SOLIDCAM – HOW IT ALL STARTED
The roots of SolidCAM actually started when I immigrated to Israel from Canada.
When I had finished my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto, I was feeling at the top of the world. I finished in only 9 months and I had a straight A average. I have done a Master’s thesis in the use of Computer Graphics in Computer Aided Design – a project that I enjoyed immensely. It was summer, the weather was good, I had good interesting friends and I was ready to find a good, satisfying job, buy a car and have fun. But as usual not all plans work out! The job situation in Canada for engineers in this summer of 1970 was not good at all! Engineers were driving taxis, doing other all kind of jobs.. with no engineering jobs around! I went to a very snazzy employment agency and they promised me to find a job – but it was all promises and nothing came out of it. I was scanning the papers every day looking for an opportunity.
One day I saw this interesting ad: Engineers, Architects.. come over.. we have work for you. I was dubious but I had to go and see what it is all about. I arrived to this big hall where they literally had hundreds of unemployed engineers crammed there. Then the show started. Somebody came on stage and started to detail the offer they had for us: since anywhere we were unemployed, we might as well make some money on the side! They said since we make sometimes parties in our home or are invited to other peoples’ parties, then at a break in the party we should bring out a small trolley with detergents and sell them to the people! Obviously we had to pay money to buy the first installment of these detergents. They had some of their own accomplices in the crowd, who immediately jumped up and took up the offer! What a scam…
It was clear to me that it was nearly impossible to find an engineering job. Then the University where I graduated offered me to make some short term research work for them – I accepted. By that time I was very disappointed by the work prospects in Canada and started contemplating immigrating to Israel, where my parents have been living, after our escape from Iraq. I was reading at the time a book called the Pledge – it was about events that happened during the founding of Israel in 1948. Israel at the time was fighting for its life, after being attacked by the armed forces of 7 Arab countries. Israel was badly in need of arms to defend itself against the invading Arab armies. A group of heroic jewish Americans was involved in this desperate and valiant effort to obtain arms for Israel. One of them was called Al Schwimmer. At the end of the book it said that Al Schwimmer has eventually immigrated to Israel and formed Israel Aircraft Industries, which became one of the biggest and most important companies in Israel.
An idea formed in my head: I should immigrate to Israel and work for Israel Aircraft Industries. I knew that, being an advanced engineering and manufacturing company, they would be very interested in my newly acquired skills during my Master’s studies and thesis in computer programming and computer-aided-design. I wrote a letter to them offering my services and got back a general letter saying that they are interested in my skills and that I should contact them when I arrive to Israel. It was not a specific offer for work but a statement of interest – for me this was enough. I decided to go to Israel.
When I arrived to Israel, I went to Israel Aircraft Industries. The manager of the department, where I was supposed to work, told me that he is very interested to hire me but could not do it at the moment because of an all over hiring freeze in Israel Aircraft Industries. He said that he will contact me when the hiring freeze ends! So again I was without work. But then I was given the contact of a Professor in the Technion University, the most advanced engineering university in Israel, and I was told that maybe he is looking for a person with my skills. I travelled to the Technion in Haifa and had a meeting with him. He said to me that actually he does not have a job to offer me but he would be glad to be my advisor if I decide to do my Doctorate studies at the Technion. I had originally no intention at all to continue my studies to a doctorate. However I took the decision to do a doctorate in my spare time – an eventful decision that would change all my professional future.
After working shortly in some places, the hiring freeze in Israel Aircraft Industries ended and I started working there. It was very interesting work, exactly suited for my skills and interests – it was worth the wait. I worked there in the area of CAD and CAE for aircraft, developing programs for the internal use of the Engineering Dept in Israel Aircraft Industries. In parallel I continued with my research work for my doctorate at the Technion. I had changed advisors in my doctorate meanwhile and was able to find some common thread between my work in Israel Aircraft and the research work I was doing in my doctorate. It took me 7 years, with ups and downs, until I finally finished my doctorate.
I was then offered by the Technion to teach a course in computer graphics there, once a week. The Technion was located in Haifa, a one and half hour drive from where I lived. Discussing the subject with my wife Linda, she commented that it would be much more practical to teach in Bar-Ilan University, which was located 5 minutes from my home and where she has studied for her degree in psychology. Her idea appealed to me.
I had meanwhile got interested in microprocessor technology and I had taught myself the subject, including building some kits for practicing. I saw an advertisement in the paper announcing a conference in Bar-Ilan University with the subject: Cooperation of Industry and University. I thought this could be my opportunity and I attended the conference. At the end of the main lecture in the conference, I approached the Professor from Bar-Ilan, who had discussed the subject of University-Industry cooperation, and I introduced myself as somebody working in Industry, who is willing to teach part-time at the University. Having my doctorate degree was important as it was nearly a pre-requisite for teaching at the University. The Bar-Ilan computer Science dept liked my idea and we agreed that I would be teaching two subjects at the University: Micro processors and Computer-Aided-Design. I would also be advising 4th year students in doing practical projects for their final year.
Being involved in microprocessors and their programming enabled me also to change my job in Israel Aircraft Industries – I got involved in real time programming for the Remotely Piloted Vehicle project. This was an exciting new project and its technology would eventually bring Israel Aircraft Industries to a leading position worldwide in this field.
Although I was busy and had my hands full with my new interesting job in Israel Aircraft and my part-time teaching, I started looking for a project that I could develop as my own start-up company. I loved computer graphics and computer aided design and I was looking for an idea in this field.
In 1982, the IBM PC was launched and I saw my big chance – to develop software for the PC. My father Ezra, who had a successful pharmacy business, has encouraged me to go on my own, telling me it is time to set sail to the unknown without fear. He was an entrepreneur in spirit and, being a pharmacist, had always been involved in selling pharmaceuticals in Iraq and then now in Israel, either in his own pharmacy or sometimes in wholesale. He was a hard working, practical person and we always saw his dedication to his work.
I wanted to buy 2 IBM PC s and needed his financial assistance – at the time 2 such PCs, with a 10 MB hard disk each, and a printer cost $15,000 – a hefty sum. Every Friday the whole family met, including my brother and sister, for lunch at my parents home. I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss the financing I needed with my father. But every time, after lunch, my father was too tired really to have any discussion. I consulted with Linda on the matter – she asked me simply to think when would my father be most free to talk. It was simple – I knew that my father opened his pharmacy early in the morning, to do some activities before the clients start coming in. So Linda gave me the solution – it was simple but very effective! I went to the pharmacy at 7 am in the morning, my father was free and fresh, we discussed and he agreed to give me the financing to buy the 2 PCs. He just reminded me to make sure to handle the money carefully, thinking how many small things he has to sell in the pharmacy to make the money he was going to give me – a good reminder on the value of money to a starting entrepreneur!
The big break came in a very interesting and unplanned way, as do a lot of good things in life, although you must be ready for them! One day I received an invitation to attend a conference in Tel Aviv University entitled – Computers in Education. I had to take my car to be fixed at the day of the conference so I threw the invitation in the garbage can in my room. I had expected to waste the whole morning waiting for my car repair to be finished – but the fix was quick. I remembered then that the conference was somewhere in the same area where I had my car fixed. So I called Linda and asked her to try to find the invitation in the garbage can in my room. Luckily it was still there and she told me the exact location of the conference.
When I arrived to the conference, I saw in the agenda that there is a session called: CAD in education. I was quite surprised since CAD was done at the time only using big computers in industry. The person giving the lecture showed pictures of teachers sitting at a computer terminal working with a CAD system. After the lecture, I approached the lecturer and I asked him if they really have such big computers in schools to run CAD! He said actually no and the pictures showed the teachers working at a service center of a big computer company. So I said to him they should really have computers in the schools for the teachers and students to run CAD. He asked me to follow him to the main exhibition area of the conference where he proceeded to show me a rudimentary 3D CAD system, running on an IBM PC. He told me that this program was developed with the financing of the Ministry of Education and when finished, it will be used in all vocational schools. Seeing that basic CAD program, I knew I could write a much better one, with all my experience in CAD. I tried to convince him of that – but I quickly realized that he was too involved in the running of this government sponsored project and I had no chance with him.
I left the exhibition hall and started thinking – if the government is developing and financing such a project, there must be a real market for a good 3D CAD program for vocational education. I knew that the biggest vocational network of schools in Israel was run by an organization called ORT. I happened to have met previously, during my search for what to develop in the previous months, the pedagogical manager of the ORT network – his name was Ben-Shlomo. I found a public phone that worked, looked for his telephone in the directory and called him. I introduced myself and I asked him whether ORT was looking for a 3D CAD program for education – he said YES! I told him that I could provide ORT with such a program. I set up a meeting with him. In that meeting we agreed on a timetable for delivering the CAD program and we signed a short 2-page contract.
Obviously I had nothing at that point, except my full confidence that I could develop the best 3D CAD program for education! I had already bought earlier 2 IBM PCs, with financing from my father, to get ready to develop the software, once I DECIDE WHAT TO DO. I had already learned also the C programming language at Bar Ilan University. In one of my travels to the US, I had also acquired the manual of some experimental 3D CAD program that was developed at Xerox. The 2 computers were located in one of the rooms of our 3 bedroom apartment.
I immediately hired 2 of my students at Bar-Ilan University , to work with me part-time in programming the 3D CAD system , using the C language. I also enlisted a friend of mine from Israel Aircraft to work with me on the user interface design and some of the mathematics of the geometry. The year was 1984 – I was doing this project in my apartment, while still working full-time at Israel Aircraft Industries and teaching also part-time at Bar-Ilan University. I had promised Ben-Shlomo of Ort to show him a first demonstration of the CAD system in 3 months from signing our agreement. Obviously it was an impossible milestone – but still after 3 months, when I went to ORT to show Ben-Shlomo and his group the first version of the CADTOOL program, I was able to impress them! I had developed a full 3D CAD program that enabled the user to build a 3D wireframe mechanical model, while seeing and working on the isometric , front, side and top views. This was the most important need for teaching students.
At that time the most famous commercial program for the IBM PC was AutoCAD from Autodesk and it was only a 2D CAD system..Obviously CADTOOL was still missing a lot of functionality, including the important dimensioning and annotation. But seeing that CADTOOL had the most important 3D capability they needed, the ORT people were willing to extend the milestone by another 3 months! We finished the dimensioning in those 3 months and we showed it to them. We still had some more functions to develop.
At the recommendation of the ORT people, I hired one teacher of ORT named Moshe Stern as an advisor for development. By 9 months from the start, in the major demonstration I did to a big audience of ORT managers, the main manager who was responsible for the whole project said at the end of my demonstration: I suppose we can now get rid of the drawing boards and start drawing on the computer! I knew they were satisfied at ORT. I then immediately installed a number of CADTOOL systems in some key ORT schools to get teachers to start using it. I still remember the day when I installed the first CADTOOL system at the ORT Herzliyah vocational school, where Moshe Stern taught – it was quite an exciting and emotional experience. When I left the school, I felt that CADTOOL has been launched and now it was out of my hands and in the hands of the users who are going to decide its future!
But I still had a major last hurdle to pass – the other program that was developed by government financing and called POLARIS has continued its development and now a decision had to be taken by the education ministry to choose only one 3D CAD system for the whole vocational education in Israel. So although ORT were on my side, and some of their teachers were already working with the CADTOOL systems I installed, there was still a government committee that had to take the final decision – CADTOOL or POLARIS!!
It was showdown time! The POLARIS system had 2 major shortcomings – it was developed in assembly language, a very weird decision by its developer, and it also needed a special expensive graphic card, developed specifically for it, to run on the IBM PC. CADTOOL was developed in the normal C language and used a commercially available graphic card for the PC. Also some teachers were already working with CADTOOL at ORT and appreciated its interface and ease of use. Yet POLARIS was developed by government financing and I guess they did not want to easily admit that their financing went down the drain!
Finally it came down to the wire – the decision committee was headed by a person named Solomon and his opinion would have a great weight. Prior to taking the final decision, he wanted me to install CADTOOL on his own home computer so that he can work on it, before making up his mind. I went to his home and installed CADTOOL and gave him a short introduction on the use of the system. The committee had to take the final decision the next day! It was really a tense period! As I came back home, he called me and said that he cannot work with the system, as it is failing on his computer. I was breaking my head, trying to figure out why CADTOOL was failing on his computer while it was working well on mine.
When Linda heard about the problem, she came out with a genius, simple solution – she said you cannot lose time figuring why it is not working on his computer, just take your computer to him and he can test CADTOOL on it! A brilliant solution that probably saved the day! I took my computer to him that evening and he tested CADTOOL on it. The next day was the crucial committee meeting and I got a letter from them that CADTOOL had won and will be adopted as the 3D CAD system for all vocational education in Israel. What a great win! It was nearly one year from the day Linda found the invitation in the garbage can and I made the crucial call to Ben Shlomo!
I had one last hurdle to pass – I had to face the ORT finance committee to decide on the price of each CADTOOL system for education. I heard that this committee and especially its head, Peleg, were experts in browbeating anybody who came to sell them something, to get out of him the least possible price. I knew that the educational system wanted to buy hundreds and eventually thousands of CADTOOL. I knew also that I needed to get a fair price to finance the continued development of the system, as I knew that I must soon leave my well paid job at Israel Aircraft and concentrate 100% on further development of CADTOOL. I had no experience in such type of negotiations, but I felt confident that I could face them and make a fair deal for both sides – they wanted CADTOOL and they must pay a decent price for it.
The day of the crucial meeting with the dreaded finance committee came. I went to the ORT headquarters and I was ushered to the committee room, facing a group of about 7 ORT people that I have not met before, with Peleg sitting as the head of the committee. The members of the committee started talking to me in a condescending way, as if it was a crime that I was asking them to pay money for the software! Peleg was the chief guy in doing this bullying! It was not a nice meeting – but I stood my ground and got a good price for each CADTOOL system – $450. In a few days, I got home the first order for 90 CADTOOL systems – a promising start! We were on our way, that would eventually lead to about 6000 CADTOOL systems installed in vocational educational in Israel in the next few years.