It was more than the sun and Mickey Mouse that attracted hundreds of engineers to Orlando in the first two months of 2003: Both SolidWorks (www.solidworks.com) and Solid Edge (www.eds.com), fierce competitors in the CAD software world, held separate user conferences at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort to bring engineers up to speed on their latest products and instruct them in how to take advantage of enhancements that promise to make engineers more productive.
The location was fitting, given the near-magical qualities most observers ascribe to 3D solid modeling. Both SolidWorks and Solid Edge say 3D solid modeling software offers engineers the maximum in design flexibility. Indeed, it's that flexibility, plus the opportunity for realistic views of products and better application of downstream tasks like analysis, that is drawing an increasing number of engineers to solids.
But the number of engineers converting to 3D isn't increasing fast enough, some observers say. It seems that getting engineers to give up their familiar 2D software and trade up to 3D solid modeling has been a slow process, possibly because of the perceived complexity of solid modeling, or the cost. The cost has been coming down dramatically, with the emergence of SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Think 3, Alibre (www.alibre.com), and a re-tooling of Pro/ENGINEER from PTC (www.ptc.com).
Indeed, Richardson, TX-based Alibre, which held its own media day in late February, offers its Alibre Design 6.0 for $495, about a tenth of the price of other solid modeling software. Alibre Design Professional, a more robust version of the software, carries a price of just under $1,000. "We're the best value in CAD," says CEO Paul Grayson, who adds that even the $495 version does "serious production solid modeling."
Estimates of the use of solid modeling in engineering vary. SolidWorks says that about one-third of design engineers use 3D solid modeling for mechanical and electromechanical design. Alibre's Grayson says there are about one million installed seats of 3D. Referring to a Gartner Group study, Solid Edge VP Bruce Boes predicts that about 15% of engineers will be using 3D solid modeling by 2004.
"By all rights, the number should be much higher," says engineering consultant Bill Dresselhaus, president of the Dresselhaus Design Group. "There should be a stampede from 2D to 3D, not a migration," he told the attendees at the Solid Edge conference. "If you're still doing drawings, you're inefficient."
Whatever the exact percentage or number, Jack Beeckman, manager of CAD support for Liebert Corp., a division of Emerson, told Solid Edge users that engineers are actually becoming more dependent on solid models than on drawings. "Manufacturing companies are relying on models, not drawings, to get the better designs they want, so engineers should control whole intelligent assets in the modeling environment, not just the drawings," he said.
Test Rides of the Products
At the SolidWorks conference, held January 19-22, attendees got demonstrations of SolidWorks 2003, the newest version of the company's flagship product. Enhancements include disjoint/multi-body parts, integration with the finite element analysis tool COSMOSXpress, the integration of PDM into the product, and surface untrimming tools, among other features. Also in the new version of the product is FeatureWorks, which the company says helps engineers recreate or introduce new design intent when bringing 3D models created in other software into SolidWorks.
Attendees at the Solid Edge Conference, held February 17-20, got a look at the newest version of that company's product, Version 14, which was unveiled at the conference. The package, which has design-management capabilities embedded within it, also includes new so-called Rapid Blue technology for surface modeling. Among the benefits, says Solid Edge, is editable curve-creation from primitive foundation geometry that modifies simple shapes into complex ones without starting over. Another feature: instant visual feedback on geometry changes to enable users to evaluate shape and highlight alternatives.
But attendees at both conferences got more than just product demos and the chance to play with software. Several speakers also provided advice on engineering best practices and implementation of software.
For example, Tom Kelley, general manager of design firm IDEO (Palo Alto, CA) gave SolidWorks users tips on innovation. "Innovation begins with Eye," he told conference attendees.
"Engineers have to get away from their desks and watch real people use products and see where they stumble," he said. Those stumbling points, he contends, are actually design opportunities. As an example, he cited work his firm did for Berkeley Outdoor Products, which manufactures fishing products. Kelley said the company needed a product that would catch on in a market that was slowing down. "We did the research and found out that dads weren't taking their children fishing partly because they didn't know what to buy," Kelley says. So, IDEO engineers designed a kit that is a fishing trip in itself, complete with the accessories needed for fishing, including bait.
Kelley also talked about the value of prototyping in design. "You can learn a lot from prototypes," he said, and then stated "Boyle's Law" (named after IDEO partner and engineer Dennis Boyle): "Never go to any engineering meeting without a prototype." They give people something to talk about and play with, and help focus design discussions, he says.
At the Solid Edge conference, engineering consultant Dresselhaus advised attendees to become more product-centric, invest in the design process and design tools, and pay attention to customers. "The real U.S. economy is products for people, not the stock market," he said. "Engineers have to be visualizers and creators, and they can learn a lot from Hollywood."
Checklists for Productivity
At a special business management session that preceded the Solid Edge conference, engineer Jon Cook, director of technology at MacDon, a Canadian manufacturer of farm equipment, walked attendees through all the details they have to consider after they have picked a CAD system. A checklist of details, his presentation contained advice such as the following:
Review your company's revision-control system to be sure the software enhances it.
Check your release process. Always release long-lead items first, followed by weldments and fixturing.
Evaluate file-storage requirements.
Make sure graphics cards are compatible. A big problem with laptops, he says, is the limited selection of graphic cards.
With data-management, take into consideration all company processes, not just engineering needs.
Plan to obsolete your desktop hardware in 12 to 18 months to take advantage of the latest technology.
Solid modeling, of course, is only one topic on the minds of engineers, though it's a major topic. Also important—and the subject of much discussion at both conferences—is design management and collaboration. Both SolidWorks and Solid Edge have accounted for the need to manage data by including features for that task. The best justification: The need to eliminate confusion among team members.