Manufacturing

Pro/E Wildfire: Intuitive, scalable

1 Feb, 2003 By: Mark Huxley

Parametric pioneer adopts Windows-style interface.


Highly Recommended Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire, the latest mechanical CAD offering from PTC, represents the twenty-fourth major release of the software that shook the CAD world in the late 1980s. PTC, then known as Parametric Technology Corp., was the first vendor to offer a parametric, 3D solid, feature-based design platform. Wildfire incorporates several hundred improvements (figure 1), and its user interface is drastically updated (figure 2) to speed and ease design development. This also helps PTC stay competitive by offering a modern-style interface that Windows users are familiar with and expect in an upper-level software package. The Menu Manager—a text-based hierarchical menu structure to the right of the graphics area-has given way to the more popular and more familiar top-down Windows menus and dialog boxes. Icons, right-clicks, and fly-outs are far more prevalent.

Wildfire offers something for everyone. New customers will be very pleased with Wildfire, and Pro/ENGINEER gurus will grow to like the latest transformation (after the initial obligatory grumbling).

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Figure 1. Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire introduces a whole new level of visual realism with real-time photorendering, which adds textures, reflections, shadows, and backgrounds as you work on your model.
WHO USES WILDFIRE?
During the past 17 years, PTC has developed a suite of cohesive software offerings capable of assisting just about every product development industry. Current users work in aerospace, automotive, consumer products and electronics, defense, education, heavy equipment, industrial equipment, life sciences, plastics, shipbuilding, telecommunications, transportation, and more (figures 3-5).

Wildfire merits consideration as the platform of choice for companies that create complicated mechanical assemblies, intricate castings, and molded components that may require another level of sophistication, such as part optimization, integrated FEA or CAM,

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Figure 2. Old and new users alike will be struck by the new user interface. You are greeted with a simple and elegant default arrangement of icons and work areas. The inset shows a magnified view of the dashboard area.
alternate part configurations, and a variety of construction options. You can download a free 15-day evaluation copy at www.ptc.com.

This product now, more than ever, can morph from a more-than-adequate midrange application into a high-end tool with a simple call to PTC to request optional module licenses. Today's midrange applications can definitely solve needs for everyone-within limits. You can start with PTC's foundation package, which is every bit equal to or better than other midrange applications in function. If you need more capabilities, PTC offers an upgrade path that doesn't require a detour to yet another application.

STRENGTHS AND IMPROVEMENTS
PTC promises that it won't release Wildfire until is has been thoroughly tested. At press time, PTC planned to release it at the end of February.

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Figures 3–5. Many different types of companies use PTC’s applications to take their products to market.

A dialog box called the dashboard (figure 2 inset) is the most striking change to Wildfire's user interface. It offers a more intuitive workflow by adapting to features as you create and define them. You can edit feature definitions by using the dashboard icons. This includes switching from a solid to a thin or a surface with one click-very helpful and long overdue.

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Figure 6. Here you see a simple block feature with a surface. The depth dimension of the block is shown with a handle at one end. Dragging this handle interactively changes the depth of the block.
General interface improvements increase productivity. As an example, it used to be necessary to manually define a sketching plane's orientation. Wildfire chooses an orientation for you, and you can quickly accept or change the default choice. Little changes like this abound and make a big difference at the end of the day.

Drag handles on features allow interactive updating of sketches (without requiring you to be in sketch mode) and almost any feature, including extrusions, rounds, drafts, and surface boundaries (figure 6). It's hard to do justice to Wildfire's interactive ability with still images. For an interactive tour of its new features, go to www.ptc.com/ community/proewf/newtools/upgtools.htm.

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Figure 7. Standard part catalogs and libraries from numerous sources are readily available via Wildfire’s built-in Web browser. This reduces window clutter and provides access to off-the-shelf items such as screws, hydraulic fittings, and air cylinders.
Several applications are built in. For example, tabs let you choose from the model tree, a folder navigator similar to Windows Explorer, and a built-in Web browser. You can quickly view and hide those applications using pseudo fly-out window separators and navigation tabs. The built-in Web browser may seem out of place at first, but it makes it easy to select from online catalogs and libraries of standard parts. One complaint-the browser currently lacks a status bar, so you are left wondering if something is loading (figure 7).

You can connect Wildfire to PTC's Windchill for PLM (product lifecycle management) and PDM (product data management) tools.

In Pro/ENGINEER 2000i, PTC greatly improved the sketching environment by adding the Intent Manager. In each subsequent release, new functions make it faster and more intuitive to produce sketches. The more stubborn Pro/ENGINEER gurus can rest assured that, in a

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Figure 8. This image shows several surface merge options. From left to right, you see the unaltered surfaces; the center of the orange surface with the top of the blue surface cut off, keeping the bottom of the blue; and the central portion of the orange. By simply toggling radio buttons, you can quickly preview what the operation will produce.
pinch, they can still turn on the old Intent Manager.

Surfacing is one of Pro/ENGINEER's strongest suits. Though solid features can eventually create most geometry, surfacing lets you quickly and easily create complicated geometry. Wildfire quickly shows a concise preview of whatever you create (figures 8 and 9). This is true of initial feature creation as well as subsequent merges, trims, and cuts. Many long-time users may take niceties like this for granted. However, speaking from experience, you'll develop a renewed appreciation quickly if you spend any amount of time on a system that doesn't offer them.

The ability to create, edit, and execute keyboard macros has long been a boon to Pro/ENGINEER users-frequently used, repetitive, and complicated command sequences can be reduced to a few simple keystrokes.

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Figure 9. A fairly complicated round (gray surface) between two surfaces is produced in one feature. You can drag handles on its radius dimension to see what the feature will look like without having to wait for a regeneration.
The hole function is revised and greatly improved in the last several revisions. You can now pick from standard hole sizes or quickly plug in dimensions for a customized hole. Formerly, you had to configure a table-driven set of dimensions per your company's standard.

Significant improvements appear in the drafting, sheet-metal, FEA, and other modules. Again, menus (figure 10), icons, and right-click drop-down menus totally replace the Menu Manager.

You can use the key to pick multiple features, making the application more Windows-user friendly. A selection filter lets you choose from smart picks, features, geometry, datums, quilts, and annotations. Query selection and the pick-from list (that is, the query bin) are still available.

Not all features incorporate the new dashboard dialog box. For example, the Swept Surface dialog box is in the old style. PTC says that it will update all dialog boxes in the next release.

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Figure 10. You can tweak virtually all of the properties of a drafted dimension via this dialog box. Right-clicking on a dimension in a drawing lets you move it, adjust its leader lines, flip its arrows, and more.
PERFORMANCE PICTURE
Wildfire provides acceptable general performance without the need for a Cray. Minimum system requirements are a 233MHz Pentium or Xeon processor with 128MB of RAM. Regeneration of parts and assemblies is usually quick and painless, which makes general editing and actions such as reordering features a breeze. Larger part and assembly file sizes slow down lesser PCs, but you'll be fine if you have a relatively new box with 512MB of RAM.

Wildfire offers the capability to work on large assemblies (up to tens of thousands of components) without resorting to tricks such as lightweighting and simplified representations. This definitely speeds productivity. There is still room for improvement, but PTC is definitely a top-tier performer in this realm.

Testing sponsored by PTC and performed by tool, Inc., a research and product development firm in Marblehead, Massachusetts (www.tool inc.com), compared Wildfire with SolidWorks 20011. Wildfire finished Superior in areas such as feature count, mouse clicks, mouse travel, and finished file size, for various part and assembly builds.

THINGS TO WORK ON
Pro/ENGINEER's evolving interface has changed so much that two separate revisions included a menu mapper to help you find the commands that moved. Though the changes are necessary to make Pro/ENGINEER more Windows compatible and keep it competitive with other CAD applications, expert and long-time users are frustrated because they have to relearn the software.

Good examples of this are the frequently used mouse-controlled pan, zoom, and rotate functions. These used to be activated with the key and three-button mouse. Now, dragging with the scroll wheel pressed spins the model, pushing while pressing the scroll wheel gives you interactive zoom, and holding while pressing the scroll wheel lets you pan. Long-time users may find it frustrating at first, but it doesn't take long to adapt.

Some new bells and whistles are Dynamic, Delayed, and Velocity View modes-we'll see how useful they are over time.

Installation, licensing, and customization complexity are areas that Wildfire can improve on. The Wildfire installation went smoothly, but FlexLM (a popular license management application) still is not very user friendly. It employs coded, arcane error messages that shed only the slightest illumination on what the problem is, with no hint about how to fix it. My problem turned out to be an issue related to having an old version of FlexLM loaded (not running, mind you) in conjunction with the new version.

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Figure 11. When you first start up Wildfire, the built-in browser directs you to an interactive tour at PTC’s Web site—a refreshing alternative to release notes. If we are lucky, a brief tutorial will follow.
Like most software, some configuration after installation is necessary. The built-in browser leads you to an interactive tour right out of the box (figure 11). The default color scheme has a light brown background. You can change it to black or white.

The old adage of "you get what you pay for" still holds true. Entry cost for PTC's basic foundation module has dropped significantly in an attempt to quell the midlevel software package surge. However, initial and maintenance costs are still a considerable investment.

As a mature product, Pro/ENGINEER has robust code, some of which is pushing 20 years of age. This is both a blessing and a curse. Such code can offer reliable functions yet be difficult to append. The addition of Undo/Redo capability is probably the most prominent example.

Wildfire doesn't offer it throughout the program, so inventive users have found workarounds. PTC added Undo/Redo to the Intent Manager that replaced the sketcher. Code is just like a good solid model. If it is done well the first time-modular and well-written-it will prove far easier to improve and modify later.

IS WILDFIRE FOR YOU?
PTC's software offerings cover everything from concept through development, analysis, manufacturing, PDM, and more. PTC's CAD and CAM applications now number more than 30 modules. In an effort to consolidate these, sheet metal was included in the Wildfire version I tested. If you work in product development, chances are good that PTC has software to address your challenges. Besides sheet metal, the Foundation Advantage version ($4,995) includes welding design, quality assurance, mechanism design, advanced surfacing, assembly performance with shrink wrap and simplified representations, import data doctor, and design animation.

Firms that anticipate rapid growth in their business will be better off being prepared with "too much" software power rather than hitting a ceiling later on. If this happens, productivity suffers, employee turnover increases, and the business may need to migrate to another CAD application that offers the tools that have become necessary. Although no single package can solve everyone's needs, Wildfire is a choice with few drawbacks.

Several years ago, numerous midrange MCAD packages used Pro/ENGINEER as a template and building block to improve their own products. Some would say that the midrange programmers had an advantage because prior to Pro/ENGINEER there was no solids-based, model history-laden, parametric example. The midrange sales pitch frequently included something like: "We can do that, just like Pro/ENGINEER." As more functions are built into midrange applications, the playing field is leveling out.

Wildfire builds on Pro/ENGINEER's traditional strengths to couple the flexibility and power of a high-end mechanical CAD application with a truly modern user interface. Highly Recommended.

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About the Author: Mark Huxley


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