CAD takes new strides

Tom Shelley finds out about some of the developments revealed at the SolidWorks World event in Orlando

As well as welcome enhancements in the next edition of SolidWorks, there is going to be for the first time, a dashboard to show the environmental sustainability and green impact of designs.

Additionally, developments are under way that will transform the way CAD software is interfaced with. Most striking of these is a concept in which a number of participants can sketch or handle models on a table. It uses infrared cameras to track individual fingers and hands, but there are many other possibilities being investigated, most coming out of the gaming arena.

The sneak preview of what is intended to be in SolidWorks 2010, always a highlight of the SolidWorks World event, includes new View Mates and Mirror Components tools, as well as a Design Goals Optimisation tool. It also includes the ability to work in a multi body sheet metal environment, so that parts can be spread out flat without having to complete the whole design process. Reference planes can be inserted anywhere in a model, and snapped to parts, such as tangent to a face. An Assembly Visualisation tool enables highlighting of any custom property. For example, all components costing more than £100 can be highlighted in red, or all parts highlighted in blue have to be bought in.

New draughting tools improve productivity in simple ways that hopefully reduce irritation to users. For example, text notes can be dragged and dropped to make them tidy. It is also possible to select balloons and change all their sizes at once. Additionally, users can now type into a Bill of Materials in the same way as an Excel spreadsheet. This new function allows dimensions to be placed either side of an object, and moves the dimensions to make space for new ones instead of them ending up on top of each other.

SolidWorks has also followed the trend started by other vendors. It will allow models to be imported without a feature tree and directly edited. Clicking on the hole feature for example causes the software to apply dimensions to it.

And while SolidWorks remains a favourite of small, innovative enterprises with three or fewer seats, there have been enhancements to SolidWorks Enterprise PDM, such as the ability to replicate all toolbox data across a vault based in different places. It also incorporates the ability to print or plot across a dispersed organisation, especially significant in view of the growing use of 3D printing.

But perhaps more important is the implementation of Sage. This is a dashboard to assess the environmental impact of different materials and manufacturing processes that may be considered during the design process.

There was much discussion two years ago at the event in New Orleans, as to how this might best be achieved. In the end, it was decided to develop the facility in collaboration with the German company, PE international, building on the company's GaBi software. This gauges sustainability from a wide number of perspectives, including greenhouse gas emissions, energy, environmental impacts, life cycle cost and social impact; all considerations that additionally affect cost and sustainability.

Designers and engineers will be able to drill down into the dashboard data so they can, for example, assess how much carbon emissions stem from choice of material or manufacturing process and how much from end of life disposal.

There will also be a Professional version that will look at the impact of a product across its life cycle and include information on energy consumption during usage.

Founder of the company, Jon Hirschtick, sits close to and works closely with CEO Jeff Ray. He spoke publicly and privately about view of the future saying: "We are on the edge of the biggest platform change since adopting Windows.

"In one aspect there is touch and motion interfaces. Mobile phones have been revolutionised by such technologies, and now it's time for it to start happening in CAD."

One of the ideas being studied by the research and development department is making use of Microsoft's Surface Table. This is a low table with a glass top onto which the display is projected from underneath.

But also underneath are five infrared cameras, and a system that can track up to 100 fingertips at the same time. The team has so far implemented sketching and eDrawings on it. A single finger can be used to draw lines. Every time the finger is paused, the system records a point. With two fingers, it is possible to sketch an arc, and if the ends are made to join, this becomes a circle, whose size can then be varied. Two fingers plus one further away initiates a spline curve. Erasing is achieved by applying the edge of one's fist.

But what is truly remarkable is the way that several people can work on the same display surface at the same time, without the system getting confused. The eDrawings application calls up models. Simultaneous application of two fingers allows objects to be moved, and two fingers plus one further away rotates it.
SolidWorks's Kirk Haller, was in charge of the facility at the show, teaching people how to use it. He says: "We are interested in taking it further.

Hirschtick also mentioned he was interested in the possibility of putting motion sensors into CAD interfaces. Everyone agreed this was an idea that was extensively researched and successfully demonstrated by NASA some years ago, as a means of hand sculpting 3D surfaces. But at the time was let down by computing power.

The second idea the company is pursuing is that advocated by the French end of Dassault. That is to put everything online. We asked Hirschtick about security. He says the software company has to be responsible for this and made the analogy between the idea that data was safer on an office PC or laptop, was like the idea of money being safer under a floorboard than in a bank.

He says: "The beauty of online applications is that there are no installs, [which is a constant complaint from SolidWorks users]. And there is no need to be responsible for backups. There is less opportunity for employee theft, and there is easier collaboration.
"In the old days, the coolest game designers looked to CAD. But now CAD companies are looking to games technology for inspiration. This is both in terms of graphics cards, interfaces and software."

Lastly, he talked about how people tend to print things out on paper. And they now want to keep printing them out as 3D models.


* SolidWorks 2010 will contain a host of time saving enhancements, but the most important step forward will be its dashboard to show environmental and cost impacts of designs, particularly with regards to materials and manufacturing methods

* This will be made available with all licenses, but for Professional users, this will extend to lifetime energy and usage issues that affect end users

* New hardware interfaces are being developed. The Microsoft interface table allows and encourages collaboration by a group of users

Autodesk unveils its 2010

Hot on the heels of SolidWorks, Autodesk has just done the same for its range of 2010 products, including Autodesk Inventor.
The most striking innovation in Inventor is Shrink Wrap Assemblies. This goes beyond the SpeedPaks in SolidWorks 2009. It actually converts an assembly into a single part file, which can be a solid or composite surface.

The default setting produces a composite surface file that retains all the colours of the original part bodies. The intention is to be able to produce a dimensionally accurate envelope of an assembly for a collaborating partner without including details that might be copied. It also reduces file size.
A lot of work has gone into tools for plastic part design. Additionally, the new Sketch Blocks provide representations of both rigid and moving bodies that can be combined into 2D kinematic models for mechanism studies.

New sheet metal tools simplify the creation of rolled features and lofted flanges, and include Unfold and Refold functions. But, the Optimisation tool sounds vaguely similar to that offered by SolidWorks, as does the Unified FEA Environment for Parts and Assemblies tool.

But, following on from recent acquisitions, Inventor is able to support AliasStudio WIRE files, which SolidWorks cannot. These will be supported in the File Open, Insert Import, and Drag and Drop commands.

Users can select which surfaces to bring into Inventor and use existing modelling tools that include: Sculpt, Stitch and Thicken to generate 3D part models.

Tom Shelley

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