Is a CAD rental and training business viable?

I found a question on LinkedIn I thought to answer here since more people might find it useful (I don’t know if that link will work for you unless you belong to that group). Anyway, the individual in question (Michelle) said (paraphrased and snipped):

I want to start a business where young designers can rent time on CAD software and equipment that I will buy. I think there is a need for this kind of studio – there are many young designers coming straight out of school who could benefit from CAD software.

Has anyone heard of this kind of business? Is there an existing business model I could learn from? If this kind of CAD studio were available in your area at an affordable rate, would you be interested in the services? What kind of needs would you expect this studio to meet? I am interested in any kind of feedback or information you can offer.

I think this could be a viable business but I also think the focus needs to change somewhat. My first approach would be to ask CAD trainers one simple question: Who wants to use CAD systems?

The answer is businesses. Meaning, there is a mismatch between your mission and the market. I completely agree it would be awesome to provide CAD access to independent designers but most of them need hard patterns because their lots are so small. Also, while they may have acquired some training in school, there’s a big gap between school vs good production patterns to say nothing of knowing how to grade them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t provide access to them -you should- only that CAD access alone won’t pay the bills. What will pay the bills is training.

Regardless of how you envision the business mission, the immutable fact is that you will become a training center. Either because the designers, businesses or even other patternmakers don’t know the particular CAD program you have or they don’t know how to execute desired effects. Very few students ever take grading so that’s another lack. Anyway, because you will be training, it is better to structure it that way instead of getting sidelined and having to regroup, restructure or divert resources later on. If your resources are limited, you may not survive a necessary transition. Besides, you don’t want to lend the impression that you lack focus.

Does it go without saying that one must charge for training? CAD training can be very expensive, $150+ an hour plus expenses if they have to fly someone in so there is a real need for this. If you train well, few customers will stay on to pay rent on your system. Most of them (or their employers) will either buy or have their own CAD system. You also probably cannot imagine how many old school pattern makers there are who are dying to learn CAD but for one reason or another, haven’t had the opportunity.

Since you’ll be offering access to CAD, I suggest asking CAD trainers another simple question (as I have):

Q. Who wants training (and will pay for it)?
A. The typical customer is a business rather than an independent.

Since the average customer is a business, it’s helpful to know why they need training. Sure they can tell you but some people can’t articulate what they don’t know much about -which also indirectly affects their expectations. The four key reasons businesses need CAD training are that they:

  1. are adopting CAD for the first time,
  2. are upgrading from a manual pattern set up to CAD patterns,
  3. are migrating from one CAD platform to another, or
  4. need a cost effective way to get new hires up to speed. It can be less costly for a business to send a new hire to a trainer than to lose the productivity of a pattern maker in house.

Users who are adopting CAD for the first time will need the most services so you need to give extra thought to your curriculum development or even, develop criteria for students you will accept in consideration of your limited time. This group will also be the most challenging. Every CAD trainer I’ve talked to has said that the most common expectation of these businesses is that a trainee will learn how to make patterns in the course of learning CAD because who ever is in charge has decided that CAD can make patterns so they just need someone comfortable with computing to learn the program. Really, that’s what they think (the day a CAD system will make patterns for you is the day that Microsoft Word will write a book for you). Meaning, you may get applicants with little facility for the work, may not know how to sew, much less care to learn it.

What also goes unsaid about these businesses is that many are also setting up their own product development for the first time. Meaning, you may end up being pulled in unintended directions. Perhaps you’d welcome consulting opportunities but surely they’d need direction in organizing the flow of prototyping, testing, meeting strictures of the time and action calender etc. They may also need guidance with developing technical packages etc. Speaking of, adding training for technical package software is another potentially profitable revenue stream.

With respect to people who need training because they’re migrating from a manual to a CAD system, it’s a little easier because product development has already been set up so your challenge will be to integrate the new system harmoniously. There are still challenges based on how the company is set up. For example, do they do their own production? If so it’s a little easier. If not, there are a range of issues to deal with such as who is making markers etc.  If it’s the contractor, you need to worry about software compatability and file conversions. If it is in house, you also need to add a training module for marking -and preceding that, a module on how to grade. I can’t speak for you but I would prefer this group over the first because they won’t be as resource intensive in that you won’t have to teach them how to make patterns and how to organize their whole operation.

Businesses falling in the third category are probably the most effective to work with because the pattern maker already knows how to make patterns and on a CAD system at that.  Your value is enhanced if you know whatever CAD system they had been using.

The last category (#4) can be six of one, half a dozen of another. You may end up with someone who interviewed well but is fresh out of school and doesn’t know as much as they let on. You could also end up with a highly skilled old school pattern maker who is so terrified of technology that they’ve never used a computer or even have so much as an email address. It happens.

All that said, I would have been thrilled if there had been a training business where I could have learned CAD. There are a lot of pattern makers who would like to learn but for one reason or another, never had the opportunity or the means to learn. I think a business like this would be very viable in given population densities with a sufficient trade base.  Again, I’m not saying you couldn’t rent out time on a CAD system only that training is going to be a compelling need.

If you start out with an eye to developing a training center, your business is of interest to CAD companies because they don’t have the means to offer low cost training (so you should reach out to them). If you provided that, more people would use their software. Software companies are in the business of selling software; training is only a necessary adjunct to it so you might be able to work out favorable terms as you need to acquire additional licenses for more computers.

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21 comments

  1. sfriedberg says:

    If you do something like this, make sure the terms of your software licenses allow this. In a training center situation, you are unlikely to run into trouble. However, offering software for plain-and-simple rental is usually [i]not[/i] permitted by standard license agreements.

  2. Jasonda says:

    I have to agree.. renting software doesn’t make sense. Even graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator is fairly useless to someone who hasn’t received basic training (or had enough time fiddling with the program to figure it out for themselves).

    Adobe offers student pricing on their products. Perhaps some of the CAD companies offer student pricing as well, which could be combined with a training program.

  3. Kelly says:

    Your intention is good. I know in Philadelphia we have Next Fab studio: a membership-based, high-tech workshop and prototyping center- it’s Philadelphia’s “gym for innovators”, see more at http://nextfabstudio.com/about. Along with studio time I imagine you would need to offer classes as well. The model you are looking for is a collaborative consumption or share model perhaps, like the co-working model (http://wiki.coworking.info/w/page/16583831/FrontPage) or Car share, tool share, software share. Maybe there would be money from your city or business-I know that we have innovation funds. Also, who are local businesses? You might not get money but aligning with them would be beneficial for certain.

    The thing is that software is super expensive and always changing. Is someone going to be there for the “long haul” and you have enough $ to support them, your rent and upgrades, for example: digitizing table now needs to be replaced with pattern scanner and version 5 of my software needs upgrade to version 6 AND more training is needed, who will pay for that? One of my dreams is to open up a co-working space here in Philadelphia, a manufacturing collective-read Kathleen’s entries on making your own factory. I wish for your success so I can follow your model, good luck!

    PS where are readers on creating their own manufacturing centers?

  4. Sarah_H. says:

    Given what the software programs charge for training, are they going to want someone offering less expensive training? Also, how many programs will you train people on? If you can afford one setup for each of the major programs, another source of income will be advising people (businesses) on their CAD needs who are going into CAD use.

  5. Annie Rose says:

    I know that OptiTex rents to students. I was taking a CAD class last semester at my community college and our teacher gave us the info on the rental agreement. It was $30 to $85 a month based on how many features you need.

    Unfortunately that class was cancelled because of low enrollment. Twenty students is the minimum to keep a class going and we only had about a dozen. This is at a school that regularly gets about 60 people wanting to be in each class, we are very overcrowded and understaffed. (Hooray for California budget cuts!) After reading this post I’m even more frustrated about the CAD class being cancelled. Our teacher was a local patternmaker who knew several different CAD systems and had many years of experience. Fashion design is a very popular major at my school, but hardly any students get the AA degree because they can’t get past the patternmaking and CAD classes. I’m hoping that the OptiTex class will be available again next fall. Students at my school aren’t interested in CAD, but hopefully that’s not the norm.

  6. Kelly says:

    Anni, band together with student peers, rent a key if you have access to a computer or computer lab. Optitex has a great online resource with tutorials with videos-you can do some self guided learning. Also squeeky wheel gets the oil in academia, students have the power. Your uber talented professor…sorry to say, not so much when it comes to what courses run, I am sure he or she would appreciate the active support of you students.

  7. JoAnne Hopkins says:

    I know its a bit off topic, but I’m curious to know what is the major difference between what we learn in school vs. industry as it pertains to CAD ? (might be a loaded question, and if it’s alreayd been asked, answered, and addressed.. my apologies)

  8. Kathleen says:

    It hasn’t been answered. It’s a good question but not having taken CAD in school, I’m not qualified to answer it. Anyone?

    Pattern wise, I went to a really good school (at the time, El Centro College in Dallas, don’t know if it is still good). There were a couple of things we weren’t taught (or were taught that don’t apply) that differed from industry.

    The biggie -we weren’t taught to check our patterns. Or at least I don’t remember that we were.

    We were taught varying seam allowances for different seams but it was “couture standards” as opposed to varying allowances based on equipment and desired finish.

    We were taught to true seam ends improperly.

    We weren’t taught notching system logic.

    In short, a lot of what’s in my production pattern making chapter of my book. We were also taught a lot of subjective opinion that isn’t really true (overlocking is nasty, grown on facings are superior etc).

    But back to your question, maybe someone else will know.

  9. JoAnne Hopkins says:

    Thanks Kathleen,
    I’m looking forward to purchasing your book, waiting on a sale to close tomorrow so I can do so! :)

    I’m curious to know what you think of using Illustrator, or Coral Draw to draft patterns? Once again maybe slightly off topic, and if the answer is already addressed in a different blog, please feel free to direct me

  10. Kathleen says:

    Hi JoAnne, there is also a post on the blog about it called CAD vs CAD. I would caution anyone following that link to Read It Carefully! Some people tend to love their illustration software so much, they take exception if one suggests it can’t birth babies or cook dinner. Here’s the redux:

    Now, I will not deny that there are people who can draft in Illustrator, I’m sure there are. The issue is, how useful is it? Does this represent the best expenditure of your dollars? I would say probably not. The reason is your pattern -in effect, an illustration- can’t be exported into a computer aided drafting program for the purposes of grading and making markers. So like it or not, you will have to have the work redone in a drafting program.

    Which is not to say we don’t use them together because we do. We export drafts into illustrator and pretty them up if they will be printed -either on desktop printers in sheet fed pdfs or if printed by McCalls etc.

    As Alison mentions, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about how to use drawing software to make patterns on the forum. This can be a viable option IF you have more time than money AND you don’t expect anyone else can use them. Say, expecting a sewing contractor to be able to make a marker and plot it or that a pattern maker will be able to grade from your illustrations. Not happening. Ever. Illustration patterns are something you can do for yourself to print out either for resale (pdf download etc) or to use in house to make up your designs. If you want to do it commercially, your illustrations will have to be digitized into a CAD program.

    But aside from all that, it takes a very long time to draw a pattern in Illustrator unless it is super simple (boxes etc). Since it is faster to draft the average pattern by hand, I don’t see the advantage of using software.

  11. Jess H. says:

    Hi JoAnne, I took CAD class in college within the coursework for my apparel design & technology B.S., in which we were taught a basic overview of CAD usage in production; however it wasn’t as in-depth as I would have liked. We were fortunate to have a dedicated CAD lab with Gerber software, digitizing table, plotter, lots of workstations, etc. – we spent the first several weeks of class learning how to build grade rules, how to grade patterns manually with both the ruler method and a grading machine, then moved into the lab. Once in there we learned how to digitize patterns, input grade rules, do minor corrections within the CAD program, check graded pattern nests, and create markers.

    I guess as I type this all out it seems extensive, and it DID give me a good handle on how production patterns eventually make it to the cutting room – but I would still need extensive training and/or a lot of alone time with the software if I acquired my own CAD system. I’m pretty tech savvy but I like to get to know my equipment before attempting complicated projects.

  12. I took CAD on Gerber in college and have used Optitex in industry (patterns, marking, grading, for the last 6 years. So much depends on end use. Seam allowances are usually set by the factory for manufacturing. Even if you send patterns out with them on, a good factory pattern maker will check and adjust them for the machinery being used to sew the product on. At my corporate day job we sent out sew lines only and let the factories assign their own seam allowances. If you are doing sampling/production yourself you can assign them as needed for the specific garment.

    In Optitex you can import/export to Illustrator. The lines and points come out different, but it can be done and used after some pattern clean up.

    If you are a non-student and lease/buy Optitex they have online trainings available and a really great wikipedia like site. (I don’t work for them I swear, I just LOVE using Optitex).

    What I learned in CAD in college made my brain hurt. (also why I am not a huge fan of Gerber). I spent most of my time trying to learn the program, not actual create patterns in it. I have several friends who work in it daily and do like it. Is there a college somewhere that actually offers an extensive computer pattern making course? I’ve been lucking enough to get corporate patternmaking training to further my self taught use.

  13. Dara says:

    Kathleen,
    There are already several hundred of these CAD design systems across the nation, I’m in one of them. This is a viable model, generally there is a monthly or annual fee to access the space ($50-100 month) plus an hourly rate for training. It keeps the lights on and the interest running. It’s also helpful as in general people need more time on the computers and sewing machines, and much less time on the cutters. Which is good, because that is the most expensive piece of equipment in the place. If you decide to do this in your area, you can e-mail me if you need info or contacts.

  14. Dara says:

    You would probably think of these as sewing contractors based on reading your blog. Around here, I’ve heard “short run manufacturers” more commonly applied. We have over 750 members in ours and there’s probably a dozen more like it within an hour’s drive. Mostly late 20s-30s DE getting their start and pool resources.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Oh that is cool, what program are you running and what were the issues about licensing? How many seats did you get? How did you work out training? That is normally $100-$250 an hour. I wonder if we are talking about the same thing because I have never heard of one business like this much less hundreds. But if they’re there, it would be really great to be able to tap into it. It would be great if you could share the name of one, its location etc so we could point more people to it.

  16. Dara says:

    Kathleen, I will have to make some phone calls to get some permission. It’s unlikely these people are going to want to publicly put their contact info out for every crack-pot phone call out there. There’s a number in North Carolina, but most of them are word of mouth referral for business/space and don’t even have a name on the door. (I laughed when I read your blog post about that…so true).

  17. Kathleen Fasanella

    At this late date I notice there was no follow up posted here. That’s because Dara emailed me privately to confirm she was talking about generic community workshop co-ops like TechShop which while great, don’t apply to our discussion of the apparel industry or more specifically, apparel industry CAD co-ops.

    Furthermore, as of this morning, Dara confirms that neither her operation nor any she knows of, will do work for small companies, even those with sales in excess of six figures. I realize this contradicts her prior statements and can only say I’m as confused as anyone else.

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