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CAD by the people, for the people

CAD by the people, for the people

"It's electronic Play-Doh(R)."

That's how Lisa Dunnack, president of Jacob Sportz (Willimantic, CT) describes SolidWorks 2001. Dunnack is not a designer, nor an engineer, but she reaped the benefits of the CAD program's 3D Instant Website when she introduced manufacturers and buyers to the JD Batball, her eight-year old son Jacob's ball-storing bat invention designed for kids.

Collaborating with Pete Wood, Product Development Specialist for ZZorco Consulting (Hollywood, SC), Dunnack realized, "I could be part of the work without having to be next to the designer." Despite the fact that she had limited computer skills, Dunnack could discuss changes with Wood via telephone and, within 15 minutes, see the results and new design on the 3D Instant Website.

It was this ease-of-use factor - prompted by customer requests - that not only steered Wood and Dunnack to SolidWorks 2001, but also led Design News readers to vote the CAD program as the Best Product of the Year.

"It has the power and functionality of other 3D solid modeling codes...[but] it is much easier to use," says Douglas Stamps, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Evansville, and computer productivity tools judge for the Design News Best Product of 2001 contest. This reported ease-of-use, additional design power, and the easy access to data afforded to several users all represent the fruition of what SolidWorks planned for its CAD package.

In creating this ninth release of the company's CAD software, SolidWorks studied the source of its product development cycle - the customers. The company gathered input from users through CAD Sense (www.cadsense.co.nz), an independent website publishing a software wishlist; an internal list of improvements to be made in the future; and enhancement ballots distributed at the company's own SolidWorks World Conference. They prioritized the customer requests as follows: mirroring assembly functions, flexible subassemblies, and relightweight components, allowing users to free up memory space - not the entire request list, but enough improvements to accomplish in the ten month development cycle. This customer communication opened the door to see what impressed and what frustrated SolidWorks users.

SolidWorks then satisfied its own enhancement goals with a user-interaction redesign, improved sheetmetal capability, and improved customer productivity. The end product, which underwent three complete design cycles before the final one was approved, then withstood three final stages of testing. The company conducted usability testing through the Internet using WebEx; alpha testing, involving one-on-one, three-day in-house testing with customers; and beta testing that amounted to three phases numbering several hundred customers per phase. As an end result, the company shipped more than 175,000 total seats fo software worldwide, including SolidWorks 2001.

Among the most important enhancements:
"Heads-up" user interaction. The redesigned "heads up" user interaction cleans up the visual display and reorganizes the program with mouse-driven capabilities, such as context-sensitive callouts. The Property Manager replaces dialog boxes for quick command location, while Graphical Previews allow users to apply commands and see the results without saving them. At first, users were leery about the change. "It's like driving your car," says Jim Wilkinson, Director of Product Engineering at SolidWorks. "To turn on the light, you pull the knob; if, all of a sudden, you had to twist the directional, you'd be pretty upset." Yet because customers stressed the need for improved overall performance, SolidWorks maintained their goal of creating a significant change in user interaction with no regressions in functionality.

Mirrored components. SolidWorks cites mirrored components as the second most requested customer enhancement. This feature mirrors the geometry, product structure, and mating conditions of designs, allowing users to save time by creating designs for half of a product, then mirroring it to form the other half. With parametric mirrors, users form similar parts, but may also enable the parts to operate independently of each other.
Smart Part Technology. According to the company, engineers may then design faster with the patented Smart Part Technology. In one automated step, engineers can insert bolts into holes, install washers and nuts in order, and snap-in other fasteners, which cuts down on the manual positioning that formerly may have required up to four steps.

DWG Import Wizard. Built-in migration tools stress the simplicity of the 2D to 3D transition, functioning much like similar CAD programs. With the DWG Import Wizard, users may import existing 2D data, providing mapping layers that may then be used to create 2D or 3D designs.
Sheetmetal capabilities. SolidWorks then added more design power with the new sheetmetal capabilities. Fold and unfold features eliminate the need to flatten sheet metal parts when bending, unbending, or cutting pieces. The program also allows users to create open and closed sheet metal base flanges.

3D Instant Website. The 3D Instant Website that Lisa Dunnack found so handy is a new feature in which users may publish SolidWorks models and designs on a live secure web page at the SolidWorks website or personal website for other users to access. On the site, users may drag and rotate the design to view all angles. No additional software is required to use the 3D Instant Website.

3D Meeting. Several users may further collaborate on the design process with both the company's web folders, which operate like a local network, and the 3D Meeting feature that enables real-time collaboration on Microsoft NetMeeting( technology.

eDrawings. The company's patented eDrawings are a collaborative feature unique to SolidWorks, says Ken Versprille, Industry Analyst and Consultant for DH Brown Associates. "Other companies make people download a viewer; [eDrawings] are embedded in the same drawing file." As a result, users may share emailed, compact CAD files displaying 3D effects on 2D drawings.

Dave Corcoran, Vice President of Research and Development at SolidWorks, views the changes of its 2001 CAD version as the most dramatic and most difficult of all its releases, given the marked change in what SolidWorks users were accustomed to. "We went from inconsistency with people knowing it, to consistency." It meant taking a risk and looking at the long-term goal of quality and performance - the number one request by its users - over the short-term goal of keeping its customers comfortable and familiar with the company's software. "We had to lead, instead of react," Corcoran adds.

Part of the ease-of-use appeal that made SolidWorks 2001 the best in its category and likely the best product overall, according to contest judge Stamps, is not necessarily that the software offers huge technological improvements over its previous releases or over its competitors. Stamps maintains that while many of its competitors developed a new niche targeting novice to mid-level users and offering novice to mid-level solid modeling codes, SolidWorks took a high-end CAD program, made it easy to use, and added mass appeal by targeting it for both novice and experienced users alike.


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