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Solid Modelers Are Doing More of the Manual Design Work

Mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD) can be an odyssey, but the new enhancements to SolidWorks 2001 are down-to-earth useful.

Back in July, 2000, we reviewed a slew of enhancements made to the then-current crop of solid modelers. One of those was SolidWorks from SolidWorks Corp.(Concord, MA), which had 150 enhancements.

SolidWorks must like that number because that's how many enhancements it's made to SolidWorks 2001. For $4,000, you get a solid modeler that hopes to "become the Autodesk of the 3D world," says Joe Dunne, SolidWorks' Field Technical Manager.

Seems like SolidWorks now copies Autodesk Inventor's way of creating new geometry. Instead of click-drag-click-drag-click-dragging your mouse to create lines, arcs, and other geometries, now you can merrily click-click-click your mouse to create line segments between each click. Both of these approaches are now in SolidWorks.

Me-tooism aside, what's new in SolidWorks 2001 is probably a precursor to what MCAD vendors will be announcing this year. Heads-up user interface The SolidWorks' user interface is very clean. Gone are task bars, dialog boxes, and all the other visual clutter; SolidWorks wants designers to focus on their work using a minimal amount of key clicks. Fewer clicks means more design efficiency.

A few things make this possible. First, SolidWorks dutifully follows the mouse—the designer's hand. When you move the mouse back to the end of the line you just created, SolidWorks automatically switches it to an arc. The assumption is that if you go back to a starting point, then you want to do something, such as create a different type of line segment.

 

SolidWorks screen interface
The SolidWorks screen interface is clean and simple so that the designer can stay focused on the graphics and not be distracted with dialog boxes, menus, and such. Note the fillet callouts positioned on the drawing, the Confirmation Corner in the upper right, and the Property Manager in the narrow window to the left of the drawing. And hey, how do you like that fancy metallic looking background in property manager? Users said "Show me some Skin" and SolidWorks complied; as with many Internet applications, you, too, can change how SolidWorks looks. (Source: SolidWorks Corp.)

Likewise, drag handles on what you've drawn let you push and pull geometries. (You can even set up standard increments for how much to push and pull.) Or you can type a measurement directly on the geometry, which SolidWorks will then draw accordingly. Along the way, SolidWorks will show in red when too much (especially conflicting) dimensioning information exists.

Second, there's Property Manager.
This window on the side of the screen displays design properties, parameters, tabular data, and so on, plus it lets you enter data. And on the model itself,context-sensitive callouts point out sketch relationships, descriptions, editable features, prompts, and helpful hints.

The modeler's inherent intelligence goes just so far, though. A Confirmation Corner is where you must click to continue or exit a given task. This corner also acts as a subtle reminder to tell you when the modeler is in sketch mode. Users, particularly new ones, says Dunne, sometimes miss when they are "in" or "out" of a sketch.

There's another subtlety that SolidWorks handles nicely. When using complex capabilities, such as creating set-back fillets, SolidWorks does not automatically jump to the next view in the design creation process. Instead, the animations between design steps are slowed down. This keeps everything in context; you get a better idea of what you are designing and just where that design is going.

A whole new what?
Last year, "everybody" was introducing new sheet-metal functionality in their latest modelers. That trend continues. Previous versions of SolidWorks used a "rip-and-bend" approach to handling sheet metal; you told the modeler where to rip apart the finished part so it can be produced. Manufacturing considerations came after the fact. But the approach used in the 2001 version is to create the part a bend at a time, which is more like how it'll be manufactured. This permits adding and considering industry-specific features when creating the part shape. In fact, you just create the part; SolidWorks creates the bends while capturing design intent from within the assembly.

Talking about assembly, the "number one customer-requested enhancement" is mirrored components. This function creates new parts and subassemblies based upon existing designs, including parts that are derived and linked associatively to other components. It not only mirrors geometry, but also the product structure and mating conditions.

And therein lies the nifty part about this function. The fundamental problem with mirrored assemblies is not in mirroring parts. That's pretty straightforward. But with mirrored assemblies, some parts are mirrored, others are moved, others copied. Some logic is involved.

 

Four views of comcept-car dashboard
Here are four views of a concept-car dashboard. Several of the audio components are shown mounted in the backside views. Note the Property Manager in the narrow window keeping track of all parts in the assembly. (Source: SolidWorks Corp.)

For example, consider mirroring the left side of an automobile suspension. The assembly list includes shock absorbers, suspension arms, U-joints. Designing one side, then the other, would basically be quantity two except some parts are not the same on both sides. Yes, shock absorbers are symmetric parts (quantity two), but the suspension arm isn't because of its bolt pattern. You can't just copy that part for the other side; you have to design (and manufacture) a different suspension arm.

Actually, SolidWorks designs it, after a wizard prompts you for further information about the assembly.

Which is a nice segue to: Solid-Works introduced last year a whole new wizard called the New Hole Wizard. With this, you pick a surface and tell the modeler you want to put a hole into it—based on a particular bolt you want. This year, there's Smart Fasteners. "I imagine designers aren't going to worry about nuts and bolts anymore," comments Dunne. "They're just going to build their assembly, put holes in, and then as a last step, they're going to say, ‘oh yeah, put in all the hardware.'" That hardware includes bolts (hex, socket, machine, or whatever), upper or lower washers or both, and near–or far–side stack. If the hole size later changes, SolidWorks will change the holes or group of holes, the associated fasteners, and the bill of materials.

There's more to SolidWorks 2001, of course. It's worth checking out, especially for you Autodesk mavens out there.