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How CAD keeps it simpleHow CAD keeps it simple

DN Staff

June 19, 2000

12 Min Read
How CAD keeps it simple

Designers want to design. They don't want to sit in training classes, read thick manuals, or wait on hold with the telephone help desk.

That's what we learned in a recent unscientific survey. We asked our readers which CAD system they used, what was its most important feature, and what CAD changes would make their job easier.

The overwhelming answer-make it easier to use. So we went to the source, and asked the major CAD companies to prove-in their own words-why they had the easiest programs to use. Seven CAD companies took us up on the challenge: Autodesk, CADKEY, CoCreate, PTC, SolidWorks, SDRC, and Unigraphics Solutions. And finally, we asked an engineer to share his own experience in searching for CAD that is easy to use.

Reader survey results. The engineers who answered our survey tend to use 3D solid modeling, more than 2D (see sidebar for the numbers).

The top five programs they use are: AutoCad, Pro/ENGINEER, Mechanical Desktop, SolidWorks, and Unigraphics.

They said the most important feature of their system is: ease of use, the ability to make changes, and interoperability.

And the most important things CAD developers could do to make engineers' jobs easier were: make software easier to use (including simpler programs and better training), make it interoperable with other CAD programs, and listen to customer requests.

In the readers' own words. Many engineers see themselves as "idea people" who count CAD among the many tools they can use to move their creativity from thoughts to designs. But they often find that each new CAD version is more complex and demands more training than the last, distracting them from the business of inventing.

"Idea people are not necessarily trained in the art and science of CAD or even drafting, but we look for the tools that offer the quickest idea-to-paper path," says Lowell Stephens, accessory R & D manager in the Voyageur Div. of Confluence Holdings (Waitsfield, VT), a canoe and kayak maker. He adds, "Not all users are trained CAD operators, but designers need to interface with machinists and tool-and-die manufacturers."

What engineers want in CAD
1. What kind of CAD system do you use, 2D or 3D?
3D 60%
both 27%
2D 11%
2. What CAD product do you use (by brand name)?
AutoCad 27%
Mechanical Desktop 14%
SolidWorks 10%
Unigraphics 9%
Solid Edge 4%
Solid Designer 3%
Microstation 2%
Iron Cad2%
Others: Design CAD 2000, SmartSketch, CadMax, Anvil Express, Bentley, Alias, Rhino, MacDraft, TurboCAD, Ashlar Vellum
3. What is the most important feature of a CAD system for you?
Ease of use 57%
Ability to make changes 26%
Interoperability 4%
Create complex parts 3%
Rendering capabilities 2%
Rapid prototyping 2%
Others: parametric, model stability, surface and curve manipulation
4. What is the most important thing CAD vendors can do to make your job easier?
Ease of use/simpler programs/better training 50%
Interoperability 22%
Listen to customer requests 6%
Affordability of software and training 6%
Create quicker commands/fewer keystrokes 3%
Ability to copy and reuse assemblies 2%
Faster runtime 1%
Others: make it easier to work on a part someone else created, ability to run multiple CAD sessions, put CAD on Mac/Linux

To break out of this cycle, he asks CAD companies for better education: "Offer improved training tools; interactive disks, video, trainers, and/or web-cast training."

Other engineers agree, asking for training that is tailored to mechanical designers, not software jocks.

"Make manuals that follow the real procedure to complete a job, written in English, not doctorate engineering language," says Scott Smith, a design manager at Telebyte Inc. (Greenlawn, NY). "I have never seen a set of manuals that anyone can use except as desk decorations."

When he got the latest release of his standard CAD program, the transition "was like day and night," he says. He found there was no list of changes between the two, so even after a two-week learning curve, he didn't know which old commands had been removed, and which new ones had been added.

"The transition could be easier if training were included within the program," says Andrew Serowski, a senior mechanical engineer at Cardiopulmonary Corp. (Milford, CT).

Another way to improve training would be creating more simple, intuitive programs, some engineers say.

"Make a stable, bugless product before adding bells and whistles," says Larry Heer, a designer at Vander-Bend Mfg. (Sunnyvale, CA), a large precision sheet metal job shop. "Analyze the design process and take me where I want to go with minimal menu picks or icon clicks."

In fact, higher productivity will come from simplifying CAD programs, not from adding more features, says Paul Segura, Senior Project Engineer in Tactical Aircraft Programs at Boeing (St. Louis, MO).

"The number of steps required to perform a function should be kept to a minimum," he says. "Any software package is more usable when shortcuts are available to perform functions, much like the function bar in Windows applications. Decreased keystrokes and steps means increased creativity and productivity."

CAD vendors have their say

We asked each of the CAD companies, in 250 words, to explain why they thought their product was the easiest one to use. Here are their answers:


Autodesk Inventor is built to design the way an engineer thinks-and the natural way for designers to work is to use sketches. Inventor's AdaptiveDesign function allows the designer to work with simple, intelligent 2D layouts that can become the foundation for 3D solid models of entire assemblies. Engineers can shorten design cycle times by using simple geometry to solve function before form. Inventor has fewer and smarter commands, an intuitive workflow that never leaves the user guessing, and a design support system that makes it easy to learn and use the software. It works intuitively, instead of demanding complex variables and equations to keep track of layers of ordered dependencies, users say. A Sketch Doctor function helps new users understand complex relationships in creating and using sketches.

And the Design Support System (DSS) is an integrated, web-based support system that offers a combination of embedded information, wizards, coaches and support tools, all available in context and on demand. This interactive systems is designed to coach users to fix problems and learn the software during the process of working with it.


CADKEY gives users a choice of intuitive CAD tools for the creation and editing of all types of 2D/3D wireframe, surface or solid data, without constraints. CADKEY PARAMETRICS can be used as needed alongside CADKEY, and works interactively with freeform CADKEY solids and surfaces in a flexible, hybrid modeling environment.

CADKEY says its standard Windows pull-down menus and categorized multi-page application palettes make it easy to remember where to find the desired function. Combining keyboard short-cuts and pop-up icon palettes helps, too.

Some of CADKEY's key ease-of-use features include: "Hot Key" keyboard shortcuts; categorized multi-page application palettes; drag and drop configurable toolbars; pop-up icon palettes; immediate Mode functions; Macro/ CADL user customization; numbered/ pre-defined primary views and construction planes; almost a dozen different methods of defining new construction planes; optional multi-level text-based menus with function key support; Smart Cursor; selection and masking by properties (such as color, level, entity type, etc.); indexed context-sensitive help system; flexible multi-model per file environment; and standard Windows MDI and cut-copy-paste functionality. And CADKEY's capacity to share data is critical in moving ideas efficiently to production.


One of the key benefits of SolidDesigner 2000+ as a solid modeling tool is the concept of Dynamic Modeling, which goes well beyond history-based modeling to offer the designer greater flexibility. Dynamic Modeling allows your team to treat the product model as though it were a piece of clay. It is different from traditional modeling systems because it gives you complete freedom to make major changes and to incorporate early or late feedback into your product development process.

When a user is running SolidDesigner 2000+ on Windows NT, the program makes it easy to paste a selected feature into a shelled solid model, as illustrated here, CoCreate says.

SolidDesigner is easy to learn, because new designers do not need to understand system constraints, parameters, history trees, regeneration sequences, or model history. Productivity remains high even when working with other people's designs or imported files. Also, SolidDesigner has been tailored specifically for mechanical engineers, with intuitive menu structures set up according to the designer's tasks. Continuous Feedback and Intelligent Feature Recognition guide you through creating or modifying operations. Dynamic Modeling technology gives you design flexibility without thinking in parameters, coordinates, or history constraints, and without having to worry about unexpected model changes. Just select faces or features and perform a modification like moving or stretching.


Pro/ENGINEER offers intuitive tools throughout, especially in the feature creation and component placement environments. Drag and drop capabilities are prevalent in the sketching environment and in the model tree.

Additionally, Pro/ENGINEER provides tools to improve performance while working with designs of all complexities. Patent-pending shrinkwrap capabilities allow complex designs to be accurately represented in a fraction of the file size, while File-Open Fast Previewing allows 3D designs to be interactively visualized before being brought up in session.

Pro/ENGINEER also provides powerful means of reusing knowledge-engineering handbook standards can be embedded within the software, while corporate best-practices can be captured in model templates. And Shape Indexing technology allows engineers to quickly find designs of similar size and shape.

All of this is provided on top of Pro/ENGINEER's geometry engine, which allows engineers to model designs of any geometric complexity, and to ensure those designs will behave predictably with subsequent design changes. Finally, Pro/ENGINEER's wide breadth of associative applications eliminates the "data disconnects" which are common to CAD point solutions.


SolidWorks' ease-of-use relies on direct manipulation. Unlike other systems that employ cumbersome technology such as ribbon bars, wizards, and nested menus, SolidWorks enables users to manipulate any 2D or 3D object directly on the screen. With SolidWorks, the user interface is virtually eliminated.

SolidWorks employs several tools to enable this direct manipulation:

The split Feature Manager/ Property Manager provides simultaneous access to all features and properties of any selected object.

Dynamic drag handles allow users to stretch an object to resize it or make adjustments.

A context-sensitive menu system watches what a user is doing and intelligently provides (in real-time) only the commands and features that make sense at the given moment.

The ability to pre- or post-select objects for any given command. Systems that require a "flow" or "post" selection are tying the user's arm behind his/her back.

Drag-and-drop 3D feature creation, utilizing the familiar Windows commands for 3D objects.

Dynamic sketch editing eliminates any need to "edit" a sketch-the user simply drags and stretches it on the screen.

SmartMates reduce the number of steps for part placement within assemblies. To place a bolt in a hole, the user simply drags them together and SmartMates infers the relationship and automatically snaps into place.


The latest evolution of VGX, SDRC's variational geometry technology, allows users to employ fully associative layouts to drive the shapes and locations of assembly components in 3D space. VGX enables users to add constraints as desired, even at the part level, allowing them to concentrate on the function of the design rather than the solid model's history.

With I-DEAS, icons are organized by function, and screen picks are minimized. More than 75% of all design functionality is a click-and-drag away. So users don't need to move between separate windows or wade through layers of menus and complicated command sequences.

And I-DEAS includes a new web-enabled online help library, multimedia training, more than 100 online tutorials, and complete documentation.

Using I-DEAS 3dDocCom, a user can employ "Model Views" to create 3D views for documenting and communicating manufacturing information, allowing companies to eliminate the need for paper-based documents, SDRC says.

I-DEAS 3dDocCom enables all the comprehensive documentation/ communication functionality expected of the best 2D drafting packages in a 3D environment, thus eliminating drawings without compromising content. Included are 3D annotation for parts and assemblies; full product manufacturing information; digital workspace for organizing 3D information; direction access to 3D information through the Internet; and direct access to organized/related project information.

I-DEAS offers process-oriented functionality for specific industry applications, such as brake-formed sheet metal; injection-molded plastics; automotive body panels; automotive engines; and compact electromechanical products.

Unigraphics Solutions

Unigraphics Solutions builds STREAM technology into every new release of Solid Edge. STREAM technology boosts essential CAD user productivity by capturing engineers' solid modeling design intentions through inference logic and decision-management concepts. This technology specifically addresses CAD system usability and its direct effect on engineering productivity, return on investment, and ease of adopting a new CAD system.

STREAM technology focuses on user interaction with the CAD system and reduces the time lost while the CAD system waits for the user to determine how the next operation ought to be accomplished. STREAM supports the design engineer through every phase of user interaction with Solid Edge: Inference logic intuitively predicts the next action a designer would choose; decision management tools streamline problem solving; and process-specific features encompass modeling processes.

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