum, it hasn’t been met with widespread enthusiasm by everyone. Some organizations, and certainly some individuals, remain skeptical of moving these earlier phases to 3D. Existing tools, usually 2D tools like AutoCAD, and processes are seen to be either adequate or more cost effective.

Some of this hesitation may be based on the comfort level, both individual and organizational, with the existing processes and tools, and some may be simply due to the natural inertia that any existing process has. However it is clear when talking with different types of organizations that the value an early 3D model can bring varies as greatly as the costs of creating one.

What seems like a largely technical decision (when and how should I create a 3D model), is and should be a business decision for the organization. The challenge, as with so many things these days, is that a grasp of the technical implications of the change in the context of your own organization is required even to ask the right questions.

Obviously this is a broad conversation, but I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the key considerations that we’ve seen and how they impact various types of organizations.

Skills and Backgrounds

One of the areas that should not be overlooked is the skill set, experience, and training of the people involved. It must sometimes seem that software vendors truly believe that it is simply a matter of throwing a switch; starting tomorrow those who have spent years or decades creating 2D drawings in AutoCAD, and interpreting 2D drawings, are going to pick up and use new 3D software tools. Even absent a lack of internal ‘buy-in’ to the change (which is a constant with the implementation of new software) the time and investment required to bring people up to speed with new software is a factor. Obviously this is a onetime investment (with a residual cost for new employees perhaps), and many would argue that it is an investment that will need to be made, but the cost and the impact for some organizations can’t be underestimated.

Shipyards vs. Designers

Many of the organizations who are looking at this shift, or who have already started using the same 3D CAD tool throughout the process, are shipyards. Obviously shipyards are involved in situations (project tenders etc…) where a basic design they have invested in will not eventually be built. However the core business of a shipyard is to build ships, and generally speaking any design is done with the intent to eventually build it. This means that the majority of the value ascribed to having a 3D model earlier can be realized.

Design offices on the other hand live in a world of speculation. This varies based on how much the design office sells standardized designs versus one offs. However generally speaking a designer expects to not take a decent number of their designs even as far as class approval and expects to take only some of those to detail design (if they even do detail design in house). These designs that do not make it past the earliest stages are undertaken by the designer at their own cost. The value derived from the 3D model must not only exceed any additional cost of creating it for that project, but for some percentage of the additional cost for all of the projects that do not progress. 

3D Modeling vs. 2D Drawings

The end of the last section is rife with an assumption that many of us take for granted, myself included. The assumption is that creating an early 3D model is more labor intensive than the current 2D approaches. The value of having the 3D model is almost always stacked against a perceived additional cost of creating it. This comparison between the two approaches is typically being done by those who have a lot of experience and familiarity with the existing approach.

The very fact that the existing approaches have years of experience and refinement behind them can lead to inaccurate early comparisons. Even if creating a 3D model will be as fast or faster (very much still a question), the existing approach has years of experience and refinement behind it. It is unlikely that a new approach will overcome that hurdle in the short term.

Additionally as 3D tools become more capable, 3D models are taking less and less time to create, whereas the existing 2D approaches are fairly static. What does that mean in terms of the comparative effort between the two approaches today? I don’t know. I have yet to work with a client who has done an actual comparison between the two approaches, where the actual effort in each case was tracked.

Does anyone have real data supporting or refuting this assumption?


Whether an organization should begin 3D modeling earlier, now or at some point in the future, is a question that should only be looked at within the broadest possible view of the business. It is clear that there is a trend in the industry and in software tools towards doing so. Like many things related to technology, it likely isn’t a matter of if you change, but when. If anyone has analyzed the cost and effort that goes into these two approaches, or gone through this transition themselves I would certainly be interested in hearing from you.

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