Solid message

SolidWorks deserves credit for steering clear of the PLM acronym, says Charles Clarke, reviewing its latest offering.

The latest release of SolidWorks marks its tenth birthday in the marketplace, and despite of being owned by Dassault Systemes for most of that time (since 1997) the software is still as fresh and innovative as ever.

Most refreshing is the fact that the company’s marketing message has never faltered. SolidWorks is in business to bring 3D solid modelling to everyone’s desktop and when everyone is hopping on the product lifecycle management (PLM) bandwagon, SolidWorks remains focused on that mission. You can sit through a SolidWorks marketing pitch and never hear the PLM acronym that is used every other sentence by competitors. This is not to say that SolidWorks cannot do PLM. If you examine its offering the company has most of the PLM bases covered, but its consuming focus is ‘3D for all’.

Workflow is an important development thread in SolidWorks 2005 — the software has a bright new look with shaded icons to complement Windows XP. It has a multi-function Task Pane that appears to the side of the graphics area. From here, you can interact with folders and files, a PDMWorks vault, or open and edit libraries of parts and features.

Placing your cursor over a data file brings up a small speech-bubble style ‘tooltip’, which includes a graphic thumbnail preview of the data and a short description. This means that you can be certain that the data you select is the data you want, rather than having to wait until it is fully loaded to discover that it is wrong. This might sound like a trivial enhancement, but designers spend half their time searching for data — so anything that speeds up this process is a very welcome development.

In modelling, the creation and modification of variables and equations has been made much easier with a calculator and ‘logic operator assistant’. The variables are all now stored in their own folder in the feature tree which means you have ready access to them, you can modify them quickly, and anyone else picking up the model and needing to make modifications can instantly see the controlling parameters. Similarly, the Design Binder is a folder for storing development notes and other documents relating to a part or an assembly. Once established, these files cannot be deleted or moved. You can also use the ‘Comment’ which allows you to add a ‘Post-It’ like note to features to explain their function or to give others guidance for modification.

You can now offset splines and much work has been done to improve the spline creation and modification tools. There is support for C2 curves (curvature continuous), which also lays the foundations for the surfacing developments.

On the direct modelling side there are a number of items that would not be out of place in Cosmic Blobs (the SolidWorks development for youngsters). Features such as the Surface Push tool, for example, which allows you to deform one part by pushing another ‘tool body’ into it, as if you were pushing a cutting tool through modelling clay.

Similarly, the indent feature essentially automates a process that is both time-consuming and problematic in a simple workflow. It takes a set of surfaces, which are offset from the existing product, and uses them as a cutting tool.

Another tool is the Flex command, which lets you take geometry (solids or surfaces) and apply global deformations to it — specifically, to bend, twist, taper or stretch a part.

Surface modelling is still rather austere in mid-range products, although SolidWorks is ‘doing its bit’. In 2005 there is more control over the form of the splines that often define the basis of any surface geometry. You can now create curvature continuous surfaces and add relationships to define curvature continuity between surfaces.

For those designing machinery, the inclusion of a standard features and parts catalogue that conforms to the Machinery Handbook is a major benefit. It is accessed through the Task Pane and the majority of items use wizard-like functionality to assist in placing them within your existing part.

Using either a combination of lines, arcs or splines, you can now build up a wire frame model then populate it with the necessary steel sections. Once you have the basic structure in place, you can then use the editing tools to create the cutting and joint conditions.

SolidWorks has teamed up with Moldflow to integrate its plastic injection simulation technology into SolidWorks 2005, with MoldflowXpress. This is a wizard-based design-validation tool to test the manufacturability of thin-walled, plastic injection-moulded parts.

In assembly modelling you can now defer updates to assemblies following design changes which, while it won’t stop you from having to update a large assembly, does mean you can get your modelling or modification task complete, then set the system running.