Modelling goes heads up

Pro/Engineer Wildfire is the long-awaited CAD update from PTC that combines advanced techniques with an ease of use normally associated with mid-range products. Charles Clarke reports.

The latest CAD package to come from software developer PTC is Pro/Engineer Wildfire. It is the first major revamp of Pro/E since PTC moved to Windows in the late 90s.

Any Pro/E user will tell you they’ve been feeling more than a little deprived of new enhancements for quite a while. While PTC concentrated on the Windchill package in 1998, Pro/E development was largely ignored.

Since then a lot has happened – the mid-range packages (SolidWorks,Solid Edge, Inventor et al) have gained a significant foothold in the marketwhile high-end vendors have moved towards product lifecycle management (PLM).

Wildfire is PTC’s attempt to set things straight by repackaging design workflow to meet the needs of PLM and combining it with the mid-range ease of use. There are the now compulsory 400 product enhancements, but more importantly there is a redesigned user interface which emphasises usability, collaboration and productivity.

It is a far cry from the cascading menus and multiple ‘dones’ of yesteryear.

Immediately noticeable is the significantly wider graphics area. The traditional Pro/E menu manager – the hierarchical column on the right-hand side of the screen – has disappeared.

Wildfire is now a ‘heads up’ modeller. PTC has done a lot of work to ensurethat your attention is always focused on the geometry rather than navigating through menus, dialogue boxes and tool bars.

Capabilities like drag handles allow you to manipulate the size and shape of your model directly. Instead of having to select from the menus on the side of the screen, many of the choices you make concerning features are available via the right mouse button pop-up. You can also edit all the dimensions on the screen without having to go to a separate input panel.

As soon as you specify that you want a certain type of shape Wildfire provides default geometry. This can then be manipulated to give the desired result.

In the past users were often presented with a bewildering number of options. With Wildfire, PTC has taken all the methods of creating features and consolidated them into a single consistent user interface.

All geometry is now produced via the dashboard. This has two areas with the lower one displaying the most common choices. When designing an extrusion, for example, all the various parameters and permutations are presented here, and more advanced options are behind ‘hotlinked’ words in the top area.

These approaches combine to deliver a flexible workflow that allows you to lead Pro/E if you are an experienced user or follow if you are not sure what to do next. The feel of the software is consistent with other Windows applications so features or parts can be deleted from Wildfire in the same way as, say, slides from a Powerpoint presentation.

These usability efforts have resulted in some dramatic changes. Specifically, when comparing Wildfire with Pro/E 2001, about 30 per cent fewer mouse clicks are required for creating shapes.

Mouse travel is also reduced and there are fewer commands. For example, in Pro/E 2001 an extruded protrusion, an extruded cut and an extruded surface were all different types of feature. In Wildfire these have been consolidated and you can switch easily between a surface, a solid and cuts. This has resulted in a 70 per cent reduction in the number of operations and commands that need to be learned.

In addition to the user interface improvements, a variety of activities in the product development process have been enhanced. For the designer there is now a ‘restyle’ component. This allows you to work with a point cloud and convert it into faceted surfaces. These can then be used to drive Pro/E surfaces, which can then be modified.

Global modelling capabilities have been introduced in Wildfire. There is a new tool called ‘warp’ that allows you to twist, taper, bend and scale geometry regardless of how it was originally formed and what parametric features were used. You can even apply warp to geometry imported from other CAD systems.

Photolux advanced photo-rendering will allow you to produce sophisticated and realistic images with effects like light-scattering fog, lens flare and light fall off.

You can have lightweight components to improve assembly performance when working with large and complex designs. There is tighter integration of the 3D routing tools and the 2D schematic routed systems definition.

Sheet metal design has more sophisticated functions and a better user interface. Behavioural modelling (PTC’s optimisation technology) and analytical simulation (motion and structural) have been more tightly integrated.

There is also a dynamics system that allows you to perform real kinematic and dynamic analysis of your Pro/E model, including simulation of spring forces, gravity and friction.

Manufacturing is also improved: there are new automation capabilities and smoother workflow. Reporting and interoperability are better, making it easier to machine non Pro/E data.

For the CAD administrator there is ‘cross-release interoperability’. This means that you can open a Wildfire model in an earlier version of the software to create downstream deliverables like drawings or toolpaths. As changes are made to the Wildfire model these are propagated via the associative typology bus to the representation in the earlier software.

Wildfire also includes support for Parasolid and ACIS-based models.

PTC has delivered a higher level of web connectivity that is built directly into the software package. This allows access to material on the Internet in the form of library components or data on a local network.

Communication among users is enhanced so there is not only person-to-data but person-to-person connectivity, supported by a partnership with Groove Networks. Wildfire also acts like a web browser in that it understands protocols such as HTTP, FTP, and XML. Reports from Pro/E are now delivered in XML format.

By providing information in XML you can apply a style sheet to it, embed hyperlinks or customise the data with various tags, so that it can easily be used in other enterprise applications.

Similarly, there is tighter integration between Wildfire and tools like Windchill PartsLink. By combining the two, you can query interactive product catalogues that exist on suppliers’ servers. All this can be done within Pro/E.

Another advantage of having software that understands Internet technology is that you can use web-based project collaboration tools like Windchill ProjectLink and Pro/Collaborate that provide a secure online shared space.

Furthermore the technology allows access to Windchill PDMLink. This is a web-based product data management system which can manage not only Pro/E data but also all non-geometric product data.

Wildfire is completely different to previous releases so there is significant help for existing designers to ‘upskill’, or learn how to use it. There is an interactive menu mapper, which allows you to find the Wildfire equivalent to your favourite ‘classical’ Pro/E commands and a web-based guided tour that helps you get up to speed quickly.

Some analysts and pundits reckon that Wildfire is too little, too late having already dismissed PTC as a spent force in the CAD industry. Even a cursory glance at this software confirms it is as state of the art as anything currently on offer and PTC has gone to almost superhuman lengths to rid itself of the bogies of the past. Mindful of the whims of the market, it is also positioning the software appropriately in between the mid-range products and the popular high end players.

PTC still has the largest userbase in the CAD industry and Wildfire is a great way to secure it.

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