After 20 Years, SolidWorks Still Striving for Improvement

12 Sep, 2013 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Dassault Systèmes looks to the future while updating its product design portfolio for 2014, but steers clear of the controversial cloud.

Earlier this week, Dassault Systèmes released SolidWorks 2014 — the latest version of a 3D software portfolio that comprises not only CAD, but also simulation, product data management, technical communication, and electrical design products. "When we say it's a new release for SolidWorks, it's a new release for the entire portfolio," said Bertrand Sicot, CEO of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks.

Sicot told the audience at last week's media launch event that SolidWorks, which was founded 20 years ago, now has 2.1 million licensed users (including 1.55 million in education) worldwide. Across the globe, 230 user groups support some 15,000 members. Those numbers will only continue to grow, if Sicot has his way. "The user community who can benefit from design in 3D is three times bigger than the one that is being served," he believes.

Moving forward, Sicot's priorities include identifying new adjacent markets, evolving mobile apps, offering additional value-add subscription services, and "remaining focused on our customers." The company has increased customer satisfaction 5% since 2007, and "it's critical to continue to improve on that front," said Sicot.

My.SolidWorks, a free online user community, is one aspect of that effort. In the six months since it was launched, the portal has given "our user community a single place to go to find anything SolidWorks," said Sicot. "The level of adoption is skyrocketing." In the future, My.SolidWorks will evolve with better user profiles and delivery of more content and services, he noted.

Responsibility to the Users

When it comes to customer satisfaction, however, there is one component that trumps all others: a product that works the way users want it to. "Over 90% of these have come directly from customer requests," said Ian Hogg, SolidWorks product marketing manager, while demonstrating key new features in SolidWorks 2014.

Those features, previewed at SolidWorks World 2013 last January, include the following highlights:

  • Design Tools
    • Sketch picture scaling: Specify the length of one dimension in an imported image, and this tool scales the image accordingly.
    • Style spline: This tool gives users more control over spline geometry while keeping curves smooth. "It's very controllable and a lot easier to work with," said Hogg.
    • Replace entity: Preserves feature history and all downstream effects when users replace one sketch entity with another.

The curvature combs of a style spline in SolidWorks 2014 reveal smooth curvature and transitions with minimal inflection. Click to see complete image. 

  • Sheet Metal Tools
    • Gusset tool: Lets users add stiffening ribs across bends. "It's a very simple, easy way to create what can be a complex feature," said Mark Schneider, SolidWorks product marketing manager.
    • Lofted bends: Control the bend lines in the individual part.
    • Corner treatments: "It closes up those corners with basically a single button click," Schneider commented.
    • Conic fillet controls: Create smoother fillets, as evidenced by the "zebra stripes," similar to contour lines on a topographic map, that help users visualize transitions in the model.

Among the new sheet metal tools is the lofted bend option. Further options control the creation method, and each bend region can be controlled individually. Click to see complete image.

  • Integrated Workflows
    • More mobile support: eDrawings mobile support has been expanded from iOS only to include Android-based mobile devices.
    • Streamlined SolidWorks Enterprise PDM workflow: Includes new Microsoft Office integration and enhanced web client with graphical preview.
    • Improved SolidWorks Electrical integration with Enterprise PDM and eDrawings: Users can optimize, share, and track electrical designs more easily.
    • Faster cost estimation: Users can make quick machining cost estimates without setting up templates, and can adjust materials and processes inside costing.
  • Increased Performance
    • In-context Quick Mate toolbar: Helps speed assembly creation.
    • Default mates: Automatically determines the appropriate mate and avoids overconstraining parts.
    • Slot hole wizard: Change holes into slots and vice versa; mate screws, axes, and even a slot to a slot. "We could have done this in the past," said Schneider, "but [it would require] extra steps and maybe would not be as intuitive as you would like."

The new Quick Mate toolbar appears below the context toolbar. Click to see complete image.

  • Enhanced Visualization
    • Assembly explode: "Exploded view visualizations are a great way to understand how something comes apart and goes together," said Schneider.
    • Section view assist: Users can select the components to include in a section view, and can create a graphics-only section immediately.
    • Solar access study: Users can specify a real-world location (latitude and longitude) for a scene, then perform a solar access study using a wizard, and capture an animation.

Baxter, a creation of SolidWorks customer Rethink Robotics, models the section view capability in SolidWorks 2014. Each of Baxter's arms can lift and manipulate loads of up to 5 lbs, and in contrast to many industrial robots, they can sense resistance thanks to custom-designed springs in the joints. Click to see complete image.

Aaron Kelly, vice-president of user experience and product portfolio management, noted that most SolidWorks customers upgrade with every release, meaning each changed feature in a new version has a far-reaching effect. "The amount of people we touch ... grows every year, which is great, but it's also ... an awesome responsibility." Kelly explained that having face-to-face discussions with customers and watching them work are essential parts of the version cycle. "How you build products — great products, relevant products — is to use what your parents gave you: two ears, two eyes."

On the Grid

SolidWorks 2014 is certified for NVIDIA's GRID visual computing appliance (VCA). Designed for small and midsized businesses, GRID VCA provides remote graphics processing unit (GPU) acceleration, sending the graphics output from a software application over a network to be displayed on a client computer.

Up to eight users working with a Windows, Linux, or Mac client can simultaneously run SolidWorks 2014 with NVIDIA Quadro–class graphics performance. They will all experience a standardized interaction with the software, regardless of whether their own computer is a late-model, high-end workstation or just the opposite.

Keeping 2D In Sight

While dedicated to providing 3D design solutions, Dassault Systèmes isn't abandoning 2D. "When someone goes from 2D to 3D, they don't get rid of their 2D product," commented Kelly.

DraftSight, the company's 2D CAD software package, will feature a new range of offerings with the upcoming v4.0 release: Free, Professional ($299), and Enterprise ($335/year) versions. "Big companies don't want free software without support," Kelly explained. "They want to pay for software, and they have expectations of value in return."

2014 and Beyond

Regarding the persistent rumor that SolidWorks might become a cloud-only offering, the answer remains negative. "I apologize if we gave that message at any point," Kelly said. "We are looking at different technologies all the time ... always looking at new things that may never see the light of day," he continued. "The cloud isn't part of the overall picture with our products today."

That's not to say that all trendy technology is off the table, of course. "3D printing is a big deal for us; it's an enabling technology," Kelly commented. "We don't know just where to apply our resources [yet] ... but we are actively investigating."

Next year, the annual SolidWorks World user conference will be held January 26–29 at the San Diego Convention Center in California. Sicot's goal is to announce the general launch of Mechanical Conceptual during the event; the aptly named tool for conceptual mechanical design was previewed during SolidWorks World 2013.

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