Solid Messages from SolidWorks World

6 Feb, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Inspiring presentations by MCAD industry leaders focused on creativity in design.

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I just returned from the SolidWorks World 2008 user conference in San Diego. With almost 4,700 other attendees, the event celebrated its tenth anniversary and provided a great opportunity to rub elbows with SolidWorks users, executives, employees, partners, and resellers. There's something for everyone who attends this event.

A Word from R&D
On Sunday, before the conference had officially started, SolidWorks put together several sessions for the benefit of the press. One of the sessions I attended was a panel discussion with members of the SolidWorks R&D team. The panel members stressed that the company would be spending more time and resources on QC/QA instead of just piling on more features and functionality in future SolidWorks releases. They responded to the inevitable question about the overhauled (and for some, problematic) user interface for SolidWorks 2008 by saying that they could have spread out the changes over several releases, but rather, chose to make them all at once. The panel did say, however, that SolidWorks 2009 would have a more "flexible" user interface, but did not divulge any details.

Scott Harris, a SolidWorks employee from the beginning and an instrumental person in new product development and R&D, touched on several interesting trends including these:

  • the possibility of large-scale, open-source CAD software
  • gaming being used increasingly as the benchmark for CAD products
  • design intent becoming more important than geometry
  • surfacing mathematics emerging that will ultimately replace NURBS

He also said he expected to see more specialized and niche subsets of CAD packages to come on the market for, say, sheet metal or plastic mold design. Finally, he expects MCAD functionality and the market itself to change much more in the next ten years than it has in the previous ten.

The Keynotes
The keynotes of the general sessions this year were all about ingenuity and inspiring future generations of creators, and although all of the presentations were different, they all had the same underlying theme of encouraging creativity. Interestingly, none of them directly or indirectly mentioned the SolidWorks product, but focused instead on creativity and exploring new ideas. How many other MCAD software companies would pass up this opportunity to "push the code" with a captive audience and free advertising? I don't know for sure, but knowing the other players in the MCAD industry, probably not many.

At the end of the first day's general session, Theo Jansen spoke. He is an eccentric artist and kinetic sculptor from the Netherlands who builds large works that resemble skeletons of animals and that can walk on beaches using the wind as their source of power. His sculptural works are a fusion of art and engineering. Jansen creates what he calls artificial life by using genetic algorithms, programs that simulate evolution inside their code. Genetic algorithms can be modified to solve a variety of problems including circuit design, and in the case of Theo Jansen's creations, complex systems.

A measure of fitness is introduced into the algorithm; in Jansen's case it is to survive on the beach while moving around on wet sand near the ocean, and the dry sand at the edge of the beach. Those designs that are best at the assigned task within the modeled beach environment are bred together and graded again. The creature's articulated legs scuttle across the sand like those of a crab.

Jansen uses plastic electrical conduit to make his sculptural designs. He designed his original parts years ago using an Atari computer and uses the same basic parts today, adjusting their size to perform specific tasks. He then lets them roam free on the beach, measures their success, and updates his model. At the end of his presentation, he pulled and led one of his walking creations across the stage. Pretty cool stuff, especially to see up close.

On the second morning, the theme was "Inspire a New World," and this was an appropriate one for Don Norman, a renowned psychologist and an industrial designer who spoke. He argues in his recently published book, The Design of Future Things, that a new organism is emerging, which he calls a "person+machine." He focused on accomplishing this through design. He stressed that although designing for people is difficult, we should not forget to make things usable and to design for people. That's a great basic tenet to design by, and I hope more designers will take it to heart.

Following Norman was Robert Ballard, an oceanographer most noted for his work in underwater archaeology. He is most famous for the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, and the wreck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. He spoke in glowing terms of the technologies that have shaped his career and research. He stressed the importance of future generations, what they can and will accomplish, and the importance of encouraging them to become engineers and scientists. As an example of making his point, in 1981 he had written on the future of undersea exploration. He speculated and later postulated that someday a scientist could perform exploration and research from thousands of miles away with remote robotic technology. This has in fact come true today and illustrated how his visions of the future and what technology could make possible, resulting in his being part of a paradigm shift away from the way things had been done or even thought possible.

On the last morning, Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur, and advocate for science and technology, and founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition challenged all attendees of SolidWorks World 2008 to mentor young robotics competitors and inspire tomorrow's engineers. "Adults line up in droves to help young athletes develop their skills in pursuit of jobs in professional sports," Kamen said. "We need technology professionals to show kids they have more options; they need to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of education and careers in science and technology."

SolidWorks VP of worldwide marketing Rainer Gawlick joined Kamen on the stage and announced support of the program. SolidWorks will provide free software to any teacher who is a FIRST Robotics mentor and participates in an internship with an engineering organization over the summer. SolidWorks will also provide free software to any company mentoring a FIRST team for use with a teacher they invite to intern at their organization. This was interesting news, because Autodesk has been a primary sponsor of FIRST for several years. "You have all drawn on mentors," Kamen told the audience. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be here. Please consider sharing your expertise."

For the first time since he became CEO, I had a chance to speak one-on-one with SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray. He's got a slightly different philosophy, approach, and delivery than his predecessor, John McEleney, but he's very approachable, candid, and dedicated to moving the company forward. What struck me most was his genuine desire to emphasize the quality and reliability of the SolidWorks product line to reinforce the confidence of his customers, partners, and VARs. That's a lot tougher than it sounds, but Jeff seems comfortable and determined in this role. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that he had recently passed the Certified SolidWorks Associate (CSWA) test, further proving his commitment to better understanding the core product and its customers.

The next edition of the user conference, SolidWorks World 2009 will be held at Walt Disney World in Florida, February 8-11, 2009. If you are a SolidWorks user and haven't been to this event, it's one you really shouldn't miss for the people you will meet and the things that you will learn.

Author's Note: A preview/overview of SolidWorks 2009 was presented at SolidWorks World and will be discussed and compared with SolidWorks 2008 next week.

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