By John Gyorki
Dedication to customer satisfaction leads to software enhancements that often become industry-standards.
Many engineers claim that SolidWorks 3D CAD software is much easier to use than most other comparable 3D design modeling packages. Why do they say this, and what major enhancements were added over the past few years that make it the software of choice for so many engineers?
Part of the answer lies in its fundamental design. From the beginning, SolidWorks software was built on the Windows platform while most other powerful modelers were UNIX based. Windows afforded SolidWorks a framework upon which it could develop functions that are easier, better, and faster to use. For example, the user interface (UI) did not have to be developed from scratch since dialog windows were already there. SolidWorks took advantage of the latest technology of the time, and it was able to quickly assemble a first-class product from its first release.
Since its introduction in 1995, SolidWorks software has been constantly improved and it offered new, powerful enhancements in every release to help engineers design better products. The Feature Manager, introduced in the first release, is the main method for creating 3D parts in SolidWorks. A 2D sketch is shaped into a 3D part using Extruded-Boss, Extruded-Cut, Fillet, and several other features. This approach proved to be so successful that it was adapted by every other major 3D modeling software company. It became the standard method for manipulating features in a 3D model.
The Dynamic Assembly Motion function also gives designers the ability to move parts in the assembly similar to real mechanisms. It lets them grab a part, move it, and spin it to check for interference and proper part positions. Likewise, the Smart Mates technology lets engineers drag and drop to snap parts together, and the software automatically mates them. Users have to define only a few mating parameters, and the software does the rest. This considerably reduced valuable design time and makes building 3D assemblies much easier.
The SmartMates capability, also built into the Smart Components function, allows parts to be dragged and dropped into an assembly, such as a bolt. The bolt is not only properly positioned in the assembly, but also, the software knows what size the bolt needs to be to fit into the hole of any given size. It also adds washers and a nut on the opposite side. If the hole size should change later, the user would be notified that the bolt needs to change as well.
COSMOSXpress analysis software, which was made available in the 2003 release, was not so much new in itself as it was a way to make this technology accessible to a new class of users. Before the introduction of COSMOSXpress, analysis tools were difficult to use and expensive. Now, engineers receive low-cost, easy to use, wizard-based analysis software included with the SolidWorks package. The user applies a couple of loads, sets restraints, and starts the analysis. When COSMOSXpress finishes, a red area indicates a potential problem, while a blue one indicates that the analysis software found no problems. Consequently, COSMOSXpress considerably shortens the design cycle because it lets engineers reduce the number of prototypes needed to validate the design.
SWIFT (SolidWorks Intelligent Feature Technology) is a new offering for 2007. SolidWorks considers this one of its major enhancements for the 3D user interface. SWIFT enables even beginners to solve difficult design problems by offering solutions that typically only an expert user would understand. In fact, SWIFT has a number of experts built in, each specializing in a different design area.
For example, sometimes, when a command is declared in a typical modeling software package, it might display a message that it cannot execute the command because it does not have enough information or because of various other conditions. In the case of fillets, a conflict might arise due to geometric constraints. If a constraint limits what the engineer wants to do, the software will not execute the command. In SolidWorks software, the FilletXpert command in the FeatureXpert uses the resident expert knowledge and changes the feature history such that the geometry will become appropriate for applying the fillet chosen by the engineer, but without changing the design intent.
The DraftXpert is a welcome addition for plastic parts’ designers. It activates when a draft feature fails. DraftXpert creates the correct draft features or fixes existing incorrect ones and automatically takes care of reordering. Likewise, the SketchXpert helps to resolve sketching constraints such as conflicts between dimensions and relationships. The DimXpert interrogates manufacturing features and automatically dimensions the drawing. It uses several dimension schemes to standardize drawings and make dimensions easier to read. The MateXpert helps align parts in an assembly. For example, to fully define a component in an assembly, at least three mates have to be specified. When 100 parts are in an assembly, it has at least 300 mates. Most frequently, mated parts touch. However, in a 3D model, some components also can be mated to other components separated by some distance. So, it might be difficult for design team members collaborating on the project to always remember and understand how the parts are mated. If an engineer makes a change that violates the mate constraints, the MateXpert allows the change to be made and shows what it affects. The engineer now has the option to eliminate the mates that no longer matter and implement the desired change. In other systems, when the software finds a conflict and cannot execute the command, even an experienced engineer likely will not be able to resolve this quickly.
SWIFT also offers support techniques that a user would normally receive only from the CAD experts. So, it is more than just text with relevant information. SWIFT actually acts on the user’s behalf, offering several possible solutions to a problem. It is interactive and guides the engineer through difficult situations. SWIFT can reduce a lot of time even for an expert, because it can go through all possible iterations that an experienced engineer would eventually find, but much faster.
Typically, when more functions are available in the CAD software, they are more difficult to find and use because the software has more options to exercise. SolidWorks uses the Property-Manager, which is a part of the Heads-Up UI, to help organize the screen space more efficiently by reducing clutter. SolidWorks does not display too many dialog boxes because they obstruct the view of the model. Instead, it puts the dialog boxes on one side of the screen within the Property Manager. Now engineers can act on items without interfering with the graphical display.
For example, when an engineer puts a dimension on a drawing, the Property Manager for dimensions shows up on the left and displays all the options available at this point. This is a big improvement in terms of discoverability and usability because the engineer will see all options available for dimensions. Without the Property-Manager, the engineer would have to go through several dialog boxes to get to the needed command.
There are three versions of SolidWorks, and each is a superset of the other. The SolidWorks core software has all the necessary modules and enhancements. SolidWorks Office Professional adds several features to the core product, which includes Photorealistic rendering (PhotoWorks), component hardware, and workgroup product data management (PDMWorks). SolidWorks Office Premium adds several more premium modules to SolidWorks Office Professional. In addition to routing capabilities, a new product called ScanTo3D lets users create solid models from scanned data. COSMOSWorks-Designer builds on COSMOSXpress and can perform an analysis of parts and assemblies, and COSMOS-Motion performs kinematics studies.
Before COSMOSMotion became available, experiments were difficult to set up. Many assumptions had to be made. For example, engineers had to guess the magnitude and direction of the force, and where it would be applied, as well as anticipate what restraints the part might have. COSMOSMotion minimizes this input and makes the simulation much easier to set up. To simulate a motor, engineers need only enter the motor speed, RPM, and click the Run button. COSMOSMotion then takes over and moves the assembly through its total range of motion. The software understands how parts are stressed by virtue of knowing mates, and it calculates the location of the maximum forces applied at any given time. Based on this data, COSMOSMotion can determine the likelihood of the part failing in real life.
Although CAD software is continually becoming easier to use, an ongoing problem often frustrates engineers who try to collaborate on the same design while using different 3D software. In most cases, engineers using one software package are not able to fully edit parts created using another software and vice versa. However, SolidWorks was able to mitigate this problem somewhat. A SolidWorks user can now read, edit, and save AutoCAD files in the dwg format using SolidWorks DWG editor. In addition, although engineers can open Mechanical Desktop (mdt) files and read mdt features; they cannot write them. Likewise, SolidWorks can read all the features in a Pro/E file, but cannot write features into the Pro/E files. In addition, SolidWorks supports all other files in a “dumb” solid method. That is, when a part is entered, the part and all colors are read, but its features cannot be extracted. However, SolidWorks FeatureWorks can interrogate the part and create SolidWorks features. They will not be in the same order as they were created in the native program, but the part will have features that can be added and manipulated in SolidWorks software.
Finally, another obstacle in the way of a smoothly running collaborative design is the inability of the team members who do not have the proper CAD software to view and mark up CAD drawings. To address this problem, SolidWorks introduced eDrawings. This is an application and a file format that lets users share 2D and 3D data. Any SolidWorks user can send a 2D drawing or a 3D model to anyone regardless of whether the recipient has SolidWorks or any other CAD system. The file recipient does not need any special software or have to download anything to view the file and to collaborate with the sender. The eDrawings file has the viewer imbedded into itself, so eDrawings considerably reduces design time by letting different groups collaborate easier and faster. In addition, SolidWorks users can create drawings in other file sharing formats such as Adobe Systems’ 2D PDF and 3D PDF, dwg, and dxf.
Through the years, SolidWorks has always maintained an extremely close relationship with its customers. Every new release contains new enhancements, which for the most part originated from this relationship. Over 90% of enhancements come from customer requests. What makes this task easier is that most engineers have similar requests: faster performance and higher quality. So, understanding user needs and anticipating what appeals to the largest audience is key to SolidWorks Corporation’s ability to gain and expand its user base.
Filed Under: 3D CAD, Factory automation, Software