Abandoned tank in the forests of Ukraine
[Image source https://www.science.org/do/10.1126/science.adi3412/card-type11/_20230421nid_ukraineforest.jpg]
Russia’s invasion of the sovereign country of Ukraine is despicable, but the subsequent Western embargoes, designed to hobble the Russian war economy, instead had the unintended side effect of accelerating Russia’s self-sufficiency. Its official "import substitution" (zamena importa) program replaced Western products with homegrown ones, whether no-longer-Mcdonalds hamburgers, IKEA-like furniture, or geometric kernels in CAD software [source].
Even before the embargoes began, Russia already had a strong subset of CAD programs, mostly AutoCAD-workalikes for general CAD and parametric history-based CAD systems for mechanical designs. This is due to the strength of Russian mathematicians, who also founded CAD programs now considered indispensable to the West, such as Pro/Engineer from PTC (renamed Creo) and Revit from Autodesk.
Russian CAD is also strong in areas of P&ID and vessel design (needed for their hydrocarbon and pipeline industries) and the design and decommissioning of nuclear power plants.
On the other hand, its architectural and BIM software is -- in my opinion -- weak; by weak, I mean that the few that exist are not as capable as AutoCAD with add-ons and Revit, because the two American brands have dominated the market in Russia. PLM software, which runs Russian manufacturing firms through product lifecycle management, is for the most part Teamcenter from Siemens of Germany.
Under the hood, many Russian CAD programs rely on Parasolid's geometric kernel, also from Siemens, while AutoCAD workalikes need APIs (application programming interfaces) and translators from the USA’s Open Design Alliance -- ironically, programmed largely by Russians.
As Western software firms withdrew from Russia, their software kept operating -- for a time. Some ground to a halt after a year as licenses ran out, or when servers were blocked, or when security patches lagged too far into the past. Even hardware is affected; Mercedes blocked its servers from assisting repair shops in diagnosing and updating its automobiles in Russia.
On the other hand, about 100,000 programmers have left since the start of the war, according to the Russian government. Even though the government countered with inducements, such as not being drafted into the war, and threats against remaining family members [source], programmers continue to be extricated by Western software companies, desperate for their skill set.
The Situation in China
China depends more on Western CAD software than does Russia. It has not been able to independently create its own AutoCAD- or Solidworks-level of design programs, in my opinion. Whereas Russian mathematicians have been keenly constructing original algorithms since Soviet times, China has a different culture. Copying is seen as a compliment, and so the cultural norm is to copy software, rather than to engage in original works.
The Communist government raised copying to legal status by requiring Western firms wishing to do business in China integrate with local partners, who then benefit from “technology transfers” -- which I see as legalized theft of intellectual property. For instance, 20% of wind turbines illegally use control software developed by American Semiconductor [source]. Further, domestic and foreign midsize and large firms are required to establish internal communist party cells to guide the direction of the firms [source].
To keep up with Western advances and to avoid having their exports blocked, Chinese firms over the decades have purchased or licensed or invested in Western ones: ZwSoft’s ZW3D is the old VX MCAD, still being programmed out of Florida. Gstarsoft’s GstarCAD general design program is an IntelliCAD-based AutoCAD workalike that runs on ODA’s APIs. One of China’s PLM makers, CAXA, owns the USA’s IronCAD.
As for operating systems, Windows dominates in Russia and China due to widespread bootlegging. Attempts to replace it with homegrown desktop operating systems based on Linux have wallowed, as elsewhere in the world.
Replacing the Kernel in Russia
Private firms and the Russian government have a variety of tactics to transition Western software to local versions. For instance, Ascon Group of St Petersburg, Russia’s biggest CAD vendor, offers a 30% discount on its CAD products to those with now-canceled AutoCAD licenses.
The geometric kernel is the core to every CAD system, and so a decade ago the Russian government funded an early version of import substitution with Russia Geometric Kernel. RGK failed due to the dominance of Parasolid [source] -- why go from an excellent kernel to an immature one? But with last year’s newfound urgency, RGK has been resurrected. The lead developer is Top Systems of Moscow, which gained its knowledge by first working with ACIS and then with Parasolid in its T-Flex CAD software.
The functions that RGK still needs are no mystery: they must match Parasolid. “The Top Systems company sets itself the task of reaching the level of existing Western world leaders in the field of geometric modeling as soon as possible, and possibly surpassing this level,” writes the company in typical grandiose style. The company admits, however, that the project will take years to complete. (For a history of RGK and its capabilities, see https://isicad-ru.translate.goog/ru/articles.php?article_num=22690&_x_tr_sl=ru&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=wapp, translated from Russian.)
The only other home-grown kernel is C3D, an off-shoot of Ascon Group, which has been successful in commercializing the kernel Ascon wrote in-house for its Kompas-3D MCAD program. C3D lacks the imprimatur of the Russian government, but nevertheless found success internationally, such as in Altium’s PCB design software. [Disclosure: I provided editing work to C3D Labs prior to the invasion.]
A more urgent task is to replace Western PLM. Ripping out PLM systems and replacing them with different ones is more painful than replacing kernels. While a kernel operates in many areas of CAD programs, PLM runs the operations in many areas of manufacturing.
PLM is a multi-user database that reads (through translation) all kinds of CAD file formats, and then displays them with linked drawings, data, and other documents -- all the while managing workflows in manufacturing, installation, operations, and decommissioning. So, it ought not be difficult to replicate, but Russians are finding it is. I think the problem may be that Russians are not that good at the grunt work of data translation. (Most data conversion firms are in Europe.)
The Russian-language Isicad magazine, now relocated to Tel Aviv, published the PLM-transition experience of a firm looking for Russian PLM to work with legacy Creo and AutoCAD files, as well as any Russian CAD program, doing things like reading attributes, recognizing family tables, and handling electronic signatures [source].
The firm spent a year looking at Russian replacements for Teamcenter. For one Russian replacement, the firm would have to pay to have a Creo translator written; another lacked product configurations; the third supported only Russian-language products, and no English ones (like Creo), along with providing poor support.
The firm’s conclusion was severe: Russian “vendors’ marketing claims that give the impression of a wide range of system capabilities and ease of data transfer do not stand up to scrutiny.” The biggest stumbling block was importing PLM data, which is done easily with Western PLM, but doesn’t work well with Russian PLM. (To read about the experience, see https://isicad-ru.translate.goog/ru/articles.php?article_num=22669&_x_tr_sl=ru&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=wapp, translated from Russian.)
The war against Ukraine broke the global interdependence between countries, replaced by the new aim of national independence.
Our dependencies are different from the two aggressor nations. While we depend on the capabilities of Russian programmers to write our software cheaply, many have emigrated to the West. We own the software market. On the other hand, we still depend on Chinese factories to make our stuff cheaply, and that does not bode well for the West, as China hints at invading Taiwan in 2025 [source], the year by which China hopes to be 70% self-sufficient in manufacturing [source].
The decision to pull out of Russia was an easy one for most Western CAD firms: they looked virtuous, and the cost was low, as Russia typically represented 2% of global revenues. In China, however, some Western firms actually are increasing their investment, such as car maker VW, for whom China represents 40% of global revenues [source]. Others, like Apple, are sensibly looking at India and Viet Nam to reduce their dependence on China.
We have the crucial software; now we need to return to the crucial manufacturing.
[This article first appeared in Design Engineering magazine, October 2023.]