UGS NX 331 Oct, 2004 By: Joe Greco
Does NX 3's new user interface make users more productive?
A number of differences separate the so-called midrange mechanical CAD products from the high-end applications, and one that's often overlooked is how they evolved. Programs such as SolidWorks, Inventor, and Solid Edge have always run on Windows and as a result haven't had major changes to their user interfaces. But high-end programs such as CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, and NX (a merger of two former products, Unigraphics NX and I-deas) have undergone major interface overhauls—a result of migrating from UNIX-based systems. Though the first two NX releases modernized the user interface somewhat, this update makes even more strides.
Figure 1. A sketch in red is extruded to a length equal to the sine of 45°. A convenient pop-up box makes accessing the DesignLogic of the Formula command very easy. Notice in the upper left how the entire Extrude user interface is reduced to just a few simple icons.
User Interface UpdatesNX 3's interface has been updated with new icons and a new arrangement, but more importantly, individual tools work differently. For starters, UGS eliminated some of the tedious step-by-step input methods and went with a dialogless ribbon bar system so that all options can be seen at once. To determine whether the new techniques are more efficient, I extruded a predrawn sketch to an exact height by keying in a distance. This operation took eight steps in NX 2, including several that were not intuitive, but in NX 3 it could be done in five easy-to-understand steps.
NX 3 users can now dynamically drag when performing operations such as extruding and filleting, which speeds up conceptual design in particular. Also, it's now easier to access other techniques for determining values, such as measuring an existing distance, picking a previously used dimension, or creating a formula or function on the fly. I tried to create a formula that told NX 3 to make a desired extrusion length equal to the sine of 45° (0.707). This is a simple formula, and I was able to get it to work on my first try without any help, a testament to the ease of use within the formula command in NX DesignLogic (figure 1).
Competitive ComparisonI also extruded a sketch in Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire and CATIA and counted the steps. The former, which unveiled its new look about 18 months ago, took six steps, two more than NX. CATIA V5, whose interface redesign has about a six-year head start on NX 3, also did it in only four.
Figure 2. The little red arrow on the right is dragged to define the setback, allowing the user to interactively create complex corner fillets with wire frame previews.
Though CATIA and Wildfire match NX 3's dragging capabilities mentioned above, there are some differences when adding more complex features. For instance, when defining fillets that have variable radii and complex corners, CATIA can't handle these via dragging techniques, while NX 3 can (figure 2). However, Wildfire surpasses both, especially when it comes to complex filleted corners. CATIA and Wildfire can employ dragging to create a revolved shape, while NX 3 can't. In fact, its Revolve tool still presents the old step-by-step user interface. UGS says that it plans to update the Revolve command in the first point release of NX 3 early in 2005. Only Wildfire uses dragging techniques in other feature-based operations such as shell and draft.
Some of NX's productivity is hard to notice until users actually perform several modeling steps. For instance, let's say that you need to project a series of curves onto a surface and then use them to trim that surface. In both CATIA and Wildfire, this takes two separate operations, whereas NX's Trim tool has the ability to also project the curves, essentially combining the two steps into one.
NX also saves steps because the program is smart enough to understand the relationship between the curve and the original untrimmed surface, so the user doesn't have to tell it which way the curve needs to project. This is just one of many examples. It's important to remember that although Wildfire's and CATIA's user interfaces may appear more modern and refined than NX's, it's the latter that has what really counts—step-saving techniques.
UGS NX 3
With that said, NX 3 could still be improved to help the modeling workflow. For instance, users can't extrude or revolve without first having a predrawn sketch. With CATIA and Wildfire, users can create one in the middle of a modeling command.
As mentioned earlier, at times the old step-by-step interface appears in NX 3. In some commands, UGS employs another input technique—a single dialog system that exposes all the options, so essentially there's a mix of three different user interfaces in this version. By comparison, Pro/ENGINEER's Menu Manager still pops up far too often. Dassault Systèmes has, by far, done the best job in eliminating remnants of outdated user interfaces—it completely redid CATIA with V5.
Sheet-metal DesignNX 3 also features a new user interface for designing sheet-metal parts based on Solid Edge's sheet-metal module. Just about all of the icons, dialog boxes, and methods are the same as in Solid Edge (figure 3). Some commands, such as creating a base tab or contour flange from an existing sketch, work differently. The process is smoother in Solid Edge because it's easier to select the sketches needed to build these features.
Figure 3. Users familiar with Solid Edge will recognize many of NX 3 s new sheet-metal commands. This image also shows something unique throughout NX compared with other major mechanical CAD programs-the ability to right-click anywhere on the screen and have a related set of tools pop up, as seen below the Jog dialog box on the right.
I was curious to find out if any other similarities or differences existed, so I picked a tool—the Jog command—and looked at it in more detail. In both applications, the user must enter the sketcher to draw the line that defines the jog. Solid Edge automatically selects the Line tool, whereas NX doesn't. Once the jog line is defined, Solid Edge automatically goes into a drag mode to determine the jog length; NX users must manually select a drag arrow to determine this distance. Solid Edge uses the mouse to indicate which side of the jog line will be the portion of sheet-metal body that will be moved. In NX, the position is determined by the direction in which the user originally drew the jog line—and then can be changed by clicking on a yellow arrow that appears on the model. A tool tip for this arrow would be helpful.
What's the result? Even though NX essentially copies the Solid Edge user interface, the number of steps to add a jog in NX 3 is nine, compared with seven in Solid Edge. It's a relatively minor detail that Solid Edge handles this task better, but if UGS is copying the Solid Edge technique, why leave out a few simple details that save steps?
This sharing of interfaces produces a lot of similarities and some minor differences. Will we see more of it in the future? I think the answer is yes. If one product handles a certain task better than the other, it makes sense to reuse the technology. This is not the first time this has occurred—the programs' sketchers are also similar.
Figure 4. An I-deas model is imported with its features intact. Previously, interoperability between the two was more similar to associative copy-features could be viewed in NX, but editing was still done in I-deas.
I-deas IntegrationEver since UGS acquired SDRC, the developer of I-deas, both company's technologies have undergone a gradual merging process. NX 3 continues this merger by incorporating I-deas' advanced algorithms for handling complex edge blending conditions. In addition, when importing I-deas models, NX now supports features (figure 4). The upgrade also does a better job of importing assemblies—it now supports assembly constraints and sequencing.
There are two ways to migrate data from I-deas to NX. Users with UGS' Teamcenter Engineering select the I-DEAS component to migrate to NX, and the software creates a new equivalent NX item at the same revision level. Users with I-deas Team Data Manager select data there to be migrated to NX. The migrated data loads into the currently active NX session. According to UGS, most users are replacing Team Data Manager with Teamcenter.
Figure 5. NX 3 s new Assembly Arrangements feature shows model components in different positions, regardless of the applied constraints. Viewing different Assembly Arrangements is made easier by another new NX feature, the ability to use multiple graphics windows.
Ready for NX?Other enhancements affect three key areas that NX is famous for—manufacturing, knowledge-based engineering, and its Mold Wizard. There are also some useful assembly (figure 5) and drafting improvements such as the new standards for 3D annotations in 2D drawings.
Should NX 3 be on your short list when looking for a mechanical CAD package? Let's say your users design large complex assemblies, and you've considered CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, and NX as well as midrange mechanical CAD packages such as Solid Edge and SolidWorks. For about $5,000, the latter two may be able to handle your needs. However, those who require manufacturing and knowledge-based engineering tools may have to look to high-end applications. CATIA and Pro/ENGINEER have add-ons that handle these tasks and other specialized areas, but in general their pricing levels are 20% to 100% higher than NX.
For consumer product and industrial design, NX houses integrated and advanced styling capabilities that have been beefed up in this release. This gives UGS some of the most advanced surface modeling in the industry, along with strong visualization and analysis tools. In short, NX 3 outshines both of its high-end competitors in many areas, while making existing users more productive via handy user interface enhancements.
Joe Greco is a freelance CAD writer, consultant, and trainer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.