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Wildfire ignites

Wildfire ignites

When a major developer of CAD-related software goes two years between product upgrades, users expect a lot of new features when the next generation of that software finally hits their desktops. That's exactly the expectation Needham, MA-based PTC (www.ptc.com) faced when it finally released Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire recently. Users were salivating to get their hands on the software and start designing products with it. After all, everyone knew the original product was powerful, but many knew first-hand that it wasn't easy to use. Also, it wasn't as web-enabled as some other competing software. Did Wildfire change that? More importantly, did it meet the users' pent up expectations?

Senior Design Technician Mike Brattoli of faucet maker Moen Inc. certainly thinks so. "One of the things I like most about it is its ease of use," says Brattoli. Analysts seem to like Wildfire too. Ken Versprille, senior research director at D.H. Brown, Inc. has written that the new release provides a systematic way to extract value from the product development process.

But to get a true feel for the software, you have to use it-and I did. I tested Wildfire Foundation Advantage, which offers sketching, part and assembly modeling, surfacing, drafting, and more. My conclusion: Job well done, even if it is a little unpolished. The followings are the details:

Finally, an Embedded Web Browser

Upon opening Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire for the first time, users are now greeted with a web browser that has been embedded into the software. From this browser, a user can navigate to any place desired in order to collect the data needed to start or to continue a design.

The browser that Wildfire uses generally depends on your operating system. For example, because Wildfire runs on UNIX and Linux, the Mozilla browser is available for those users. I ran Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire on a Windows machine, so my browser was Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Thus, the opening layout of Wildfire looks like it does whenever I'm surfing the Web. On the left side is an area called the Navigator, which by default, is set to the Folder Browser tab, thereby displaying the drives and folders available on the computer and network. By clicking on the other tabs above the Navigator, it's possible to also view a list of favorite websites, the current model's history tree, or an area called Connections.

The browser's default webpage opens to the Pro/Engineer Wildfire Web Tools (located at www.ptc.com), for access to useful material such as interactive tutorials, a quick reference card, and a menu mapper for helping users make the transition from the previous version of Pro/Engineer. However, users can customize this homepage to whatever they desire.

For example, setting the homepage to show information coming in from Windchill PDMLink, PTC's web-based PDM software, would allow them to retrieve their list of job assignments from their manager. When browsing, a simple right click calls up the standard Internet Explorer menu, which allows one to add the page to the favorites.

Connectivity

Now for Connections. It acts as sort of a clearing house for various tools. For example, there is a Projects button for users to gain access to PTC's Pro/COLLABORATE hosted service, where they can set up online collaborative projects then share and edit CAD data with others. There is also a User Group area, a link to customer support and a quick way to get back to ptc.com.

However, one of the most useful sections under Connections is called Catalogs. This brings the user to the PTC Catalog Directory, where various part suppliers such as Bimba, Bourns, and SPX have thousands of standard parts available that can be browsed, configured, and then dragged directly into Wildfire's modeling window. Recently, PTC worked a deal with Thomas Publishing and Trace Parts to make their huge component libraries available inside of Wildfire. A nice feature of the part libraries is that any frequently used component pages can be bookmarked and the software automatically creates an easy-to-access link.

Now, the truth is that users could have done everything I've mentioned so far in Pro/ENGINEER 2001, but with many more steps. For example, there was a way to navigate one's local drive or network, but not with the capability to also just as easily navigate the Internet. In version 2001, it was possible to work with component libraries from companies like Thomas Publishing, but you would have to leave Pro/E, launch your browser, go to the website, find the proper part, download it and then manually open it in Pro/E. Wildfire also makes access to Pro/COLLABORATE easier, thus making the sharing of data move more smoothly. In short, when using Wildfire, you always feel that you are never more than one step away from the web.

Easy on the Eye

Clicking the new icon opens a window of choices on tasks. Right away you notice changes. The first thing you notice is that the dreary dark blue-to-black gradient background is history. Much more important, however, is that the Menu Manager has been removed. That means users don't have to navigate down its unintuitive path. Icons are available for the first time for many common tools, from basic shape creation (Extrude, Revolve, etc.) to editing (Fillet, Hole, etc.) commands.

Okay, it's prettier and easier, but did this change really help? To find out, I counted the number of steps needed just to begin sketching. Steps equal time, which equals money. In version 2001, it took seven steps to begin sketching, but Wildfire requires only four. And the difference increases if you pick certain options other than 2001's defaults, such as the creation of a revolved feature instead of an extruded one.

One of the reasons for reduced steps is a new user interface paradigm called the Dashboard. By having the most commonly used options easily available, you save steps both when creating and editing features. In addition, modeling and editing has been made more intuitive by the increased use of drag handles. PTC actually introduced these drag handles in version 2001, but only for a few tools. Wildfire makes much more extensive use of them. For example, users can now graphically define features such as chamfers and draft angle. In addition, they can snap the drag handles to key points, thus making accuracy when dragging a possibility. Between the Dashboard and the extended use of the improved drag handles, adding a chamfer took only four steps in Wildfire, as opposed to ten in version 2001.

While overall PTC has done a good job improving what has always been one of the most criticized areas of the product, the new user interface still needs some tweaking. For example, there are some inconsistencies in how tools work; the Menu Manager still pops up from time to time, and the software is still not truly Windows compliant. Standard functions such as Cut, Copy, and Paste are missing, and Undo is usually not available.

Modeling Improvements

More than three-quarters into an article about one of the most widely used 3D products ever, the fact that I haven't even touched upon modeling yet, tells you how different Wildfire really is. In any case, a number of new features have been added, as hard as that is to believe in a product over a dozen years old.

While traditionally called an MCAD product, Pro/ENGINEER has always appealed to product designers, and one of the major enhancements will allow them to explore shape modifications in a new, freeform manner. Called Warp, it allows users to scale, deform, stretch, bend, and twist any selected shape. Each tool works a little differently, but the general idea is to define the area to be affected and then perform the desired modification. The user interface takes a little while to get used to, but once a user gets comfortable with it, the tool becomes rather fun to use. Version 2001 had no such deformation capabilities.

Warp is the biggest modeling addition to the Foundation package, but there have been other changes. For example, the software has improved pattern-creation capabilities, and there are also various assembly and surfacing enhancements. Some of these supposedly new modeling tools have always been available, but the improved user interface makes them much more accessible.

So, did PTC's major investment in development of Wildfire pay off? In my opinion, yes. They didn't just patch an antiquated product; they rebuilt it from scratch and as a result, while it is a bit unpolished, the end result is a modern CAD tool, resting on a rebuilt foundation.

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