SolidWorks 2001: A design odyssey

31 May, 2001 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Sheet-metal design and surfacing become even easier.


SolidWorks 2001
Solid and surface modeling

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5
Pros: Strong array of complementary third-party partners and products; PropertyManager; mirrored components; sheet-metal design tools.
Cons: While improved, some aspects of the user interface are still a bit cluttered and busy. A few nice features available in 2D are not available in 3D.

Price: $3,995

See also: Features

SolidWorks Corp.


Probably the first and most significant thing AutoCAD users notice with SolidWorks is the absence of a default Command line. If you can't live without your Command line, you can "fix" this problem by activating the 2D Command Line Emulator Add-In found in SolidWorks. SolidWorks created this feature specifically for AutoCAD users. If you like using the Command line, you'll feel right at home when using the emulator.

Also, SolidWorks 2001 has an Autodesk-friendly mode to create 2D geometry—you can click and drag to create entities, or you can use the Autodesk click-click method. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's one less thing for AutoCAD users to adjust to if they transition to SolidWorks.


In just six years SolidWorks has come a long way as a product and a company. The company virtually established the so-called midrange modeler as a serious contender in the 3D MCAD marketplace in North America. Now in its ninth major release, SolidWorks 2001 is a mature, stable product with more than 100,000 commercial and educational seats. Reviewing SolidWorks is both easy and difficult. Easy because improvements made to the base product are usually straightforward and obvious. Difficult because of a myriad of complementary third-party software and the endless possibilities for Visual BASIC customization.

For this review, I installed SolidWorks 2001 on a Hewlett-Packard Visualize X-Class workstation with an 866MHz Pentium III CPU, 512MB RAM, ELSA GLoria II graphics card, and Windows NT 4 SP6. This platform proved to be ideally suited for 2D and 3D graphics work with individual parts and large assemblies.

Up front
SolidWorks put a lot of thought and effort into 2001's graphical user interface. It developed what it calls Heads-Up User Interaction to promote design efficiency—an effort that really began with SolidWorks 99. Heads-Up User Interaction reduces the number of dialog boxes you use, which frees up your design area. To further drive this point home, SolidWorks updated or moved more than 30 commands to the PropertyManager (more about the PropertyManager later). The result? Even fewer dialog boxes to contend with, although the interface can still get a bit busy.

Figure 1. Context-sensitive callouts help you distinguish between different entities such as a sweep profile and a sweep path. By replacing dialog boxes, these callouts also free up design space.

Context-sensitive callouts shown in figure 1 are new graphical display elements that help you distinguish between different entities such as a sweep profile and a sweep path. These callouts display information such as relationships of sketch entities, labels for feature inputs, and different ways to change feature parameters. Unfortunately, although you can drag these callouts, you can't use them to actually change the properties of the entity to which they refer. Some callouts, however, such as those for extrusions, display numerical values that you can edit in the PropertyManager. When you do so, the callout and the entity update with the new number.

In shaded preview mode, you can see the effects and results of different commands before you commit to them (figure 2). For example, you can now view extruded features with the proper draft angles applied in preview mode, reducing the possibility that you'll have to go back and fix something you really didn't intend to do.

Figure 2. Shaded previews of features let you perform easy what-if scenarios before you commit to them. This is handy for checking for adequate draft.Figure 3. The PropertyManager displays as you create a model. This is a graphics time-saver and better use of the display screen.

The PropertyManager design editor opens automatically with many sketch operations and displays all design properties and parameters previously found in dialog boxes. For example, you now use the Base-Extrude PropertyManager to set all of the options that you once set using Type and Depth within the Extrude Feature dialog box. The Property Manager (figure 3) displays next to a model while you create it and greatly reduces the amount of time you spend searching through windows, toolbars, and icons. The Property Manager now also contains the Assembly Mating dialog box.

Overall, the user interface has improved in SolidWorks 2001, but can get a tad crowded, especially when sketching.

You can now select a sketch, plane, face, or edge before or after you select either the 2D or 3D sketch tool. Until now you had to preselect the entity before selecting the sketch tool. SolidWorks 2001 also has a new 2D sketch mode called click-click in addition to its familiar click-drag mode. The application responds to cues from your 2D sketching actions and determines the mode you might prefer. For example, if you click a first point and drag, you remain in click-drag mode. If you click a first point and release the mouse button, SolidWorks recognizes this action as click-click mode. It's easy to go from one mode to the other and back. Click-click mode is not available for 3D sketching.

Features, parts, and assemblies
With SolidWorks 2001, you can create sweeps using multiple profiles with the same path, and the multiple profiles can be separate or nested sketches. You can also create thin-walled sweeps and lofts made of thin features (figure 4), a difficult, if not impossible, task with many other MCAD packages, regardless of price.

Figure 4. With SolidWorks 2001, you can create thin-walled sweeps and lofts. These figures illustrate (a) a sweep with a solid feature, (b) the same sweep with a thin feature, (c) a lofted solid, and (d) a loft with thin features.

Although not at the class-A level, surfacing does get measurably better with each SolidWorks release. Probably the most significant new addition to surfacing is interactive, dynamic tangency control over blended surfaces. Also noteworthy is the new Fill Surface N-sided patch feature that lets you smoothly fill in gaps and irregular boundaries with surrounding surfaces. This is a vital feature for creating free-form, stylized designs and repairing less-than-perfect model data imported from other CAD systems. It's also handy to fill in holes in parts used for core and cavity molding.

With SolidWorks 2001's subassemblies, you are now free of the restrictions formerly imposed by assembly structure and bills of materials when you view assemblies with moving subassemblies. This feature is configuration driven, so an individual instance in a subassembly moves independently of other parts.

For duplicating design components in assemblies, SolidWorks 2001 offers two options, copying and mirroring, to ensure that design information, such as bills of materials or physical properties, is correct and associated with the right components. Copying and mirroring give slightly different results. For example, with copying, no new part of an assembly document is created, whereas a new document is created with mirroring. Also, with copying, the geometry of a new component is identical to that of the original component, but the orientation of the component is different. With mirroring, the new component's geometry changes to mirror the original component.

Mirroring in SolidWorks 2001 doesn't affect just geometry but also overall product structure and mating conditions. Speaking of mating conditions, you can now mate to ruled spline surfaces for rotational motion in your models. This means you can mate parts to cam-type profiles and effect motion based on these conditions. With either copying or mirroring, if the original component changes, so does the copied or mirrored component.

Sheet-metal design
In SolidWorks 2001, you can now directly create sheet-metal parts. Previously, you had to create a solid body and convert it. You can now create base flanges for open and closed sheet-metal design profiles. You no longer have to insert sketches, draw lines, or create bends to develop sheet-metal part edges—just click on an edge and drag it to the size you want. You can also bend flanges from a flat pattern and create complex mitered flanges with automatic reliefs (figure 5).

Figure 5. SolidWorks 2001 now has direct sheet-metal creation for base flange and subsequent production operations. To bend an edge from a flat patterm (base flange), you quickly sketch what you want to bend and click the Sketched Bend icon to start the bending operation.

If you're an Excel junkie like me, you're going to like that you can create tabs, corner treatments, and Excel-based bend tables that provide bend allowance and deduction parameters to develop flat sheet-metal parts.

Finally, a new selective fold and unfold feature lets you selectively unbend a flange or cut across a bend, and then bend the flange back to its original shape after you make the cut. Unlike the old days, you don't have to flatten the sheet-metal part before cutting and shaping operations. This is a real time-saver.

With these improvements, SolidWorks 2001 is fast approaching the best in the industry.

Document your design
To some, drawings are a necessary evil in the design process. SolidWorks 2001 offers a couple of significant enhancements. First, the new DWG Import Wizard is a conversion utility that lets you import 2D DWG drawings into SolidWorks. The wizard displays a WYSIWYG preview and layer mapping before it fully imports the 2D data so you can adjust and verify the design before importing. Second, Alternate Position View is a new drawing and detailing function that documents various design positions within a single drawing view based on configurations. This is very handy, especially in machine design, because you can view multiple possible configurations at the same time, ensuring good documentation for complex mechanical assemblies

As long as we're talking about 2D, I should mention that SolidWorks 2001 is tightly tied via OLE to Microsoft's Visio Technical (which must be separately installed on your system) to create electrical circuit diagrams, piping and pneumatic diagrams, and schematics. With Visio installed, use the Insert Schematic menu item to bring a Visio drawing into your SolidWorks drawing.

Work outside the box
Although I won't devote much space to describing them, SolidWorks has a number of complementary products for collaboration, primarily on the Web. These include SolidWorks 3D Meeting that interfaces with Microsoft's NetMeeting for sharing SolidWorks (or other applications on your system) with other team members across the Internet; SolidWorks 3D Instant Website that lets you create and publish Web pages with interactive 3D content; and eDrawings, an e-mail communications tool for sharing mechanical models via 2D drawings. These and other SolidWorks tools let you create and share models and tasks in a multiuser design environment.

Free stuff
SolidWorks offers a number of complementary products for use with the core product. Among the more notable freebies are the Pro/E Converter and XchangeWorks. I've used them both, and they work quite well. The Pro/E Converter translates Pro/ENGINEER part files, including feature information, into a form that SolidWorks can handle. Before this version of the Pro/E Converter existed, you had to export Pro/ENGINEER data to a neutral format and then import the neutral data into SolidWorks, losing all feature data and risking an incorrect relationship with the neutral file and the original part. XchangeWorks is a data translation and data sharing tool to import solid modeling data directly into AutoCAD and Mechanical Desktop. It also directly translates part files created with other CAD packages, such as Pro/ENGINEER and Unigraphics.

Final thoughts
A very capable core product for some time, SolidWorks 2001 is significantly better than its predecessors, especially in the areas of user interface, sheet metal, part features, and assemblies. Those are the big features, but many other nuances contribute to its overall usefulness and friendliness. The strong base product coupled with an equally strong lineup of third-party products makes SolidWorks 2001 an excellent choice for mechanical design. Highly Recommended.

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