Manufacturing

MCAD Modeling Methods-- Software Strategy: Midrange Modelers

1 Jan, 2005 By: Joe Greco

Inventor, Solid Edge, SolidWorks all provide capable 3D tools.


This month, we look at the strengths and weaknesses of three of today's most popular midrange MCAD applications: SolidWorks, Solid Edge and Inventor. I combined some of my own opinions (based on my experiences with these applications) with what I've heard from various users. Then I added more material based on answers to questions I sent to company representatives regarding issues such as seat count.

Because of similarities in the products, I chose not to focus on certain issues. For starters, despite some functionality differences, all the programs have tools for assembly modeling, drafting, sheet metal, weldments and PDM (product data management). Second, notwithstanding user interface quirks, in general, all three programs are very workable. Finally, all are fast enough for rigorous production chores and all can handle large assemblies that comprise thousands of unique parts. So instead of repeating these facts three times, I tried to focus on where each product excels in from the perspective of the machine, product and mold design industries.

However, the goal is to cover not only technical software issues, but also other factors to consider when purchasing MCAD software, such as "Does the program have a community of networked users that help each other out?" and "Is the developer on a solid financial footing?"

SolidWorks 2005 Office Professional

SolidWorks from Dassault Systèmes offers a broad scope of tools, including integrated mold design, CAE and some of the most powerful interoperability tools. These allow it to serve the three major industries mentioned above. When add-on software is needed, SolidWorks has more than 140 partners. Some three dozen of these are Gold Partners, which ensures the tightest level of integration with the product. SolidWorks also has some of the most unique third party add-ons available, including products for progressive dies, robot control and more.
Figure 1. By providing integrated CAE analysis, the innovative COSMOSWorks Xpress helps reduce product development cycles.
Figure 1. By providing integrated CAE analysis, the innovative COSMOSWorks Xpress helps reduce product development cycles.

As the program enters its tenth year of development, the depth of its tools is exceptional, with very few missing options. I can think of a few fairly obscure fillets it can't create and other minor details, but all in all, its feature set is impressive.

SolidWorks rightfully considers itself an innovator in the 3D MCAD market, having introduced concepts such as eDrawings for design communications, COSMOSWorks Xpress for integrated CAE analysis (figure 1) and 3D Content Central for downloading standard preconfigured parts from suppliers (figure 2).

SolidWorks has a large user base of more than 325,000 (about 130,000 commercial seats), a worldwide network of resellers and support technicians, and a tight-knit community that shares information via user groups (both physical and Internet-based) and several well-attended SolidWorks World conferences held around the world each year. This network of users is further solidified by the SolidWorks Manufacturing Network, another SolidWorks innovation, which was created a few years ago as a Yellow Pages of SolidWorks users.

 Figure 2. 3D ContentCentral enables users to configure standard supplier parts in SolidWorks.
Figure 2. 3D ContentCentral enables users to configure standard supplier parts in SolidWorks.

Dassault Systèmes is on a firm financial footing and recently reported that income from SolidWorks increased 26% in the third quarter.

Potential Issues and Challenges. Upward mobility may be a problem for SolidWorks users because Dassault Systèmes' high-end product, CATIA, does not import SolidWorks files and the look and feel of both products is different.

Solid Edge V15

This program from UGS PLM Solutions got started about the same time as SolidWorks. Like SolidWorks Office Professional, Solid Edge offers many integrated tools, although its CAE and mold design tools are more expensive, albeit more powerful, options. When a solution is not provided by UGS, the company offers what it calls its Voyager program. More than 125 software partners are enrolled in the Voyager program, and 27 of those offer top-level Certified Select products. Of these, none can be considered truly unique—most are part libraries or CAM or CAE products.
Figure 3. Solid Edge 16 introduced the idea of Virtual Components, thus making assembly layouts a lot easier. Here a 3D component is inserted (in the lower left) in place of a 2D one.
Figure 3. Solid Edge 16 introduced the idea of Virtual Components, thus making assembly layouts a lot easier. Here a 3D component is inserted (in the lower left) in place of a 2D one.

The developers of Solid Edge can claim many innovations. They pioneered interactive sheet-metal features, Zero-D (virtual components) for simplifying assembly layouts (figure 3), and Rapid Blue (figure 4) for easy surface creation and editing. Design sensors, introduced more than three years ago, still have not been matched by any other MCAD player. They provide feedback on engineering rules and variables as a design is developed.

With over 50,000 commercial users, Solid Edge has less than 40% of either SolidWorks' or Inventor's total, but when educational units are added in, the installed base approaches about two-thirds of the grand totals for those two competitors. The product sells best in Europe, where about 50% of Solid Edge seats are installed.

The smaller user base hasn't stopped the sprouting of a strong Solid Edge community. Solid Edge counts more than 265 resellers worldwide along with scores of local users groups. UGS holds a major Solid Edge user summit in the United States every year, along with over a dozen regional events around the world. Support in the United States and Canada comes directly from UGS' offices in Huntsville, a factor many Solid Edge users I spoke to liked because it eliminates the variability of reseller support.

Figure 4. Solid Edges Rapid Blue technology makes the creation of surfaces easier and also allows dynamic editing, seen here, of the profiles that define them.
Figure 4. Solid Edges Rapid Blue technology makes the creation of surfaces easier and also allows dynamic editing, seen here, of the profiles that define them.

The company is on a firm financial footing with income increasing 21% in the third quarter of 2004, marking the ninth consecutive quarter of growth. Upward mobility for Solid Edge is not a problem because the program interoperates with UGS' NX very well and the two share a similar look and feel.

Potential Issues and Challenges. The biggest challenge for UGS is to continue to build up the North American reseller network—they have only about 65 in the Americas (Autodesk has more than that in the United States alone). The Solid Edge product is falling behind Inventor and especially SolidWorks in terms of integrated CAE tools.

Autodesk Inventor 9

Inventor arrived late to the midrange MCAD market, and the lack of depth in some of its tools shows this. For instance, core MCAD modeling tools such as filleting, shelling and adding draft lag behind those found in the other applications reviewed here.

Inventor's strongest point is the company behind it. No PDM vaulting tools? Acquire True Vault. No wire harnessing capabilities? Acquire EMBassy. No engineering tools? Acquire MechSoft. There's nothing wrong with this approach, as long as the time is taken to properly integrate the technology, which Autodesk has done for the most part.

Figure 5. Inventor 9 incorporates the powerful functional design capabilities of MechSoft; more integration is expected in Inventor 10.
Figure 5. Inventor 9 incorporates the powerful functional design capabilities of MechSoft; more integration is expected in Inventor 10.

Inventor 9 integrated the functional design capabilities of MechSoft (figure 5), and Autodesk is promising even a tighter integration in version 10. If they accomplish this, it could change how mechanical CAD software is used to design. It would also qualify as a major innovation for Inventor, which to this point has seen too few. Besides its own products, Autodesk has a growing list of more than 60 third-party software developers.

Another Inventor strong point is what came before it: AutoCAD. Autodesk has been able to use its installed base as a springboard for convincing some customers that they also need 3D and, hence, Inventor. Though Inventor's 300,000-plus seats (about 140,000 commercial) is impressive, keep in mind that those numbers didn't really take off until January 2002 when Autodesk announced Inventor Series. Besides Inventor, this package included AutoCAD Mechanical and Mechanical Desktop and was automatically sent to all maintenance customers of these latter two applications.

Autodesk is at perhaps an all-time financial highpoint—its profits tripled last quarter. These profits are well-spent; about 20% goes back into R & D, according to the company. The Inventor community remains strong, with hundreds of resellers (who also provide training) and local user groups along with the annual Autodesk University (see a report from this year's event).

Figure 6. Inventor Professional includes a module for creating piping and tubing.
Figure 6. Inventor Professional includes a module for creating piping and tubing.

Potential Issues and Challenges. In addition to some missing options in common modeling tools, Autodesk hasn't delivered on its Inventor Mold software promised a few years ago, a problem for users who need this functionality.

Though Autodesk and AutoCAD are Inventor's greatest assets, they are also a liability. For instance, many users are unhappy with Autodesk practices such as retiring products, which essentially forces them to upgrade (Inventor 6 was scheduled for retirement on 1/15/05). Also, many customers were upset when Autodesk introduced Autodesk Inventor Professional (figure 6) with enhanced functionality at additional cost, because they were originally told that Inventor would offer everything that they would ever need.

AutoCAD—not to mention the companies that have spent years building 2D processes around it—is also a challenge for Inventor. Autodesk has to keep improving AutoCAD while at they same time convincing customers that they also need 3D. The company has done a better job of late integrating the two products and showing how its 2D and 3D products can live together.

In This Article
In This Article

Clearly Capable

It should be pointed out that this trio of products lacks backward compatibility, a problem in this era of collaborative design. They all also lack integrated reverse engineering and manufacturing tools, and while third-party vendors fill in here, none offers its own total art-to-part solution. One program that does, VX CAD/CAM, will be featured in a future column that evaluates other midrange modeling options such as thinkdesign and IronCAD. In short, all of these programs are capable modelers, although Inventor still lacks some robustness in certain areas. That doesn't mean it can't do the job for most users—it just means SolidWorks and Solid Edge are more mature. As far as intangibles go, all three are backed by stable companies. Inventor has the largest reseller network, and SolidWorks has the best user community.

Joe Greco was a freelance CAD writer, consultant and trainer. He passed away on December 7, 2004.


About the Author: Joe Greco


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