by Ralph Grabowski
[This article first appeared in Design Engineering magazine, and is reprinted with permission.]
Four years after Dassault Systems badly announced the successor to Solidworks (which led to a frenzy of speculation as its dedicated users debated the future of the company's mid-level CAD package), its future is secure. At the September launch of Solidworks 2015, Dassault executives reassured the assembled media that the world's #1 MCAD program would be updated and supported for another 15 years, at least.
The uncertainly affected primarily only the chattering classes, because at 2.3 million users Solidworks continues to sell briskly, keeping its position as the #1 MCAD program. Now, the bulk of these sales are to educational institutions; subtract them out and there appears to be around 650,000 commercial seats. Dassault trumpets the number as often as it can, because arch competitor Siemens PLM only occasionally provides vague guidelines for second-place Solid Edge, such as "over 500,000" commercial seats, while Autodesk stopped reporting licenses of apparent third-place Inventor years ago.
What's New in SolidWorks 2015
And so in this light, Dassault imbued Solidworks 2015 with bevy after bevy of new and enhanced functions. After all, nothing says "We're there for you" like lots and lots of enhancements from a software company. Let me highlight a few that caught my eye.
Treehouse is not so much new as reintroduced after being previewed years ago. It has a flowchart-like interface for building assemblies graphically. We build assembly structures by dragging and dropping parts and assemblies into the interface -- or by opening an existing assembly into Treehouse. After this, we can edit the parts to specify things like configurations, quantities and custom properties. The data can be linked to Solidworks Enterprise PDM.
Chain patterns are a new type of assembly. Here we pattern (array) parts along a path that can be open or closed -- think tank treads or even gantry cable guides -- in three modes: by distance, by distance linkage, or by connected linkage. Once the assembly is complete, Solidworks simulates the motion of the chains so that we can be sure it'll operate correctly.
Assemblies can be exploded radially with a single click; think of bolts exploding out of a pressure vessel.
Something we saw introduced to Solid Edge ST7 this year, Solidworks also automatically flattens 3D models to see how much material is needed. With an eye on the fashion industry into which Dassault sells specialty software, the company states specifically that this flattening can be used towards clothing, footwear, and upholstery design.
Over in the area of surfacing, surface curvature combs let us see how well surfaces connect. This is important for ensuring smooth transitions from one surface to the next.
Asymmetrical fillets means that we can specify two radii (instead of just one, as for traditional fillets), like two distances for chamfers. In this case, the resulting fillet looks like a quarter ellipse.
Patterns (arrays) no longer need to be regularly spaces: they can have variable distances defined by formulae. (I first saw this in the Russian KOMPAS MCAD program earlier this year, and so it's interesting how quickly the function appeared elsewhere.) To make variable patterns, we first create a pattern table that defines the distances, which can be pasted into Solidworks from a spreadsheet. The table defines distances between features (extrudes, revolves, fillets, domes, drafts, and so on), as well which instances to skip for non-continuous patterns. The values can be static, or calculated using mathematical functions, like sum, sine, log, pi, and square root. I can see this one function needing an entire course to learn!
To make it easier to find references in 2D drawings, sheets can be divided into zones. As a result, annotation notes, balloons, and revisions tables refer to zone numbers, which are updated automatically should parts be moved to another zone.
Other new items that caught my eye are touch-ups that probably should have been added to Solidworks years ago. These include drawing lines symmetrical to the midpoint, saving selection sets by name for reuse, customizing toolbars, drawing spline-shaped leaders, and setting word wrapping, paragraph spacing, and line spacing in paragraph text.
For more on what's new and changed in Solidworks 2015, look at http://help.solidworks.com/2015/English/WhatsNew/c_top_enhancements.htm.
Solidworks Links to MBD
Along with adding functions to Solidworks, Dassault continues on a parallel path slowly writing modules that are independent of the MCAD program, yet help out designers using Solidworks. The modules are independent because they are written with Dassault's proprietary CAD platform -- Enovia database (for the "file" system) and CGM kernel (for the modeling) -- and it is inherently incompatible with the Parasolid kernel employed by Solidworks. Being external modules allows Dassault to charge extra for each, typically $2,000 apiece with a $500/yr subscription.
The newest module is Solidworks MBD. "Model-based definition" is the idea is that 3D models should contain all the information needed to build the design, forsaking 2D entirely. Now, MBD is the hot new term that isn't as sexy like "social" or "cloud," but is much more important; well, it has the potential to be that, but only now is getting attention along with slowly getting needed traction among design firms. MBD is driven by government agencies, such as the US Military's MS-31000A specification that requires that 3D models for stuff manufactured for military use.
(Traditional 3D models contain only information that is inherent, such as the lengths of edges and volumes. Design details are left for the stacks of 2D drawings, which document 3D models through flattened views, hosts of dimensions and geometric tolerances, welding instructions and other notes, embedded bills of material and their accompanying balloons, all topped off with index sheets. This is why marketing departments make big fusses over how well their MCAD programs generate linked 2D drawings from 3D models, automatically. Because that's the way it's done, currently.)
MBD promises the jettison all the 2D generation, automation, and linking for a purely 3D deliverable that is loaded up with all the information that today is relegated to drawing sheets. But this means updating MCAD systems to embed 3D PMI (product and manufacturing information) and metadata into 3D models, information like design intent, GD&T, BOMs, material definitions, and configurations -- all this stuff that used to be external to the pure 3D model. You can see that generating self-contained 3D models requires a big switch in thinking, and a big programming job by MCAD software developers.
This is not simple transition, and so Solidworks doesn't do it. Instead, the new, separate module does it. Solidworks MBD attaches all that PMI data directly onto 3D models. Output templates generate models and data suitable for different departments, such as procurement, request for quotations, and manufacturing. And, in a tip of the hat the current practice, MBD also outputs drawings in 2D.
With Solidworks 2015, users are relieved to see their favorite MCAD system imbued with new life through an impressive set of new functions. For those firms who need it, MBD will allow them to use a mid-level MCAD system for high-end aircraft and military contracts.