Cadalyst Labs Review: PTC Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 331 Aug, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe
Workflow efficiency and productivity take center stage
The newest version of PTC's flagship design application, Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3, was a bit long in coming—shipping about 18 months after the previous version instead of the usual 12 months—but the result is worth the wait (figure 1). Instead of just piling on a zillion new features and capabilities, PTC (like some of its competitors) chose to improve Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3 in other ways that matter to most customers, namely, software stability, better consistency across modeling functions and promotion of more efficient workflows. Although these areas of enhancement may lack wow factor, they will definitely be beneficial to most users in terms of productivity.
PRO/ENGINEER WILDFIRE 3
I had my first exposure to Pro/ENGINEER in 1994. On the one hand, I was impressed with what it could do, but on the other, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and the strict rules that you had to follow when designing anything. At that time, you were forced to adapt to the design tool, and not the other way around. I wondered if Pro/ENGINEER would ever become a truly usable design tool. Now known as Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire, it certainly has had its ups and downs over the years. Though far from perfect, it has come miles in terms of approachability and usability.
Figure 1. A rendering of a garden shed created using Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3's sheet metal, mold and CNC (computer numerical control) options.
Like any resident software application, it has to be installed before it can be used on a computer, and I need to say a few words about the installation procedure for Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3. It seems more difficult than it has to be, and that is really my only major complaint about the application. As I've said in the past, I can understand PTC's concern with ensuring that it's dealing with legitimate users, but the installation procedure took much longer than what I'm accustomed to with most other MCAD products. I did, however, receive some excellent installation support from PTC. After the installation glitches were resolved, I was on my way and ready to get down to business with Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3.
Resolving Old Issues
Until a few releases ago, one of the most daunting aspects of learning and using Pro/ENGINEER was its multiple layers of cascading menus. In addition, one of the biggest obstacles that confronts users new to a CAD product is, "Where do I begin?" These issues are well addressed and resolved through Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3's user interface, which continues to improve with each release. When you start Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3, a browser appears in the main graphics window. This Resource Center provides several tools to help you get started, such as productivity tools, tutorials and other aids. The quick-reference card is pretty useful. When actually using the application, I found the online Help system and Help Center (categorized by Pro/E functional area) somewhat incomplete and inconsistent, but adequate in most cases, especially once I understood where the information I needed might be located.
At the bottom of the screen is the Dashboard, introduced in the first version of Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire. It replaced the antiquated Menu Manager in pre-Wildfire versions of Pro/ENGINEER. The Dashboard is used for one of two modeling approaches in Pro/E and guides you through the process with menus and dialog boxes. With the Dashboard approach, you execute an action first and then select references where the action will be applied. For more advanced users, a second design approach, known as direct modeling, lets you work on a model directly by selecting references first and then applying an action (figure 2). Most users with some experience will probably prefer the direct-modeling approach over the Dashboard because it's a lot quicker. However, you can combine and use either approach to best suit your needs.
Figure 2. Geometry and references highlight to distinguish entities for explaining and providing better understanding of constraints.
Start With Parts
As is the case with virtually all mechanical CAD applications, you start out in Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3 with a 2D layout sketch, add basic geometric entities and dimension and constrain the geometry (figure 3). You build a 3D parametric part from the 2D sketch by adding features such as extrusions and holes. In some instances, creating a feature-based, parametric part in Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire takes a few more steps than in some other MCAD packages, but the end result is basically the same. Unlike some other CAD packages, Pro/ENGINEER doesn't use the right mouse button as much as I'd like, and this means some design tasks take a little longer, at least for me.
Figure 3. 3D drawings take 2D annotation, such as dimensions, tolerances, surface finishes and other design information, and present it in a 3D context with a model.
Although the part-modeling environment offers several enhancements, most improve the productivity of capabilities that were already in the product. However, new curved patterns are a Curve option on the Pattern Dashboard. The Curve option lets you create instances of a patterned feature along a sketched curve. You can control the spacing of the features and specify the start point and direction of the curve.
Some of the most significant enhancements for modeling parts are found in new sheet-metal capabilities and the associated user interfaces (figure 4). The good news here is that the sheet-metal interface now conforms more closely to the general Pro/ENGINEER interface, something that PTC worked hard to make more consistent throughout the application. It still has a way to go as far as total interface consistency goes, but definite progress takes place with each release.
Figure 4. In sheet-metal mode, you can use the Flange tool to select a tangent or nontangent chain of wall segments in a single loop as a placement chain
The sheet-metal Cut feature has been consolidated with the more generic Extrude feature and results in a solid cut. The unattached extruded wall feature has been consolidated with the Fill feature as a new part of the Dashboard that guides you through the steps for building an unattached flat metal wall. The sheet-metal Flange tool has been enhanced to create multiple walls. Use this tool to select a tangent or nontangent chain of wall segments in a single loop as a placement chain to create a swept wall. Multiple walls can be created with the appropriate miter cuts and reliefs.
Moving Up To Assemblies
Assemblies received a good amount of attention this time around, and the enhancements have more to do with productivity and ease of use rather than just a raft of new functionality that too often tends to be limited in utility or incomplete in scope. Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire supports top-down design (best suited for designs that undergo frequent modifications or for diverse types of designs) and bottom-up design (best suited for designing similar products or those that won't require frequent modifications) design methods.
With what PTC calls AssemblySense, enhancements to component interfaces make it easier to define and place components, standard features, and user-defined features in assemblies (figure 5). You can use the Interface Definition dialog box to configure interconnections in component parts and assemblies that can be used for automatically assembling components. Nested interfaces (also called Smart Parts) define supersets of existing component interface definitions. Mechanism connections also can be stored as component interfaces to define the fit and function of moving components. Component interfaces are displayed in the model tree for individual components, as well as subassemblies and assemblies. You can also create placement notes in the graphics window to assist in the assembly process.
Figure 5. With AssemblySense, component interfaces make it easier to define and place components, standard features and user-defined features in assemblies.
The Component Placement Dashboard lets you place components quickly using standard geometric constraints and component interfaces from a part or assembly. All placement constraints are displayed in the model tree, and you can query a model to understand how a part was assembled without having to edit the component's location. When placing components, you can specify the motion axis limits of those placed with mechanism constraints and use drag handles to position parts with offset constraints.
In Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3, you can create motion skeletons in the assembly environment, allowing motion to be accounted for early in a top-down design process. This capability can be a real time saver because you don't have to recreate a model to perform a mechanism analysis. You create mechanism bodies and connections as a motion skeleton and then run a simple kinematic analysis to ensure that the skeleton model is capable of the desired degrees of freedom. After degrees of freedom are validated, you can create and assemble components to the motion skeleton.
Although we constantly hear that they're going away (they probably never will), drawings are still a major means of communicating a design, and Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3 has enhanced the capabilities of what it calls 3D drawings that adhere to the ASME Y14.41–2003 standard. These 3D drawings take 2D annotation—such as dimensions, tolerances, surface finishes and other design information—and present it in a 3D context with a model. The 3D representation and accompanying annotation features present a model in a way that might prove more useful than design information presented in traditional 2D orthographic drawing views.
This version of Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire also directly outputs drawings as standard, native Adobe PDF files.
Adept and Adaptable
As I said at the outset, Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3 is not a whiz-bang release full of myriad new features, capabilities, and bells and whistles. It does, however, offer many things that will make users and their workflows more efficient and productive. It's also more adaptable to the way different organizations work—this ability is important because no two users are the same. Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 3 demonstrates that PTC is committed to releasing its products with a sane release strategy and schedule that should benefit its current and potential customers. And as far as raw features and capabilities are concerned, this time around quality reigns over quantity.
Jeffrey Rowe is an independent design and technical communications consultant. With offices in Colorado and Michigan, he can be reached at 719.539.8549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.